Police have made arrests and are investigating “scuffles” after a small protest in Bethel, Ohio was overrun with biker gangs on Sunday, leaving the village in an ongoing state of tension.
Bethel Police Chief Steve Teague told TPM that five arrests were made Monday evening, by which time the southern Ohio village was under curfew. Four of those were for “disorderly conduct” after being “engaged in fighting” and one was for “intoxication in the roadway.” None, per the chief, were for curfew violations.
Just a few days ago, the protest planned for the small village, shy of 3,000 inhabitants and about 40 minutes outside of Cincinnati, seemed likely to be a modest affair.
Sunday’s protest, billed as Bethel’s Solidarity with Black Lives Demonstration, was expected to have a turnout of 80 to 100 people. But soon, per a joint statement by the village’s mayor, chief of police and administrator, “several motorcycle gangs, back the blue groups, and second amendment advocates” caught wind of the event and decided to show up, armed with guns and bats.
An hour before the event was scheduled to begin, village officials said, 250 motorcycles flooded the area. By the protest’s official start time, the demonstrators were outnumbered and around 800 people were present.
At the same time, most of the police stationed to monitor the event were called away. All six of Bethel’s police officers had been assigned to the event, and six more from nearby Clermont County were on standby. But, per village officials, another “urgent matter in the county” meant that all but one of the officers were absent from the scene as the counter-protesters descended on the area. Eventually, nine deputies were called in as backup.
Though police called the influx of counter-protesters “manageable,” video shows several instances in which nothing separated the angry crowd from the demonstrators. In some cases, violence ensued.
“Towards the latter part of the event, the various other groups began to move toward the Bethel’s Solidarity with Black Lives Demonstration area,” the officials said. “This resulted in approximately 10 incidents, which were primarily minor scuffles.”
‘Buses’ Of ‘Antifa’
Online ahead of Sunday’s protest — and again ahead of a second protest on Monday — rumors flew that buses full of outside agitators were coming to town.
Bethel village administrator Travis Dotson told TPM on Tuesday that “the village received one anonymous call yesterday morning stating that buses were ‘on their way.’” He said that, “out of an abundance of caution,” the information was relayed to local businesses, but that the police department did not view the threat as serious enough to force early closures.
The seemingly baseless rumor had been spreading on social media for days.
“From what I understand, the two buses — or there could be three buses, I’m not sure — are outside of Bethel, full of antifa,” one local man said in a Facebook video ahead of Monday’s protest, without citing any evidence. “It doesn’t have nothing to do with Black Lives Matter. It’s antifa. The rumors are true. They’re busing them in today.”
A Facebook page that shared the man’s post, “• Home of The Right Wing •,” said earlier Monday that “The Word Is Antifa Has 2 Buses Outside Of Town Of Bethel, OH Threatening To Burn The Town Down over Yesterday’s Protest…”
The rumors followed what has become a nationwide pattern of unfounded speculation about roaming bands of “antifa” — short for antifascist — destroying towns under the pretext of Black Lives Matter protests. The whispers frequently center on “busloads” of outside infiltrators and often inspire heavily armed counter-protesters to stand guard.
Alicia Gee, one of the organizers of Sunday’s protest, tried to dispel the rumors in a series of Facebook videos.
“I think you may have probably heard that there are rumors about another Black Lives Matter protest, people coming in from outside that are Black Lives Matter protesters,” she said in a video posted Monday. “We personally who organized the event are not planning a protest, we are not flocking downtown, I want things to stay peaceful.”
“Don’t come downtown, don’t come to Bethel,” she implored any non-local protesters, saying that there are people in town who “want to start stuff.” Her videos showed clumps of men lining the streets and congregating outside of storefronts. Some of them appeared to be armed.
Video from Sunday showed several counter-protesters hurling racial slurs at the demonstrators. Other footage also captured counter-protesters appearing to shove and hit the demonstrators with impunity. In one instance, as at least two uniformed police officers looked on, a man, surrounded by an angry crowd, was punched in the back of the head.
“Sir, I just got punched in the back of the head,” the man told the police officer standing in front of him. The officer suggested the man file a report.
Later video captured a counter-protester saying of the incident, “He’s lucky he didn’t get shot.”
Separately, counter-protesters were recorded getting in demonstrators’ faces and ripping away their signs.
— ryley wrigglesworth (@rywriggs) June 15, 2020
“This ain’t Seattle. We’re not in a Democratic state here. We don’t put up with this shit. All lives matter here,” one counter-protester told a woman recording video Sunday, footage shows. “Y’all came to the wrong fucking town!” another added.
Protests continued into Monday, albeit with a seemingly much larger police presence.
Monday evening, Bethel Mayor Jay Noble put the village under curfew from 9:00 pm to 6:00 am until he rescinds the order.
“The need for this order arises from the threat of continued and escalating violence, the need for security and enforcement support for the Village of Bethel Police Department, and the need to protect the Village’s first responders from the spread of COVID-19,” read the order. Violating curfew would result in a misdemeanor.
Dotson, the village administrator, confirmed to TPM that the arrests made so far were all in conjunction to the Monday demonstrations, but that investigations into incidents from Sunday’s event are “active and continuing.”