Published in the Shepherdstown Observer, January, 2019

I am the Light Lady

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

windmill.


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

 front page.”


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,

unbowed.


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.

Me and a fan

Me and a fan