200 white nationalists rally in Tennessee demanding closed US borders and deportations
Some 200 white nationalists carrying a Confederate flag and chanting for closed borders and deportations gathered on Saturday at the first of two White Lives Matter rallies in the state that also drew counter-protesters.
Dozens of police officers, including canine officers, were on hand, some stationed on the roof of a strip mall with binoculars and long guns.
The protesters showed up in the Middle Tennessee community despite comments by Governor Bill Haslam that “these folks” were not welcome in the state. The rallies had raised fears in the community of a repeat of the Charlottesville, Virginia, rally in August that turned violent.
The protesters planned to caravan from Shelbyville to Murfreesboro, 25 miles north, where wary business leaders had boarded up windows downtown and residents held a prayer vigil Friday night near the rally site.
Organisers of the White Lives Matter rallies have said they aimed at protesting refugee resettlement and immigration to Middle Tennessee, specifically noting the presence of Somali and Sudanese people in the region.
The crowd of mostly men in Shelbyville at mid-morning included some carrying shields or covering their faces with masks or bandanas. Before marching toward the security checkpoint, an organiser asked the group to put their weapons back in the car.
Members of the League of the South, the white nationalist group that helped organise the White Lives Matter rally, carried a Confederate flag and a sign calling “southern cultural genocide.”
About 50 counter protesters were also on hand early, heading to a separate staging location designated by police.
Vegas Longlois came from Birmingham with other members of the Democratic Socialists of America.
“We cant let hate go unchecked in the nation,” said Longlois. The 23-year-old said refugee populations need to know they are supported.
“The goal for today is to really push back on the narrative that both sides are in the wrong here,” Longlois said. “There is one side here promoting hate and there is one side here saying, ‘Not in our town.”
Chad Bagwell, 30, of Centre, Alabama, was among the first to arrive on the white nationalists’ side. Bagwell held an American flag and was wearing a red Make America Great Again hat. He said he planned to bring a Confederate flag, as well, but forgot it.
“I don’t have nothing against refugees, but I do think they need stricter vetting for it,” said Bagwell, who drove two hours to attend the event, said.
After the rally, demonstrators and protesters were planning to caravan 25 miles north to Murfreesboro for a second rally.
Governor Haslam said state and local law enforcement officials would be out “in full force” for both rallies.
“We want to send a really clear message that these folks are not welcome in Tennessee,” the governor told reporters on Friday in Gatlinburg. “If you’re part of the white supremacist movement you’re not somebody that we want in Tennessee.”
White nationalists speakers expected at the rallies are League of the South president Michael Hill and Matthew Heimbach, a leader in the Traditionalist Worker Party. Organisers also extended an invitation to Richard Spencer, a controversial leader in the “alt-right” and “identitarian” movements.
Murfreesboro, with a population of over 130,000, has approved a permit for a rally on the inner circle of the courthouse square. Officials began clearing the square of vehicles Friday night.
Residents turned out Friday evening for the “One Community Prayer Vigil” just two blocks from the site of the rally.
“We express our opposition tonight prayerfully and peacefully,” said Pastor Noel Schoonmaker, of the First Baptist Church. “The cross is a symbol of love, and we send love to immigrants and refugees and other targets of white supremacists. Hateful ideologies are antithetical to the teachings of Christ.”
The counter protesters include the loosely organised anti-Fascist group commonly known as Antifa, local faith leaders, interfaith and community organisers as well as other anti-racist organisations.
Officials have said they expect counter protesters to outnumber rally attendees by as much as four times.