BUCKHANNON — Amidst a tumultuous political backdrop, local residents took to the streets Saturday to celebrate the diversity of America. The Main Street March for Human Rights, which began at the Upshur County courthouse and wound through town to West Virginia Wesleyan College, was spearheaded by Mountaineer Voices for Change, a local group organized after the 2016 election.
The event was peaceful and vibrant, with the roughly 75 participants frequently bursting into song as they strolled through Buckhannon wearing heart-shaped sunglasses and rainbow-colored American flag tank tops.
In many ways, they let their signs speak for them:
“I’m not anti-anything. I’m pro-health, pro-education, pro-community, pro-opportunity, pro-environment.”
“America you great unfinished symphony.”
“What would Jesus do?”
“Our thoughts and deeds touch the world. Let us all be conscious.”
“What happened to religious freedom? We are all people, with rights and a voice.”
And “I’m with her” — alongside a picture of the Statue of Liberty.
As the protesters wielded signs, a federal judge appointed by George W. Bush wielded his pen, reopening the country’s borders and temporarily striking down President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting entry into the United States from seven Muslim-majority nations.
The White House appealed that decision Saturday evening, with Trump himself warning on Twitter that “if certain people are allowed in it’s death & destruction.”
Attendees at Saturday’s march said they wanted to convey a message of positivity and support for people of all ethnicities and religions, as well as to emphasize the importance of human and civil rights.
“I’m here to show solidarity for people of all religions,” said Heather Anderson of Buckhannon. “Where ever you come from, we are all part of the human race.”
The broad turnout, a mix of women and men both young and old, surprised even the event’s organizers.
“I’m super impressed,” Buckhannon resident Ellen Mueller said. “I didn’t expect this many people to come out, but I’m glad they did. There are locals, students and people I haven’t met yet.”
Cars driving by honked, waved and even pulled over to ask questions about the rally.
Meanwhile, across the street, a small group of men stood quietly and respectfully protesting the protesters.
The counter-protesters expressed similar sentiments to the President about the importance of national security, holding signs that recalled the attacks on Sept. 11, even though those terrorists were from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon — none of which were banned under Trump’s executive order.
But drilling down into their respective beliefs, the two sides had more in common than apart. Both groups professed an admiration of immigrants, saying they are an important part of the fabric of America. And both sides stressed the need to keep America safe.
“Immigration is OK as long as they can prove they’re safe,” said counter-protester Kevin Bailey.
Across the street, Anderson agreed.
“Obviously, we do not want to let in terrorists. People should be vetted,” she said while holding a sign that read “love trumps hate.”
Anderson, however, was skeptical that Trump’s executive order had anything to do with public safety.
“I personally do not feel it was about security,” Anderson said. “If it was about national security, it doesn’t make much sense when you look at the countries that are listed.”
Per NPR, no immigrant from any of the seven banned countries has ever committed an act of terrorism in the United States. Those who have attacked America came either from the U.S. itself or from nations that Trump chose to allow, like Saudi Arabia, home to not only Osama Bin Laden but also 15 of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Another counter-protester, Josh Ringer, worked with a man from Croatia and said that was an example of how immigration can be successful. But after talking to friends who fought in the Middle East, he was unconvinced people from that part of the world could ever assimilate into the United States.
“Our cultures just don’t mix,” Ringer said.
Responding to the concerns of veterans, Mueller said she felt men and women in uniform support the cause of human rights.
“I have veterans in my family,” she said. “I have friends who are veterans, and I know many veterans who support diversity.”
The only mildly confrontational part of the rally came as the group was marching down East Main Street, heading toward the college. A silver truck, with “Trump Train” written in dirt on the side, slowed down beside the march and then revved its engine, engulfing participants in a cloud of thick black smoke.
The truck, filled with several young men, continued down the street and went into the Theta Chi fraternity, where their loud music earned a stern word from a passing city police officer.
The college could not immediately be reached over the weekend to comment on the incident, but interim Wesleyan president Boyd Creasman previously pledged that the school would support diversity and respect others.
“West Virginia Wesleyan College affirms its commitment to respect people of all races, ethnicities, nations, faiths, genders and sexual orientations,” Creasman wrote in a statement last week. “We take pride in our affiliation with the United Methodist Church and share its values of ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors.’ … May the Orange Line continue to reach all around the globe, and may we all be touched, in Lincoln’s words, by ‘the better angels of our nature.’”
Mueller, a professor at the college, has lived in several different parts of the country and has experienced America’s diversity first-hand, both at Wesleyan and elsewhere.
“They are really valuable human beings, and I want to uplift them,” Mueller said. “Diversity makes us stronger.”