When a coalition of virulently anti-Semitic and white supremacist groups descend on two middle Tennessee towns Saturday for a day of “White Lives Matter” rallies, they say they will do so unarmed and with the intention of publicizing their views rather than clashing with counter-protesters.
But given the rash of violent incidents at recent white nationalist events and the rhetoric of some of the leading participants, civil rights groups and city leadership in Murfreesboro and Shelbyville are preparing for the worst.
“Look how much real violence and possibility for violence we’ve seen just in the last couple of events,” Heidi Beirich, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s intelligence project on extremism, told TPM.
Beirich described the groups involved in Saturday’s planned rallies as some of the most “hardcore” and “hardline” forces in the white nationalist movement, noting that one of the headliners, the neo-Confederate League of the South, has spent the last few years building up a “paramilitary force.”
“This isn’t the kind of soft racism of we want a white ethno-state,” Beirich said. “This is Hitlerian thinking.”
Scheduled speakers include the Traditionalist Worker Party’s Matthew Heimbach, white nationalist radio host Mike Enoch, League of the South president Michael Hill, and Vanguard America’s Dillon Hopper. A number of those organizations fly under the banner of the Nationalist Front, an umbrella group working to “unite pro-White organizations,” and several of those participants and groups are currently being sued by the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, for helping to spearhead August’s violent white nationalist rally there.
On optics, message, and openness to violence, these groups present a mask-off view that breaks from Richard Spencer and other figureheads of the so-called “alt-right,” who try to dress up their racist views by wearing three-piece suits and using terms like “identitarian” instead of “white nationalist.” The groups openly tout themselves as paramilitary organizations, with strict hierarchical command structures, that heavily arm themselves when permitted by state or local law.
The official event invitation put together by League of the South spokesman and white nationalist blogger Brad Griffin insists that this event will be different and allow them to “turn the page on Charlottesville.” Reminding participants that masks are forbidden by Tennessee law and that guns are “a legal liability,” Griffin argued that holding the event in a “red county in a red state without a Democrat governor” instead of a “shitlib” city like Charlottesville will reduce the chances of violent clashes with counter-protesters.
Police and local businesses have also taken steps to reduce opportunities for conflict. Law enforcement will cordon off the white nationalists from those who come out to rally against them, search those entering demonstration areas, and have released a list of prohibited items that includes firearms, flagpoles, and spray cans—some of the items that caused the most damage in Charlottesville. Many shop owners will simply shutter their stores, reducing the number of people on the sidewalks.
But the militaristic language is still present. The official invitation encourages each Nationalist Front organization to bring its own flag and “defensive” items, as well as follow its particular “dress code” (khakis are oddly popular in the movement). League of the South president Michael Hill issued a “directive” to his followers to turn out, while the Traditionalist Worker Party told its supporters that attendance “isn’t optional.”
Heimbach, that Traditionalist Worker Party’s founder, told TPM that the 200-300 participants he’s expecting won’t face much resistance because their followers “understand the importance of hierarchy, of organization” and their movement has a “large membership in Tennessee and in Appalachia in general.”
“It makes sense for us to hold our events where our people actually are,” he said.
The Volunteer State is, indeed, something of a hotbed for white nationalism. SPLC’s 2016 “Hate Map” found several small white nationalist groups headquartered in Tennessee, as well as Ku Klux Klan affiliates in nine locations including Murfreesboro. Tennessee state parks have been the site of a number of white nationalist conferences, including a recent summit organized by white supremacist website Stormfront.
Murfreesboro is almost 76 percent white, while Shelbyville’s white population hovers at around 62 percent. The state went solidly to President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
But the expectation that residents will welcome Saturday’s event with open arms elides some key nuances. In recent years, Shelbyville has seen its Latino population grow and witnessed an influx of Muslim Somali refugees—a demographic shift that these white nationalists have spoken out against forcefully. Counterprotesters are also expected to show up, with a number of events cropping up on Facebook. The Anti-Defamation League’s Carla Hill told TPM that anti-fascist organizers are expected to come up from bigger regional cities like Atlanta.
Tight security measures also don’t mean that violence can’t break out. Shortly after Richard Spencer’s heavily-policed event last week at the University of Florida, three of his supporters were arrested and charged with attempted homicide after one fired shots at a group of Spencer protesters. (Heimbach told TPM he finds it “highly unlikely” that the incident unfolded as police and local press reported, while the National Socialist Movement’s “chief of staff,” Butch Urban, said that their groups can’t be held responsible for “independents who come out to all these rallies.”)
Another possible point for disruption are the “flash mob demonstrations” that Heimbach said they’re planning to organize at as-of-yet undisclosed locations throughout the day, which he described as part of a “political activist blitzkrieg on middle Tennessee.”
Whether or not any violence actually breaks out, Saturday’s events are representative of a chilling new normal of mass anti-minority events regularly disrupting daily life.
As the SPLC’s Beirich put it: “We’ve got Nazis marching in cities in America threatening violence. That is a shocking thing in 2017.”