Rutherford County Courthouse, Murfreesboro

Rutherford County Courthouse, Murfreesboro

This week, NUVO is re-visiting 365 days of resistance. Find more post-election writing here. 

On paper, Murfreesboro, Tennessee was perhaps the ideal location to host a white nationalist rally.

The town has an active Klan group, votes overwhelmingly Republican, and like many other rural localities has in recent years found itself overwhelmed with drug issues.

It also participates in the federal government’s refugee relocation program. Many of these refugees are Muslim, and an anti-Islamic sentiment is prevalent. The local mosque is periodically vandalized and, in 2012, there was even litigation to prevent it from constructing a new building for its congregation.

Moreover, with the expansion of Nashville’s suburbs, Murfreesboro — once an agricultural community — has slowly been absorbed into the city’s geography. This new proximity makes the town much more accessible to media and outsiders.

Thus the white nationalists who organized last weekend’s rally no doubt believed they’d be welcomed, if not with congeniality, at least with passive acceptance in Murfreesboro.

But they weren’t. The white nationalist groups that began their Saturday morning in Shelbyville (another middle-Tennessee town with a growing immigrant population) never even made it to Murfreesboro’s designated “free speech zone” — where there ended up being 40 counter protesters for every white nationalist sympathizer.

Along the perimeter of boarded-up businesses and police barricades were three entrances to the town square: one for white nationalists and two for counter protesters. If you approached the white-nationalist entrance, a police officer would ask, “What group are you supporting today?” If you told them “Black Lives Matter” or “Murfreesboro Loves” or some similar political designation, you were instructed to go around to the other entrances.

It took a lot longer to get into the square from the counter protesting side. This wasn’t just because of the numerical disparity. Counter protesters were also more vigorously searched by the police (nothing besides wallets, phones, keys, cameras and handheld signs were permitted inside the barricades).

A grey-bearded man, standing in between the two lines of counter protesters waiting to be frisked, was clearly trying to get a rise out of everyone by yelling things like “What’s the feminist stance on Israel?” and “The true enemy is the Mexicans.” He was convinced that the Gulf of Mexico used to be named the “Gulf of Mississippi” until Andrew Johnson changed it for reasons unexplained. “If ya’ll want to protest something,” the man shouted, “let’s go get our ocean back.”

A counter protester who volunteers at the local food shelter told me the man comes in there from time-to-time looking for a decent meal.

At the rear of the lines were two elderly, street-preaching brothers who said they condemned both sides but who also ventriloquized an assortment of right-wing platitudes and conspiracy theories from the internet. “George Soros wants us to fight one another. The devil wants us to fight one another.”

This faux-centrism was oddly widespread in the half dozen or so “spectators” who, if you asked them, just came down to see what all the fuss was about.

One of them I talked to who was in his mid-twenties told me he wanted to bring his black cousin with him but was convinced they’d be targeted for their biracial camaraderie — with the implication that both sides would equally disapprove. (The counter protesters were obviously an integrated coalition, although the young man never acknowledged this.)

“These people are tearing this country apart,” he said while watching counter protesters argue with the street-preaching brothers. He went on, “You see, you got three groups here [today]: antifa, White Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter.” (Black Lives Matter had released a statement the day prior saying they wouldn’t be attending because it was “white America who invited [the Nazis] in, and it is white America who has the responsibility to see them out.”)

Another spectator, 75, after a few minutes of us talking confessed that he was a former Klan member and that he’d in fact just sold his robe last month. He too said he wasn’t taking sides but thought “the blacks had a point about police brutality.”

When I asked him about the seeming contradiction (irony?) of a former Klansman worried about the abuse of African-Americans, he responded, “For blacks, intimidation was always enough. The only time we really ever had to get physical with anybody was if a white man was a drunk or wasn’t taking care of his kids.”

A spokesman for the League of the South—one of the three or four most prominent white nationalist groups that organized the Shelbyville and Murfreesboro rallies—gave a variety of reasons for why the day’s events were cut short (security delays, potential lawsuits, wanting to avoid violent counterprotesters).

According to its organizers, the dual aims of the “White Lives Matter” rally were (1) to “raise awareness” about the Antioch church shooting last month committed by a Somali refugee and (2) to “highlight the refugee resettlement issue in the light of all the violence that had occurred in Europe.” The white nationalists' first chant in Shelbyville was “The Jews will not replace us!”

It’s said no happy person ever became a Nazi. Based on what I saw, the maxim is still justified. The counterprotesters, on the other hand, were hopeful and at ease throughout the day. Besides skewing young, they were fairly representative of the general population. A cheerful and triumphant pluralism was the mood when they found out the white nationalists had cancelled. The church bells in town rang out in celebration.

A father who had brought his young son with him told me he was secretly relieved, “I wanted us here to let these Nazis know they weren’t welcome in Murfreesboro, but I was also a little worried about what might happen.”

If everyone by now is familiar with the symbols and slogans for both sides (Nazis swastikas vs peace signs, iron crosses vs gay pride flags, “Stop Southern Cultural Genocide” vs “No Hate in My State”), many are still unaware of the larger ideological themes being played out at these confrontations.

The counter protesters, whose politics were no more elaborate than anti-racism and pro-decency, were treated by police as the more serious threat to the day’s peace.

The Nazis and white nationalists appropriated left-wing vernacular for their own illiberal causes: mimicking the Black Lives Matter mantra, advocating actual genocide while bemoaning “cultural genocide,” and objecting to “open borders” on the grounds that “mass immigration” makes it harder for workers to organize (an old Nazi trope now primarily associated with Strasserism).

The spectators claimed to be neutral, but almost always turned out to have hacky ideas about paid protesters or antifa violence.

Before the event, a comically fake Craigslist ad alleging that counter protesters were hiring “crisis actors for a live street performance in Murfreesboro TN Saturday October 28th” was circulated around far right social media. The credulity and mental slavishness are of course easy to ridicule — anyone can make a Craigslist ad and the ad itself is riddled with online-right terminology like “crisis actor” and “non globalist sovereign mindset.” But some otherwise reasonable folks, desperate to claim impartiality, also believe this nonsense. And it’s them that Nazis and white nationalists hide behind for ideological protection.

Driving down Friday night, it dawned on me that I and Matt Heimbach — maybe the country’s most recognizable neo-Nazi and a key leader to the rally — were likely taking the same route to Murfreesboro.

Heimbach’s home is in southern Indiana, so once he got on I-65 we’d be passing the same things. For example, the same billboards. There were ones advertising adult superstores and others reproaching abortion as a sin against God. Another asked if you suffered from depression, drugs or pornography and that, if you did, Jesus could “set you free.”

An effective demagogue successfully mingles grand illusions of persecution with real-world sufferings, and billboards such as these call attention to the genuine misery and guilt that’s out there today, ready to be exploited by the Heimbachs of the world if a more compelling politics aren’t put forward.

Murfreesboro offered encouraging signs of solidarity. There was no violence and all the counter protesters besides a couple cranks were in high spirits. The police were hospitable and light-hearted — although their presence on rooftops was ominous. Most discouraging weren’t the Nazi sympathizers but the crowd of spectators who were often well-intentioned yet accepted as truth easily disprovable lies.

That Saturday was the first time since Charlottesville these white nationalist groups tried assembling together in protest. They failed — but one suspects that for those who bedazzle themselves in Confederate and Nazi paraphernalia, failure isn’t as much a deterrent, as it is a tradition. So in that Heimbach and I agree: Long live their heritage.

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