When hate first arrived in rural Leith, North Dakota, late in the summer of 2012, denizens of the sleepy farming hamlet (pop. 24) barely took notice.
“At first I thought he was a quiet, keep-to-himself kind of guy,” recalls the town’s cowboy-mayor Ryan Schock in the documentary Welcome to Leith, an unsettling case study of one quintessentially democratic American conflict.
Bobby Harper, Leith’s sole African-American resident, remembers a stranger in a long coat coming around the neighborhood asking about land for sale.
Even Schock’s wife, Michelle, strolled over with a welcoming hello when that newcomer, a loner with glasses and wild silver hair, took up residency in Leith and started buying up plots of property around town.
It wasn’t until the ugliness of the outside world started to invade Leith’s city limits that locals realized who their new neighbor really was: Craig Cobb, the notorious white supremacist leader who’d been kicked out of Estonia and Canada and now had designs on turning Leith into his own personal Aryan utopia.
Cobb’s documented history of incendiary missives and advocacy of hate crimes against minorities had already landed him on the radar of concerned watchdog groups. When he put his plan in motion to bring fellow white supremacists to live in Leith in order to take over the town’s electoral vote and slowly establish a home base for white nationalism in the heart of North Dakota, critics and national media descended en masse to protest and bear witness.
The people of Leith, however, were hardly equipped to deal with their new problem neighbor. After all, folks move to Leith for the privacy—the antithesis of big-city living with its own endemic urban crowds and cultural conflicts. At first, Cobb justified his presence by invoking the American principle that would become the linchpin of his war with the townsfolk: Everyone has a right to live in peace. Even racists. Right?
With his constitutional rights protecting him under the law and several high-powered supremacist leaders and organizations behind him, Cobb mounted his Leith campaign by utilizing increasingly loud and antagonistic tactics against the townsfolk who opposed him, taunting and even doxxing his detractors.
Intimidated and frightened in their own homes, some armed themselves and braced for violent retribution. Others, including an Army vet from a nearby town, opted to fight back using Cobb’s own methods against him and his supporters, antagonizing the antagonizers via constant surveillance and aggressive heckling from afar.
At the height of these tense months in Leith, both sides had the same plan: Document every move in case the enemy slips up and runs afoul of the law. Shocking home video footage of combustible town hall meetings and face-offs within the 1.24-square-mile city capture a community on the verge of war, with the attention-happy Cobb gleefully rattling tensions and unnerving his fellow citizens, protected in his hostility by his right to freedom of speech.
Welcome to Leith peaks dramatically in an anxiety-inducing sequence as cellphone video shows Cobb and his protégé Kynan Dutton, a young Neo-Nazi who moved his family to Leith at Cobb’s urging, “patrolling” the streets with loaded rifles slung across their shoulders. Filmed by Dutton’s wife, Deborah, the footage follows Cobb and Dutton as they march through hostile territory, testily menacing their neighbors while shouting epithet-laden provocations and wielding, as Deborah describes them, “sexy ass guns.”
“I'm one of the most famous racists the world, you son of a bitch,” Cobb yells at one neighbor, a Christian admonisher, in the footage that went viral online after he and Dutton were subsequently stopped on suspicion of terrorism. After the stunt, Cobb and Dutton were arrested by the town’s cops, who finally had something to charge them with.
Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s jarring and surprisingly even-keeled film cobbles together crowdsourced home videos with footage they shot over eight tumultuous months in Leith themselves—including shockingly cozy access to Cobb himself, before, during, and after his arrest.
It’s easy to see what attracted them to such a contentious figure in the first place. Raised in an upper-middle-class family, the son of a wealthy land developer and high-ranking Mason, the now-63-year-old Cobb was pressured by his parents into joining the military and spent years in Hawaii, where his interest in white nationalism is thought to have been ignited.
The man who publicly celebrated the death of Rosa Parks (“a shitskin Communist,” he called the civil-rights activist at a national celebration in 2005) also started a white supremacist video-sharing service and famously appeared on British TV to submit to DNA testing—only to be told he was 14 percent African. He dismissed those findings, of course.
“I probably have Asperger’s syndrome,” he calmly tells the Welcome to Leith filmmakers while in prison, clean-shaven and looking markedly more genteel as he recounts his own life to the camera. Later, Cobb gazes into the camera and shares his advice on how to deal with Jews: “One way to stop them is… you physically take apart their molecules and atoms,” he says, calm as a shark.
If he weren’t so downright dangerous, the verbose and impassioned Cobb might make for an entertainingly eccentric character. But as the film approaches its ambiguous conclusion, its permeating sense of dread skyrockets. Back in Leith, a camera studies Cobb’s former neighbors and victims as they hear that he’s been freed from prison after striking a controversial plea deal. They’ve already burned down his condemned former properties in a symbolic cleansing conveniently captured by the camera. But it’s like burning the corpse of a ghost: They may never stop agonizing over the hatemonger's potential return, wondering if, where, and when he’ll pop up next.