SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. — The Nazis were running late.
It was the last weekend of October, and they had rallies planned. But there was some confusion over where to park in Shelbyville, a town of 16,000 in horse country south of Nashville. And it took some time to gear up: the shields and WWII-era helmets, the “White Lives Matter” signs, the Dixie flags draped over the shoulders just so. The prayer came next.
Finally, Michael Tubbs — an imposing former Green Beret who once did a prison stint for plotting to bomb Jewish and black businesses — mustered into formation the nearly 200 neo-Nazis, white nationalists, Klansmen, greybeards in Confederate uniforms and a lone Nazi bagpiper. Down a hill this horde marched toward their foe ― some 400 counter-demonstrators arrayed behind fences across a long intersection.
“Close borders! White nation! Now we start the deportation!” the Nazis chanted. All piss and vinegar, they. All very Battle of Chickamauga.
Then they ran into security.
The cops were working overtime. Their security wands moved up and down, up and down. Every person needed a metal detector test. Bags were searched. Keychains were confiscated. The Nazis fell silent. Ever so gradually ― one might say sluggishly ― the police examined them for weapons and herded them into a fenced-off pen.
This was a costly, and tactical, choice ― one designed to prevent violence by slow-walking the First Amendment, which guarantees only the right to peaceful public assembly. After Charlottesville, any large gathering of white supremacists carries the obvious potential for mayhem. The police failed spectacularly to prevent injuries and death in Charlottesville. Since then, however, law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions have taken a muscularly bureaucratic approach to maintaining order — long lines, checkpoints and French barriers everywhere.
In Tennessee, where several of the same white supremacist groups responsible for Charlottesville assembled last month to further their Amerikaner Reich, the result of the enhanced security was to siphon off the surly energies surrounding the event into various hassles and inconveniences, all superintended by heavily armed cops. And thus a day of demonstrating for and against white supremacy became something more akin to a particularly exasperating visit to the DMV.
In September, when race-baiting former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at Berkeley, the lines stretched on and on. Cops there subjected each person to a metal detector test. By the time many got in, Yiannopoulos had already left. The whole thing was over before it started — at a cost of $800,000 in public money. Berkeley cops appeared to have learned a valuable lesson in stalling after protests over Yiannopoulos’ first planned appearance on campus in February, which erupted into violence.
In Shelbyville, the police sequestered both sides long before the rally began. Counter-demonstrators entered their fenced-off area from the north. Fascists were funneled toward their holding pen from the south. To get there, they passed through a cop gauntlet. And they waited at the security checkpoint. And waited some more. The result, however, was that the rally, though short-lived, went off without incident. No bloodshed. No violence at all.
Tennessee law enforcement agencies are already talking about letting other states copy their model for keeping the peace. But it turned out there was an earlier blueprint for making hate wait, along with anyone protesting it.
I think they had every horse with four legs still alive in the county in that town.
In March 1999, the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in the 16,000-person city of Defiance, Ohio. Back then, the Klan was throwing rallies almost every weekend in Ohio, and the public’s bill for security that year would approach $1 million. Defiance was a major reason for that expense.
The town had steeled itself for an invasion. One longtime anti-fascist activist from Columbus was there that day to confront the Klan. He and scores of counter-demonstrators arrived to find a sealed-off four-block zone and every alley in the city impeded by semi-trailers filled with sandbags. There were more than 250 cops of all variety, including many cops on horses. “I think they had every horse with four legs still alive in the county in that town,” remembers the activist.
Defiance also helped bring about a new form of crowd control. Until then, most white supremacist rallies featured a stage where racists could fulminate about states’ rights or Jewish space aliens, and a common audience area where racist supporters might encounter anti-fascists and fights would break out. Defiance had two separate holding pens for attendees, where, according to the activist who attended, the police did the same “passive-aggressive slow walking” through a security checkpoint, rifling through clothing and bags, even going through people’s cigarette packs looking for joints. “Just to completely fuck with you and make it not worth it to show up,” he says.
All this for what awaited them on the courthouse steps: a grand total of 41 Klansmen.
“If you don’t have adequate protection, things get out of hand and you catch a lot of criticism for that,” the local sheriff said at the time. “If you’re adequately prepared, you catch a lot of criticism from people who say it’s overkill.”
It was also, arguably, good business. An Associated Press account of the Defiance rally noted that “After years of refinement, [Ohio] now provides an ‘off the shelf’ plan to communities for dealing with rallies.” According to the Columbus anti-fascist, the local sheriff and his law enforcement cronies began franchising their security model and acting as consultants at other Klan rallies. “In my opinion, that event accelerated the evolution [of police security practices],” the anti-fascist activist said. “That and the marketing afterward.”
Defiance isn’t the only historical precedent. In 2005, the National Socialist Movement staged a march through a mostly black neighborhood in Toledo and shouted slurs at members of the community. Locals rioted and scuffled with police. Some looting and arson ensued. Two months later, the Nazis came back for a rally. This time, a small army of some 700 cops from 15 agencies were waiting for them and any counter-demonstrators. The rally area was locked down. Barricades everywhere. People couldn’t move freely. Fewer than 200 people ended up attending. Toledo wound up with a $300,000 bill for police overtime.
Pete Simi, a sociology professor at Chapman University who has studied far-right extremism for 20 years, said Toledo set the tone for the police response to white supremacist gatherings in the mid- to late 2000s. In September 2007, when the NSM descended on Omaha, Nebraska, the cops referenced Toledo and pulled out all the stops.
“They had everything cordoned off, streets blocked, no way in no way out,” says Simi, who was at the rally. “The NSM protestors had to meet at a location away from the rally and the police bussed them in. Snipers on the roofs everywhere. They had impenetrable obstacles to prevent any contact between the NSM and the counter-protesters.”
Law enforcement agencies were sensitive to the reputational harm that resulted when they failed to prevent white supremacists or militant counter-demonstrators from mixing it up in the streets. The response was always the same: more cops, more guns, more horses, more lines, more delays. “Police react to that level of embarrassment,” Simi says. “It’s kind of a yo-yo effect. You want us to do stuff, OK, we’ll do stuff.”
Eighteen years later, and two months after the deadly violence in Charlottesville, the cops were doing stuff in Middle Tennessee. Driving into Shelbyville felt like approaching a military base. The road was lined with SUVs from the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office and the Tennessee State Police. At least three helicopters and two drones hovered above the town. Police were arrayed on rooftops and along the streets, most of them armed with assault rifles. There were horse cops and bike cops and cops who looked like soldiers of fortune just off an Afghan jingle truck. About 300 cops altogether. Local media would later estimate the bill for law enforcement here and in nearby Murfreesboro, where a second White Lives Matter rally was planned, to exceed $100,000.
“You’re trying to bankrupt the community,” anti-fascist activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins told Matt Heimbach, the head of the Traditionalist Worker Party, who was stuck in line with his neo-Nazi group.
“We put forward a vision for a new world,” Heimbach replied.
“It’s not a new world.”
“Balkanization is the future!”
Atop a hill overlooking the rally site, locals had gathered to espy and decry the scene. “This is not about freedom of speech. This is about money,” said Chase Williams, a Tennessee walking horse trainer who works in Shelbyville. “Don’t show up in a community where the problem doesn’t exist.”
But the white supremacists had shown up, and it was 11:30 a.m. — an hour and a half after their Shelbyville rally was set to start ― when the majority of them cleared the checkpoint. On the other side of the intersection, the counter-demonstrators had gone through the same screening process. They’d just arrived early.
“You guys are really late! This isn’t lookin’ good for the master race!” Chris Irwin, the boisterous emcee of the counter-protest, could be heard saying in the distance over a sound system.
Tubbs got his people back into formation. He’d been there in Charlottesville, where armed racists had been allowed to tear through the streets, where one shot at people and another drove a car into a crowd. He was in the infamous garage to watch his men club DeAndre Harris unconscious. Not to be deterred, these men. Not in Charlottesville. Not in Shelbyville. “Blood and Soil! Blood and Soil!” they began chanting. The shield wall was ready. The race war was nigh.
Then they ran into security again.
Another checkpoint. More wanding. More silence. A long line of racists and fascists trudging toward eternal humiliation. Jeff Schoep, the head of the National Socialist Movement, couldn’t hide his disappointment about “all these metal detectors.” Schoep speculated that his group may look to the courts “as far as fighting this sort of intervention in the future.” (The Shelbyville Police Department and the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.)
The delays sound “very intentional,” according to Simi. “I wouldn’t be surprised if when they simulated their scenarios either on paper or in practice they had a good idea that it would take close to an hour and half to get through security. I can’t imagine any of that was accidental.”
Only a few dozen fascists and racists made it to the second White Lives Matter rally. Brad Griffin, one of the organizers, announced over Twitter that the second event had been canceled. The Nazis had to eat. “It took an hour to get through security in Shelbyville,” he explained. “Pushed back lunch.”
But the police in Murfreesboro were still ready. The town was bigger, with a warren of small streets downtown. If anything was going to pop off, it would be here. More than 400 officers were on the ground. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had set up a command post in Murfreesboro, deployed more than 100 agents and was using a plane to do aerial surveillance over the city. Tennessee’s Wildlife Resource Agency even sent five officers.
The Nazis had obtained a permit to assemble from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in front of a courthouse built in 1858 on the town’s Public Square, and the windows of nearby stores were boarded up. Streets were closed. Barriers separated an inner area of the square for the White Lives Matter protesters from an outer area for the counter-protesters.
At the main security checkpoint for the counter-protesters, a crowd of about 1,000 people had gathered. Old and young. All races. All there to shout down the Nazis. This turnout, probably more so than a collective empty stomach, likely kept the white supremacists away.
“Fuck the KKK!” the counter-protesters chanted. “Nazi punks fuck off!” they chanted, a tribute to the Dead Kennedys song. “Fuck Donald Trump!” they roared. Over and over. “Fuck Donald Trump! Fuck Donald Trump!” A police horse got spooked.
Getting through security was even harder in Murfreesboro. For most, it was impossible. For over an hour, the lines barely moved. Fidgety young activists in the crowd, some of them draped like soccer fans in Anti-Racist Action flags ― “dipshits,” one actual ARA member called them ― were shooting college bull about Marxism and imperialism. “I’m more of an anarchist than a socialist, but I’m friends with a lot of ancoms,” one said. Another, when asked if he was cold, announced, “I’ve got the fire of socialism to warm my hands.”
By 3 p.m., it was obvious that almost none of the people who’d showed up to resist racism and fascism would be admitted to the Public Square. A few in the crowd had taken to chattering about “legal observers” who might need to get involved. If the inertia was by design, the Murfreesboro authorities wouldn’t admit it.
“There was no attempt to delay the public or media from entering the restricted zone,” said Mike Browning, the city’s public information officer. “Processing the 800-1000 counter protesters through the metal detectors did take time.”
It took so much time that they all went home.