SHELBYVILLE, Tennessee — As many as 150 neo-Nazis equipped with shields and helmets convened here for a rally on an especially cold Saturday morning, and the locals were ready for them. The so-called “White Lives Matter” rally was billed as a double feature: The plan was to start in Shelbyville, break for lunch, and then head to nearby Murfreesboro, about 45 minutes away, for a rally in the afternoon.
In the end, after the neo-Nazis had a picnic lunch, they decided to call it a day.
Police in Shelbyville, which has a population of about 20,000 and a large Somali community, weren’t taking any chances, especially given what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia in August. They knew that the crowd who were showing up here were the more violent, hardcore contingent of the far right.
And so, on Saturday morning, the face of the normally nondescript Tennessee town was transformed. Law enforcement had set up an extensive maze of metal barriers that funneled protesters and the hundreds of counterprotesters onto separate sides of a wide boulevard.
They were also ushered into separate parking lots. On the neo-Nazi side, the groups with the biggest turnout were the Traditionalist Worker’s Party, the National Socialists, Vanguard America and League of the South.
Among them was League of the South’s Michael Tubbs, an ex-green beret who previously did time for stockpiling explosives and weapons from the military, and plotting to bomb Jewish and minority businesses.
It had been difficult to predict exactly how many neo-Nazis would show up. Estimates ranged anywhere from “dozens” to “thousands.” In the end there were about 150. As they arrived, a man played the bagpipes.
Matthew Heimbach, head of the Traditionalist worker’s Party, was in his element. “Big smiles gentlemen,” Heimbach said in the parking lot. “It’s another day in paradise.” They marched about half a block until arriving at a heavily-policed checkpoint, chanting: “Closed borders, white nation, now we start the deportation.” Some carried shields, others signs saying “Stop cultural genocide.”
There they had to form a queue, as law enforcement took their time patting down and wanding each protester before they entered the arena. The entire process took at least an hour, as the neo-Nazis stood shivering in 41 degree weather grumbling that it was worse than TSA.
One couple, Brigid Harris and Ronnie White, wandered out in the cold in their pyjamas, just to see what was going on, surveying the scene from afar, outside city hall.
Harris and White, both black, had lived in Shelbyville their whole lives, and viewed the hordes of black-clad nazis with fear. “I just wanted to see what they looked like,” Harris said. “I’ve never seen them before in person.”
“It’s scary,” she added, shaking her head.
On the other side, among counterprotesters, it was a carnival-esque atmosphere. Counterprotesters were dressed colorfully, and had a stereo-system that blasted, among other things, Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and Beyoncé, drowning out the speakers of the neo-Nazis and white nationalists.
They also taunted the neo-Nazis with chants of “We have replaced you,” appropriating the words that rang out across Charlottesville “You will not replace us,” and “You’re sexy, you’re cute, take off that Nazi suit.” Meanwhile, neo-Nazis occasionally sieg heiled.
Jed Bagwell, who’d traveled all the way from Alabama just “to keep an eye on these folks,” was hanging out on the neo-Nazi side wearing a Make America Great Again hat. But, he said, he wasn’t affiliated with any group. He thinks the number one priority for President Donald Trump should be “finding out who killed JFK.”
“I’d like to know exactly who’s been shooting our presidents,” Bagwell said. “That matters a lot more to me than these Russian collusion stories.”
The neo-Nazis broke for a “White Lives Matter” picnic lunch at around 2 p.m.
Brad Griffin, who goes by his nom-de-plume “Hunter Wallace,” a prolific white nationalist blogger and lead organizer of the rally, posted a video from the picnic. “I am live from the White Lives Matter picnic,” Griffin said. “Lots of white people here.”
They were meant to make their way to Murfreesboro that afternoon, but after lunch they just didn’t feel like it anymore.
“Murfreesboro cancelled,” Griffin tweeted.
“Had some intel Murfreesboro was a lawsuit trap. Not worth the risk,” he said in a follow-up tweet.
“It took an hour to get through security in Shelbyville,” Griffin tweeted again. “Pushed back lunch. We have nothing to gain in Murfreesboro.”
Hundreds of counter-protesters were ready and waiting for the neo-Nazis to arrive in Murfreesboro, where businesses around the main square had been boarded up the previous day and painted over with messages of love and peace. When word spread that the neo-Nazis had “cancelled” the square broke out in cheers; others laughed.
Organizers of White Lives Matter are celebrating the day’s event as a smashing success, despite costing Murfreesboro likely thousands of dollars for no reason.
“I would rather hang out with and meet our own people than go engage in some clash with Antifa,” Griffin tweeted again. “We don’t need to add to our problems.”
What ensued the rest of the day was a cat-and-mouse chase between neo-Nazis, law enforcement, antifa and media.
Word spread that the neo-Nazis were hanging out in Henry Horton State Park in Chapel Hill — about 30 minutes from Murfreesboro — which was the birthplace of Nathan Forrest Bedford, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. But as a few reporters, and law enforcement, began to pull up, around 50 neo-Nazis — who just moments earlier had been sieg heiling and “forming a human swastika” — hastily packed up and fled the scene.
News then spread that they planned to hold a torch lit march at the same church in Antioch where a lone gunman opened fire on congregants in September, killing one and injuring seven. The shooting was a flashpoint for rally-goers, who say that the media ignored the tragedy because the alleged gunman was black and the victims white.
Law enforcement and sniffer dogs were already on the scene when reporters started to arrive. “It’s hard to know who’s safe,” said one officer. But after 6.30 p.m., the time of the scheduled torch march, came and went, word traveled that, again, the neo-Nazis had been spooked.
Griffin had repeatedly stressed the importance of “optics” for this rally, and in many ways, the purpose of the event was about saving face in the wake of Charlottesville as they try to distance themselves from the fact that one of their own allegedly drove their car into a crowd of protesters, killing one and injuring dozens more.
But their actions betrayed their intentions.
Later, a group of neo-Nazis — including Heimbach, one of the big names in the “movement” — was seen on video in an altercation with a biracial couple outside a pub near Nashville.