White supremacist Craig Paul Cobb (centre)
If white supremacists are going to insist on existing, it kind of makes sense to throw them all into some hateful little commune and leave them there to fester. That doesn't work so well, however, if there are normal, non-extremist people living next door, because rampant hate speech and swastika graffiti is a) really not that chill, and b) presumably cripples the value of your property.
Luckily, if you're white supremacist Craig Paul Cobb, you don't need to worry yourself with that kind of inconsequential claptrap. A resident of Leith – a tiny town in middle-of-nowhere North Dakota – Cobb decided he wanted to turn the place into a haven for neo-Nazis, so began posting on white supremacist message-boards, asking other bigots to move there.
With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, filmmakers Michael Nichols and Christopher Walker produced a feature-length documentary about Cobb, entitled Welcome to Leith, which they plan to release later this year. The documentary charts Cobb’s attempted takeover of Leith and his terrorising of its residents over an eight-month period.
I spoke to the pair about the making of the film and the rise and fall of Paul Cobb.
VICE: Hi, guys. Leith looks pretty desolate in the trailer for your film. Was it that strange in reality?
Michael and Christopher: It’s a completely different planet. It was like being on the set of a horror movie. You’re so isolated. Our GPS didn’t work out there. The closest city is 70 miles away. If anything happens, help is not coming quickly. Things can happen and no one would know. It's a ghost town.
What happened when you started filming there?
It was intense. As we set up, a van came rolling past us slowly, and a woman got out. She started walking towards us with her phone out, recording us, not making eye contact, saying, “You’re probably the enemy. What are you doing here? Get out of here.” The next day we managed to film a scene with her and her boyfriend, and that’s the one with the flags in the trailer. That was the only time anyone was a bit standoffish. After that it was pretty incredible how the residents accepted us. We became embedded into the small community.
Cobb on his way to a plea hearing.
When did you first meet Cobb?
We called him very last minute, as we didn’t want him to google us too much because our previous film was about African American street dancers. We first met him in jail, when we did an interview with him. Then when he was coming out, he was actually released to us. There was a load of media outside and his parole officer waved us in and said, “If you take your vehicle around the back, we’ll release him to you and tell the media he’ll be in here a while.” So no one knew where he was except for us.
Did he end up trusting you as the filming process went on?
It’s an interesting situation. I think he’s in love with the media. I think he wants to use the media to his advantage whenever he can. He got in touch with us twice a week to keep us updated on what was happening. He told us when we were filming that he hoped we don’t railroad in or interject, but we assured him we just want to tell the unbiased story. He actually liked the trailer, which was interesting. Part of us thinks he wanted to use it for coverage, in which case he might be happy with the end result – although a lot of viewers will obviously view him as a disruptor of lives.
It’s legal to walk around with a gun in North Dakota. His gun is never aimed at anyone, but it’s there. He’s angry, he’s cursing, he’s yelling at them. Bottom line: it's a terrifying situation. There's a white supremacists message board, which is the main way supremacists communicate and exchange ideas and meet. Cobb put up a lot of photos of people in the town with their names, their houses and even their addresses. That was very scary. People were showing us these print-outs and were terrified by that.
It’s all intimidation tactics. In interviews, Cobb would say that Bobby, the only African American in town, doesn’t have to leave. He’s saying, “I’m just trying to get like-minded people to move here.” He’s flying swastika flags in his yard. That’s not going to not scare you? He’s making it horrible for Bobby to stay. Luckily, Bobby felt very supported by the rest of the community.
The trailer for
Welcome to Leith
What effect has this had on the other residents?
People would pretty much just stay in their houses. They were scared they’d run into anyone. There are two ways out of town – a front way and a back way. Bobby’s wife, Sheryl, told us she’d take the back way because she didn’t want anyone to know if she was there or not. They also covered all their windows so no one could see where they sleep. When we filmed the interviews we weren’t allowed to take a picture of the house because they didn’t want people to figure out where the bedroom might be. That’s the level of fear and paranoia that exists.
What’s the most shocking moment for you during filming?
Cobb had sold several properties in the town to some of the biggest white supremacists in the US. Under the cover of night, the mayor and others set fire to and demolished one of the houses. It was a house owned by Jeff Schoep, the head of the National Socialist Movement. There was this amazing moment where it was up in flames and the sky is just totally snowing. People were coming out and celebrating. It felt to them that they were taking back their town.
Residents watching as a house burns down
How else did residents try to regain control?
They decided to try and pass a law that every house in the town had to have running water and sewers. They knew that his lots had neither of those things, so Cobb would be forced to spend a lot of money. In the trailer you can see the City Council meeting where this was decided. Cobb was trying to live-stream what was happening in that meeting. He was getting in people’s faces. It was pretty intense. In the end, he had 30 days to install running water and sewer runs on his properties.
What were your final thoughts on the whole thing?
It’s an intense story. When we first went there it was emotionally draining. We came to care for a lot of these people. It’s hard to film people who you’ve got to know in such a stressful situation. In a lot of ways Cobb is just this tragic figure. He’s a very smart man but he has such incredibly hateful beliefs that he’s intent on building this all-white enclave. I think the story is also about the first amendment, freedom of speech, freedom to practice your religion and the fact that people can carry and distribute firearms. It became a very complex story.
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