Biden’s East Palestine Visit Met with Protests, Hopes for Prosperity

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – From downtown to the derailment site, nearly everyone had a message during President Joe Biden’s visit more than a year after the Feb. 3, 2023, train derailment.

Most were not shy about expressing their messages to Biden, whether they were for or against his visit Friday.

Members of River Valley Organizers said there needs to be long-term health monitoring and independent environmental testing from what Norfolk Southern, the railroad responsible for the testing and cleanup, is doing. During his speech in East Palestine, Biden promised some grants will be issued for studying the long-term health effects of the derailment.

A Make America Great Again rally could be seen early in the day, lining one side of Market Street, with participants shouting slogans in support of former President Donald Trump. Members of that group expressed frustration and said the visit was only a campaign stop – “too little, too late.”

In the afternoon, a group of protesters supporting Palestinians also marched through the streets, led by a woman chanting with a bullhorn. That led to at least one confrontation when Trump supporters began shouting “USA” across a busy intersection at them, leading to one of them to shout back, “We’re on your side. We don’t like Biden either.”

A group supporting Palestinians was among the protesters Friday.

Many downtown business owners watched the protests through their windows, marveling at the number of people walking up and down the sidewalks and hoping some would stop in and buy from them.

A sign in front of Flowers and Gifts Straight From the Heart encouraged the president to shop there – “Hey Joe, Jill wants flowers.”

Owner Joy Mascher still has Valentine’s Day flower arrangements in her front display and said the installation of new waterlines through the heart of downtown during that time made parking difficult. A year ago, the derailment kept Valentine’s Day flowers from even arriving on time.

Another business owner, Melissa Clark, owner of Mannette’s Furniture and Décor, watched as residents stood in front of her business to observe the spectacle across the street.

“I think it should be mandatory that every one of them come in and buy something,” she said.

Clark, too, has been struggling this month but remains optimistic. She will participate in some upcoming promotions, including a St. Patrick’s Day sale March 16 and the annual East Palestine Spring Fling on March 30, complete with hidden eggs for shoppers.

Neither Mascher nor Clark were able to take part in the loan program that required proof of back taxes for three years and the hopes that it would be forgiven.

“If I can barely make my rent, how am I going to pay my loan payment? So then I’m going to go bankrupt and have to go out of business anyways,” Clark said.

City Manager Chad Edwards stopped into Clark’s business to find a St. Patrick’s Day sign for his new office door. He took the position in November and was downtown watching the people come and go.

“Number one, I hope they spend money,” Edwards said. “Number two, I hope they spend money. I hope everybody comes back in a year and checks on our progress. They can even bring their signs. Just come back and check us out.”

Supporters of former President Donald Trump display signs and flags ahead of President Joe Biden’s visit Friday.

As the afternoon wore on, more East Palestine residents could be seen driving through the village to witness the spectacle from their vehicles. Families arrived downtown for the opportunity to see history.

Some carried signs welcoming the president. At one point, they began singing the Star Spangled Banner.

“You still respect the office,” said Beth Carson. Another woman commented on signs with “[Expletive] Biden” written on them. She was also concerned about vendor carts selling Trump paraphernalia, which she said, were people “financially benefiting from our disaster.”

Another woman angrily said half of the people there were not even from the village, and she had been name-called by a protester.

“There are some local people here,” said Amy Birtalan, who hoped the president’s visit brought more attention for the community. “I personally live a little bit on the other side of town. So I haven’t had anything affecting me drastically. But I do see that people are still struggling.”

Birtalan’ smain concern is the long-term health of people in her community and maintaining property values for residents.

U.S. Senate candidate Bernie Moreno speaks to a reporter during a protest in East Palestine on Friday.

Biden’s arrival brought out several politicians. Among those making statements of support to the community was Bernie Moreno, the Trump-endorsed candidate for U.S. senate; Columbiana County Commissioner Roy Paparodis, a Republican; Roy Cox of Salem, a Democrat seeking the other county commission seat; and Ryan Finzer, a Democrat candidate for the vacated 6th District U.S. House of Representatives seat.

As the presidential motorcade headed down East Taggart Street, the crowds dispersed and the snow continued to fall, East Palestine once again returned to the quiet little town it primarily was until the train derailment Feb. 3, 2023.

While some residents and business owners were excited by the day’s hoopla, they also expressed hope that the town will not be forgotten once the bright lights of the president’s visit fade out of sight.

Pictured at top: Owner Melissa Smith pours coffee brewed from tap water as President Joe Biden visits 1820 Candle Co. in East Palestine on Friday. (AP Photo | Andrew Harnik)

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.