Protesters clashed in Uptown Athens on Sunday afternoon as a rally in support of police was met with a counterprotest in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The rally, titled Defend The Police, started at noon at the Athens County Courthouse. The event was coordinated in response to the recent national protests against police brutality and to show support for local police.
The rally drew counterprotesters in support of Black Lives Matter later in the afternoon. The Defend OUr Community protest, held in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, also began at noon on Ohio University’s College Green.
After hearing from speakers on College Green, the Defend OUr Community protesters marched through Uptown Athens. The group eventually reached Court Street, where it stopped across the street from Defend The Police protesters. The group of protesters kneeled, raised their fists and chanted.
Defend The Police protesters held American flags, Blue Lives Matter flags and revved their motorcycles to drown out chants from the Black Lives Matter protesters.
JD Pollard, an Athens resident, said he came to the rally because he tries to support every movement. Pollard said he sees the viewpoints of each side and understands why there is frustration amongst them all.
“Everyone's angry,” Pollard said. “And I think on both sides, things are getting taken out of context. And really … I want to back the people … so I'm just showing support everywhere I can.”
Geoff West, a barber in Athens who took part in the Defend OUr Community protest, said he doesn’t see the rationale behind protesting in support of the police.
“I just feel like they feel attacked because … their livelihood, their comfortableness, their comfort, like, all that's being tested right now,” West said.
West said the supporters of the police represent a “weak-minded” portion of the Athens population holding on to an institution that they think represents them and their identity.
“At the end of the day, if you talk about equality, you want it to be fair and safe, and they will be able to put that down and come on the side of real people,” he said.
State Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, was present in support of the Defend The Police rally. Edwards said he is against defunding the police.
He said he thinks the majority of people in Southeast Ohio and Appalachia do not support defunding the police.
“We got to do better at trying to weed out the bad apples, but defunding a police is the absolute opposite thing you can do,” Edwards said. “It's one of those things similar to fire departments. You might pay for a lot, you may increase funding, for whatever, you don't feel like you need them until you do.”
He also said police are necessary in Athens because of the frequent cases of sexual violence that need to be investigated.
A bill designed to reform policing was recently introduced to the Ohio House of Representatives that includes items like psychological testing and de-escalation training. Edwards said the bill is still in the early stages.
“We're having a lot of interested parties in to talk about it, but it's exactly around what it is they're wanting us to do,” he said.
Edwards left the protest around 2 p.m. Black Lives Matter protesters followed him to his vehicle, throwing items at him, he said in a Facebook post.
The majority of the protesters in support of police were residents of Athens and the surrounding area. Many OU students were involved in the counterprotest. West said Athens residents need to stop avoiding students and recognize the divide between the two populations.
“These people are bettering yourself in your town,” West said. “So stop looking at the students as a virus. Embrace it because they're the reason why you're living so comfortable right now.”
Noah Wright contributed to this report.