Intending to march to Governor Jim Justice’s home, protesters gathered in Hollowell Park on Saturday, June 10. Instead, the governor met with protesters at the park, where they spoke for over an hour about comments he made concerning President Barack Obama. In a daily COVID-19 press briefing, Justice was speaking of President Donald Trump when he made an off-the-cuff remark about Obama, saying “any president” “should absolutely” be welcome in West Virginia, then paused and said “maybe not Barack Obama.”
The comment was brought into focus by protests across the country calling for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A handful of protesters, including Diamond Sinclair and Larry Baxtor, gathered in the park to march toward the governor’s home. However, state, county, and city law enforcement officers intercepted the protestors before the march could begin. Escorted by security, Justice met with the protesters, insisting his comment was not rooted in racism, but instead was about the state’s financial condition during the Obama administration.
“When I walked in the door as governor, they handed me a set of books,” said Justice. “Our state’s bankrupt. Not kind of bankrupt, I mean bankrupt. Now, I’ve never met President Obama, never in my life. As far as I know, he’s a good man. He’s a family man, god-fearing man, and a good man. He rose to the Presidency of the United States of America. Give me a break, how can you be more successful than that? But I want to tell you just this, and you can say what you want, my comment was about one thing and that was the policy of the Obama administration … I have every right as a person to voice an opinion on what someone else does. If you took it another way, you took it the wrong way.”
After listening to Justice, several protesters emphasized how the comment was received regardless of intention. Baxter praised his quick firing of members of a prison guard graduating class after a photo emerged of them engaging in a Nazi salute said he wanted to know “that Jim Justice.”
“I don’t think you’re racist, but that comment was insensitive to the max,” Baxter told Justice. “You have no idea the number of people that said ‘no, not Jim Justice, he did not say that.’ But then you hear it and it tears the absolute guts out of you at a time like this … We’re going to conquer this thing and we are going to live together, not as black people and white people but as people. And it’s got to be people in leadership … The truth is it’s not the black people that need to do it. It’s the white people that need to step up and say we don’t like what’s going on.”
Following the conversation, Sinclair explained her thoughts to the Mountain Messenger on Wednesday, June 10, saying that although the protesters were surprised to speak to Justice, she wanted a more solid response.
“It was okay but I kind of really wanted him to apologize,” said Sinclair. “Because you can say you’re not racist because of this and that … and [say] I don’t see color. First of all, you have to see color to understand color and understand the differences of color and understand how we’re being treated out there. … Racist people are like ‘yeah Jim keep him [Obama] out along with the other people.’ Then we got people on my end of the spectrum that can’t believe he’s not racist and it’s like, whoa, can we just meet in middle and agree he was wrong and not add to the fire.”
On June 9, President Donald Trump tweeted “Vote today for Big Jim, a great governor. Love West Virginia!” Justice shared the tweet on social media, saying “Thank you, President Donald J. Trump!” Trump, who’s political career began as he endorsed “birtherism,” a false conspiracy theory that Obama was born outside of the United States, has repeatedly called for a military response to the protest demanding justice for George Floyd and police reform throughout the country. On Monday, June 1, his administration clearing a group of peaceful protesters with chemical sprays, smoke and flash grenades, and horse-mounted officers with riot shields for a presidential photo with the nearby Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Sinclair acknowledged this, seeing a contradiction between Justice’s statements on June 6 and receiving support from Trump.
“That’s sort of what I said to him – are you saying this because it sounds good and everyone will hear it and make them feel good and you want other people to feel good or are you doing this actually for good?” Sinclair explained. “The answer to that is he said it because it sounds good or maybe somewhere he will actually change, but I guess I got to say he kind of backtracked.”
Justice did voice support for peaceful protesters across the country during the Saturday meeting, saying former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin should be charged with first degree murder for his role in Floyd’s death, and said he would “not going to tolerate anything” that resembled what happened in Minneapolis “as best I humanly can within my power.”
“To be perfectly honest, you’re picking on the guy that’s your best friend on this planet, believe it or not,” Justice said. “And I don’t care really if you do believe it or not, because I know it in my heart and I’m going to continue to be just that.”
Although acknowledging Obama as a “family,” “god-fearing,” and “good” man, Justice also explained that he did not see him a “black president.”
“I never looked, in any way shape form or fashion, … at president Obama as a black president,” Justice told the protesters. “I never ever did, you know why? I think that’s degrading to him. That beautiful little black girl down there, we need to say that beautiful little girl down there. To me, to be perfectly honest, it didn’t even enter my mind.”
“Why is that degrading?” Sinclair asked on Wednesday.
She asked people to consider why, despite years of protests, things haven’t changed and how these stories enter the media and public consciousness.
“When you saw me do that protest, and everyone is like ‘he wasn’t meaning it by race,’ well when you’re watching me do that, were you looking at my race or were you looking at someone trying to do something good?” Sinclair asked.
“I guess that’s the message I got from everyone – were you supporting my actions or supporting my color and vice-versa?” Since the incident, Sinclair plans to continue organizing locally, with a “Juneteenth Black Lives Matter” protest planned for June 19 at 11 a.m. in Lewisburg. She emphasized the continuing needs for united, local efforts to push back against racism, which has even emerged following media coverage of the Saturday protest.
“Everyone told me not to read the comments on Facebook about what people had to say. I’ve got the curiosity of a cat,” Sinclair explained. “I wanted to see what they would say about me because they don’t know me. Someone said to ‘go back’ to where I came from. It’s like, if you go to my Facebook, you can clearly see I’m have been born and raised in White Sulphur Springs WV, went to White Sulphur Elementary School. [Then they say] get an education. I graduated from Marshall with a bachelor’s in science, I do have an education. So [then they say] if they weren’t living off the government – I’m a pharmacy technician, actually a good bit of my check goes toward the government and I’m actually helping people.”
On Wednesday, the governor’s office issued a press release, explaining that “after a few politically-motivated individuals began questioning the tone” of the Obama comment, Justice gave an official statement.
“Everyone knows that President Obama made it a specific strategy to destroy our coal industry and power plants which, for more than a century, had been the lifeblood of West Virginia’s economy,” Gov. Justice said after Wednesday’s briefing. “Before you know it, West Virginia was brought to our knees, especially southern West Virginia. I hated that so badly because the good people of West Virginia suffered beyond belief. I want to love everybody, and by that, I mean everybody, including President Obama. But, at the end of the day, what happened to West Virginia during his time in the Oval Office will take us decades and decades to recover from, if ever.”
Thanks to Arika Morris for making footage of the conversation between protesters and Justice available to the Mountain Messenger.