(CN) – Hundreds turned out Sunday afternoon for a Black Lives Matter rally to promote equality and community at the West Virginia State Capitol.
The rally, which featured Belafonte Biesemeyer, daughter of singer-songwriter and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, and other speakers, was originally planned to be held at West Virginia State University later this week.
However, organizers moved it to the Capitol grounds after seeing the violence that erupted at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month.
Organized by white supremacists, that rally, held Aug. 12, was ostensibly called to oppose Charlottesville’s plan to remove a monument honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The event quickly got out of hand and became a running skirmish with counterprotestors. During the mayhem, an Ohio man drive his car into a crowd, killing one person and injuring 19 others, police said.
The man was later charged with second-degree murder.
Speaking at the West Virginia event on Sunday, Biesemeyer told the crowd that for her, the Black Lives Matter movement is about breaking down barriers.
“All lives matter. I truly believe that,” she said. “But how many white parents have to give their children instructions on, ‘When driving in a car and you’re stopped by the police, this is what you have to do?’”
Community and religious leaders, as well as students from West Virginia State University also spoke at the event. As they did so, a second group, consisting of men in camouflage uniforms, held a counter-rally they said was being held to protect free speech.
A third, much smaller group gathered around a statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, saying they wanted to protect it from any damage that might potentially be caused by Black Lives Matter rally attendees.
But for all the divergent views being express on the Capitol grounds, Sunday’s rally and counter events were largely peaceful.
Talia Jordan, a fourteen-year-old freshman at Capital High School in Charleston, West Virginia, said she was attending the rally to show her support for Black Lives Matter.
“It is an ongoing issue for me and my family because I am biracial,” Jordan said of conflicts between the minority community and police.
“But even if I wasn’t, it still wouldn’t be fair,” she said.
As she spoke, Jordan held a sign listing the names of blacks who she said had been victims of the use of excessive or unwarranted force.
Among the names was that of one of her classmates, 15-year-old James Means, who she said was killed outside a convenience store after getting into a verbal altercation with an older white man.
“This list is too long,” Jordan said. “That could have been me,” Talia said, referring to James, “or my little brother.”
Gabrielle Chapman, executive director of CARE (Call to Action for Racial Equality) and a leader of the local Black Lives Matter chapter, said “if there is anyone that has the insight, the resiliency, the grit, to eradicate this form of oppression, it would be the black American.
“In America, we live in what feels like two different worlds. We are oppressed and we are the ever present root that remains hidden underground, unseen. We have the soul and veracity to make the world a better place and in so many ways, we already have,” Chapman said.
When she addressed the crows, Chapman recalled a recent conversation she had with an older gentlemen in Wheeling, West Virginia.
“He left me with a really great piece of advice. He said, ‘There are three C’s in life that we have to conquer: compassion, that’s the first C, the type of compassion that cultivates empathy and optimism. The second C is conscience, building an ethical or moral code to navigate your life and the third C, arguably the hardest thing to do, is to build courage.
“‘Most people have developed their compassion and their conscience but live in fear. Fear of what others think, fear from family, fear from community … but our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure,’” Chapman said.
Jack Deskins, co-chair of the Kanawha Valley Democratic Socialists of America, said his organization officially endorsed Black Lives Matter two years ago and that he felt it important to turn out and show his solidarity with its cause.
“Because we believe that we live in a white supremacist society,” Deskins said.
Allan Harmon, of Cross Lanes, West Virginia, was among those who came out to protect the “Stonewall” Jackson monument.
A self-described history buff and a Civil War reenactor, Harmon said Jackson is one of his heroes.
“He (Jackson) was a Christian man, that’s a thing I like, because he was a Christian man, and he treated everybody that was around him well. He was a good man … Not all the guys who fought for the South had slaves and they weren’t fighting to fight for slaves, they were fighting for state’s rights,” Harmon said.
Also present at the rally were members of the Ohio Valley Minutemen, a citizens volunteer militia.
The leader of the group, who said his name was “Sandman,” said he and his militia members made their way to the Capitol grounds to support “three things.”
“Our families live here, this is our community, and we are supporting the Constitution for everybody,” Sandman said. “That’s a First Amendment right: the right to speak freely and assemble peacefully, and we are also practicing our Second Amendment rights,” he said, referring to the pistol holstered at his side.
Sandman said that the militia was there to protect all free speech, even the things with which they personally disagreed.
“They have a right to, in the public forum, express those desires,” he said.