Two days after the 2018 Midterm Election, a nationwide call was sent out
by a coalition of political organizations to stage protests across the
country over the firing of "recused" Attorney General Jeff Sessions. There
were events hosted in both Martinsburg and Shepherdstown; it was hard
to decide which one to attend. I live closer to Martinsburg, but the
proximity and charm of Shepherdstown won me over.
Shepherdstown, “one of America's coolest small towns” according to their
Visitors’ Center website, is the sort of spot you’d love to stage a protest in.
Martinsburg, on the other hand, is just a cold place to stage a protest in,
even if it’s the peaceful monthly vigil for a Black citizen who was shot 23
times by police in 2013 and barely made the national news at the time.
All I could find to bring to the rally was a couple of strobe-style LED road
flares, as if to alert others that an emergency--the country running off the
road into a ditch, or a head-on collision with logic—was looming up ahead.
I should have brought enough for the five-alarm crisis we are facing, but
with just the two flares it was still satisfying to twirl them on my arms like a
The rally was pleasant and personable. About 100 of us milled around on
the sidewalk as if it were a garden party. Then the speeches began. In an
effort to rev up crowd participation, one of the organizers asked for people
to speak. Evidently my strobe-waving arms made it appear, in the dark,
that I was volunteering, although I was not. The organizer called out that
“the Light Lady wants to speak.”
I began by introducing myself as a US Army veteran who writes regular
Local Op-Ed Columns for the Martinsburg Journal. My message was
simple; encourage people to submit Letters to the Editor to any local
publication, just to balance out the opinion pages. The lack of enthusiasm
was palpable. I heard a man shout “we don’t like the Martinsburg Journal”
and someone else added “they won’t print our stuff.” Another voice
yelled “I can’t read that paper, I can’t get past the fluff on the
This is really the tale of two towns---one, a liberal enclave in a historic
village, and the other, a working-class remnant of a historic industrial burg.
One has a population of left-leaning professionals associated with a state
university, the other has a population of left-over factory workers seeing
their jobs disappear. One has beautifully maintained charming
architecture and an artsy culture, the other has run-down charming
architecture, empty storefronts, abandoned rusty mills, drug rehab
centers, and a 28% poverty rate--double the national average. Both are in
counties that are, as is the rest of West Virginia, deeply red since 2000.
They are 10 miles apart, but that distance is insignificant; they are worlds
apart and seem to be satisfied with that. But what Martinsburg does have,
along with six radio stations, is the only daily newspaper in the Eastern
Panhandle. It’s an old-school paper like the world used to have before
blogs, cable talk-shows and the wilds of Facebook. Like every small-town
newspaper anywhere in America, the Journal is filled with DAR award
ceremonies, queen crownings, harvest festivals, high-school sports and
pie-throwing competitions—what you might call “puff pieces.” Once you
add the editorials, syndicated and local, it’s probably going to look just like
a “right-wing rag,” as many have told me the Martinsburg Journal is to
them. Its circulation of 16,000 appears to be seldom purchased by
residents of Shepherdstown, even though it’s filled with the latest updates
on Rockwool, the pipeline, West Virginia politics, and AP articles that
relate to environmental policies impacting the area.
And there lies the opportunity, wasted. Anyone can insert their voice into
it, but because the politics may not be in line with their own, that ink is
bequeathed to the people you’d least like to hear from. If you haven’t
written letters to any small-town newspaper in this tristate region, your
absence likely helped to give the control of thought to the folks who are
dangerously close to being in control of this entire 50-state country.
There’s still a free press out there in places you might least expect it. And
it might surprise you to know that many of these small-town papers
employ professional journalists who are feeling just as threatened as you
are. But if you’re not reading a local paper because you don’t agree with
its apparent point of view, adding yours to it might just make you like it
better. Believe me, there are people out there who want to hear from you,
badly. And that likely starts with the news staff.
After seven years in the Army, plus four years of travel to US Military
bases touring with a USO band during the height of the Iraq War, I’m
accustomed to living “in the belly of the beast.” In many ways, it’s better
than “preaching to the choir.” You speak not to debate or discuss, but to
remind yourself, and others, of who you are. You speak not to convince or
persuade, but to practice standing your ground. It’s only difficult to do if you
expect peace and understanding as the response. And it’s only difficult to
do if you expect yourself to deliver a flawless manifesto of political policy at
the spur of every moment, able to win every argument hands-down, with
applause. To participate in a protest in a place like Martinsburg, or to
submit letters to its newspaper, reminds the “other side” that you are there,
But back to those post-midterm protests. It was fun being the “Light Lady”
for an evening, but it would have been better to have gone where voices
were really needed. The event in Martinsburg had only three participants.
And the well-attended rally in Shepherdstown?
It was the front-page color photo and headline of the Martinsburg Journal
the next morning.