Armed neo-Nazis prepare for potential clash in small Kentucky town
In a tent deep in the woods of rural Kentucky, an old neo-Nazi spoke bitterly of how he feels “betrayed” by Donald Trump.
“I’m sorry I voted for the son of a bitch, I really am,” said Art Jones, who the Anti-Defamation League identifies as a Holocaust denier who has been dressing in Nazi garb and celebrating Hitler since the 1970s.
“I’m sorry I spent $180 out of my own pocket to buy three big banners that said, ‘President Trump, build the wall’,” the blazer-clad Jones said, to a tent full of about 100 men, some of whom wore paramilitary-style uniforms. “Now he says, ‘Eh, what wall?’ I’m embarrassed that I voted for him.”
Jones blamed Trump’s failures on the “Jewish lobby” and the president’s son-in-law and aide, Jared Kushner, who is Jewish.
“If I could take the vote back,” he said. “I would.”
On Friday night, on a barren stretch of private property accessible only by a dirt road, black-clad young men with rifles roamed. Others wore a handgun or knife at the hip. Members of at least 10 racist hate groups had met to discuss how they could become more politically relevant. They were also there to prepare for an anticipated battle with self-identified anti-fascist or “antifa” groups on Saturday – the 100th day of the Trump presidency – in the streets of the tiny town of Pikeville.
Pike County is 98% white; about 80% of voters there supported Trump. In choosing Pikeville for their rally, the neo-Nazis sought to attract white working families and build a more mainstream political movement, they said. Local residents and store managers said they were were furious, scared and resentful of the gathering.
Far-left and far-right groups that have clashed recently in Berkeley, Seattle and elsewhere. In Seattle, a protester was shot in the stomach. A rally last summer in Sacramento, staged by one of the groups organizing the Pikeville protest, left multiple people stabbed. Those standoffs were held in states with relatively strict gun laws. In Kentucky, which allows open carry, both the neo-Nazis and their opponents publicly discussed carrying guns at Saturday’s protest.
In an interview last week, Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party, said the groups staging the rally would come with armed security officials, who would carry AR-15 rifles and wear body armor.
James Anderson, an editor at Itsgoingdown.org, an anarchist site, said the counter-protesters were sensitive to the potential impact on Pikeville locals.
“The organizers in Pikeville have been very clear they don’t want people coming to the small town and smashing up the one McDonald’s,” he said on Thursday.
In an email, one of the anonymous organizers of the “anti-fascist” protest wrote: “We have made sure to clearly communicate with folks from outside the region that this is not Berkley or a major city and tactics that are used there are not appropriate in eastern KY.”
The organizer wrote that the “antifas” were aware that clashing with neo-Nazis gave such groups more media attention. A town official said more than a dozen media outlets had come to Pikeville in advance of the protest.
“There is no denying they relish the attention,” the organizer wrote. “We also have to weigh the risks of not confronting them. We believe that, in the longer term, allowing neo-Nazis to organize openly and treating them like any other group gives them more legitimacy.
“History teaches us that ignoring Nazis will not make them go away and creates the risk they will begin to build real power.”
The standoff has attracted other heavily armed groups, including members of a militia group called the “III percenters”, classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as anti-government extremists.
“We want to make sure that the people of Pike County don’t get you know caught up in any violence,” said Chris Hall, the leader of the national umbrella group for the III percenters, which is sending some local groups to the protest. “We want to help prevent damage to property.
“We have no dog in that fight. Both are equally violent in my opinion.”
The commander of the Indiana III percenters, who declined to give his name, said he expected at least 60 members to attend in “full battle rattle”, with “our helmets full body armor, 9 thirty-round magazines and an AR-15”. He said he expected at least four other III percenter groups to attend.
The promise of confrontation between multiple armed groups in the narrow, alley-like streets of Pikeville left officials and residents nervous. The town government passed an anti-masking ordinance, barring masks, hoods and facial coverings in public places.
Several downtown business managers said they had decided to stayed closed at least until after the protest was over, and some said they were preparing to guard their buildings. Wes Hutcison, the manager of Bank 253, a local bar and restaurant, said he was worried “what it’s going to look like Sunday after everybody’s gone”.
Outside a tattoo shop, a man who said he was a veteran expressed anger that the Nazi rally was “setting back Pikeville 100 years”.
A peaceful counter-protest planned by local students was cancelled. The organizers wrote on Facebook on Thursday that after consulting with officials and law enforcement, “real and previously unforeseen credible threats to the safety of our attendees” had convinced them to cancel their “Rally for Equality and American Values”, which was slated to feature speeches from state politicians and a Holocaust survivor, as well as music.
‘These are our guests in our community’
While the broader region is suffering economically, Pikeville has grown. A brewery is being built and locals speak proudly of the hospital and university – and the ethnic diversity that doctors and students have brought.
The neo-Nazi rally was slated to start at 2pm in front of the historic courthouse. A leader of one of the extremist groups applied for a permit several months ago and were granted one, said Donovan Blackburn, Pikeville’s city manager.
“Our job is to uphold, protect and support first amendment rights,” he said. “What makes this country so great its the opportunity to voice your opinion vocally. Whether we agree with it or not is a moot issue.
“These are our guests in our community. We will treat them as such. When you go into someone’s home you need to show respect.”
In a public notice released on Friday, however, the town said it could not “guarantee the safety of everyone based upon tactics that have occurred in other areas”.
On Friday evening, the neo-Nazis assembled at a Walmart parking lot and formed a caravan of more than 20 cars to drive to the private land. Jeff Schoep, the leader of the National Socialist Movement, told participants they were “warriors for your people”.
“History and change is made through the streets,” he said, adding that if the rally became violent, participants should “stand united”. The group would not strike first, he said, but would defend itself.
To laughter, he added: “I’m telling you right now: if I see anybody running or breaking ranks, you better hope the reds catch you. You better hope the antifa catch you.”
There were at least five children present, including two girls who amused themselves by drawing as one speaker after another condemned the Jews and saluted white power.
“Do not use any foul language or any racial slurs,” Mike Schloer of the National Socialist Movement warned, reeling off a short list of epithets that should not be used in public.
“Keep it clean,” he said.