A coalition of neo-Nazis and white nationalists suffered a setback in Tennessee Saturday when the larger of two planned rallies for the day was abruptly canceled in the face of massive local counter-protests.
The back-to-back rallies in Shelbyville and Murfreesboro were planned as the first joint event for extremist groups with racist, anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi views including the League of the South, the Traditionalist Worker’s Party, National Socialist Movement, Vanguard America and Anti-Communist Action since the August rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in a riot with dozens of injuries, one dead counter-protester and two police officers killed in a helicopter crash.
At the morning rally in Shelbyville, roughly 350 counter-protesters gathered to wait in 30 degree weather for the white supremacists to arrive. Most were local, hailing from Shelbyville or as far away as Nashville. Hundreds of police officers patrolled the area and kept the counter-protesters back about fifty yards from the designated demonstration zone. Three helicopters circled overhead. Approximately 200 protesters finally showed up at around 11:30 am, an hour and a half late.
Police had told counter-protesters that weapons, helmets and shields were not permitted, and people carrying such equipment were turned away from the rally until they had disposed of those items. But when the members of the far right and alt right arrived, many were wearing helmets and some held shields. The police did not order them to leave or confiscate those items.
For an hour and a half the white supremacists took turns speaking into a bullhorn, mostly drowned out by the chants, jeers and bullhorns of the counter-protesters.
"Make me a sandwich! Make me a sandwich!" shouted one man, wearing a T-shirt that read "White supremacists suck, Nazis swallow."
Ken Nichols, a local man in his late 20’s, wasn't pleased that the police kept him so far away.
"I don't like these KKK people," Nichols said. "My great great great grandfather was a grand dragon in Davenport [Iowa]... I come from a whole family of racists and I hate it… why should we hate other races just because they're a minority? I want a full blown riot. I've been in the mood for a fight for years and the time has come… If you're KKK, Nazi, white supremacist, go to hell."
Most counter-protesters, though, said that they wanted to avoid violence and were there to make a statement about their home, which they feared would be depicted as racist because of the racist rally. Many sang Christian hymns and held signs with Biblical references.
"I've lived here my whole life and I don't want anyone to think this reflects this area," said Kayla, a young woman with close-cropped hair and a jacket covered with feminist patches, who asked for her last name to be withheld. "It's absolutely false. Murfreesboro and Shelbyville is very progressive now and welcoming to anybody."
Shelbyville police officers jumped the barricade into the white supremacists’ demonstration area at one point and emerged with a handcuffed man who appeared to be in his mid-twenties. An officer later said the man was a counter protester, and that he’d been arrested for disorderly conduct.
At 1 p.m., the protesters marched out and the counter-protesters dispersed, with most of the latter group heading straight for Murfreesboro, 25 miles away, where a second rally was scheduled to start at 2.
The Murfreesboro rally was expected to be larger, owing to the much larger population, proximity to Nashville, and the presence of Middle Tennessee State University in the town.
Thousands of counter-protesters streamed into the downtown area, where most businesses were closed and many had boarded up their storefronts. Police wearing riot gear and paramilitary uniforms patrolled the area carrying assault rifles.
Counter-protesters had difficulty getting into the areas designated for them. Security checkpoints were thorough, similar to airport security, though slower. Prohibited items included bottles of water, lighters and bags of any kind. People found to be carrying prohibited items were not permitted to discard them and enter but required to leave, and then go to the end of the consequently very long security line.
Those who got in were treated to a sad sight.
"There was one guy draped in a Confederate flag and wearing Air Jordans, which -- the irony does not fail you," said Erin McDermott, a Nashville resident wearing a rainbow clown wig. "There was literally three guys… there was three of them for about an hour and then four or five more of them trickled in… a total of maybe ten people on the Nazi side of things. One guy had a sign but I couldn't really see it… their turnout was so low that it seems to me like we accomplished something by showing up."
The rest of the demonstrators never showed up to their own rally.
"Had some intel Murfreesboro was a lawsuit trap. Not worth the risk," Tweeted Hunter Wallace, head of public relations for the League of the South, a neo-Confederate organization. In a separate tweet, he wrote, "It took an hour to get through security in Shelbyville. Pushed back lunch. We have nothing to gain in Murfreesboro."
Getting through security may have been especially difficult given the statement of another member of the League of the South that its members would bring guns to the rallies, at which weapons had been prohibited by the Shelbyville and Murfreesboro police.
As word circulated that the supremacists had given up on their rally, the crowd in Murfreesboro became jubilant.
"I guess they decided that it either wasn't worth the trouble or they made such silly fools of themselves in Shelbyville that they didn't want to show up in Murfreesboro, which is awesome," said Kayla, who attended both rallies. 'Cause this is my home town. Don't come here. No one wants you here. It's absolutely a loss for them. It's a win for anyone who's not a Nazi."
Wallace confirmed on Twitter that the white supremacists withdrew to a state park about 45 minutes away from Murfreesboro where they held a meeting away from the eyes of protesters.
"They thought they could come here and talk shit," said Teazy, a local man who identified himself as being of mixed race. "They thought they could do something here but they're obviously outnumbered. Love always wins."