Southeast Ohio Town Grapples with Unusual Conflict over Masks, COVID

By Amanda Garrett, Akron Beacon Journal
Cheryl Gordon keeps a “Stand with Smitty” sign hanging in her front window.

It supports Logan-Hocking School resource officer Chris “Smitty” Smith, who made national news last month after he told a woman attending a football game that she had put on a mask because of the pandemic rules — or leave.

When the woman repeatedly refused to do either, Smith tried to escort her out of the stadium, but the situation escalated, ending with Smith shocking the woman with his taser and handcuffing her in the bleachers.

Smith charged the woman with criminal trespassing and released her outside the school, but their struggle — which was videotaped by a bystander and went viral — divided much of the nation and Logan, a town of about 7,000 people on the Hocking River about 50 miles southeast of Columbus.

Gordon said people in Logan don’t talk much about national politics face-to-face unless they know they agree.

“I think people are afraid to offend other people or just don’t want to get that in-depth,” she said during a Your Voice Ohio (YVO) Zoom meeting Oct. 8.

But with trouble at the school, many Logan residents couldn’t avoid talking politics. The primary issue was masks, and what has become the politics of wearing one, or not. But policing and race also were wrapped up in the discussion. 

“He’s a Black cop in a very white town and the woman he engaged with was a white lady, so it was very interesting to see the reactions,” said Gordon, who retired from teaching at the same district last year. 

“A lot of people who would be by default ‘Back the Blue’ are also the questioners of mask wearing,” Gordon said. 

“So their beliefs were kind of butting heads. This lady didn’t want to wear a mask. This police officer wanted her to. So who do you support there?”

There were some threats, but locals ended up rallying at the police station on behalf of Smith, who had a long history of working well with kids in the schools.

Ray Chorey, who lives in Cambridge on the Appalachian Plateau, about 72 miles east of Logan, said the Smith videotape prompted conversations in his town of 10,000, too.

But hearing political discussions there, too, is unusual.

“We’re concerned, but just enough redneck here not to pick a fight,” he said.

Since the pandemic, he said everything has seemed to slow down. 

“There’s a lot more people outside, more people walking, parents pushing strollers around,” Chorey said. “It’s like growing up in a small town I grew up back in the ’60s,” where everyone knew each other.

Yet that friendly public interaction doesn’t reflect their private politics or the extraordinary divisions in Southeast Ohio or across the nation.

Chorey and Gordon were the only Southeast Ohio residents in the Oct. 8 YVO regional Zoom meeting, but people in each of Ohio’s other four regions mentioned how everyone they choose to interact with — outside of their own families and co-workers — shares their beliefs.

“You get into little bubbles,” is how Gordon explained it.

Chorey thinks this started during the last election cycle once it was clear Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would face off.

He remembers having those initial conversations, “veins would pop a little bit, the voice goes up and the hands started flying,” he said. “This time, don’t go there because you know it’s going to be worse than it was four years ago.”

Chorey — who spent the first 30 years of his career in finance along the Ohio River and the next 15 as CEO of a local hospital — quoted an old leadership mantra: Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

Now, though, Chorey said “everybody wants their own facts to support their own opinions.”

To get past that, he said, maybe people should try to start a political conversation with an open-ended question, like, “Why do you feel that way?”

Even if you’re coming at it from two directions, you may see points where you agree, he said. But maybe not until after the election, when Gordon hopes the nation’s social temperature cools.

This autumn, when the Trump and Joe Biden signs began popping up in Logan, Gordon started looking differently at her neighbors.

“I do tend to get a little bit ‘judgy’,” Gordon said. “I’m so disappointed so-and-so has that sign, or, ‘Yay!, so-in-so has this sign.’ ”

But she doesn’t try to change minds, even after her nextdoor neighbor put up political signs that opposed hers. This month, when the neighbor went out of town leaving her children behind, Gordon was still the contact if the kids needed anything.

“We’re still amiable with each other,” Gordon said. “It’s not bitter.”

But, of course, they’re not talking politics.

Amanda Garrett is a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal and can be emailed at [email protected].

Want to volunteer for a future dialogue and receive $125 for two hours? Register at the Your Voice Ohio Election 2020 website.

About this project: This is one in a series of stories on issues Ohioans say are most important in this election year. More than 50 news outlets are collaborating in the project under the umbrella of Your Voice Ohio, the nation’s largest sustained, statewide news media collaborative. In five years, Your Voice Ohio has brought more than 100 journalists together with more than 1,300 Ohioans for discussions on addiction, the economy and elections. Your Voice Ohio is managed and coordinated by the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic engagement organization. The project is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and Facebook. The Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes designs and facilitates the dialogues and digital forums. Retired Akron Beacon Journal managing editor Doug Oplinger directs the media work and can be reached at [email protected].

Other Stories in This Series

Oct. 22: Ohioans Retreat into Safe Groups, Crave Postelection Unity

Oct. 23: Ohioans Improvise while They Hope for End to COVID-19

Oct. 23: Immigrant Family Provides Its Own Social Net during COVID-19

Oct. 24: Ohioans Unite in Concern for Country’s Future

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