White nationalists said they gathered in rural Tennessee Saturday to raise awareness about refugee resettlement and a shooting at a church. But they were also there, by their own admission, to rehabilitate their image. They never made it to the church.
The Nationalist Front — an alliance of white nationalist groups including the KKK-affiliated Traditionalist Worker Party, Vanguard America, the neo-Confederate League of the South, and the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement — converged on rural Tennessee for three events throughout the day: a rally in Shelbyville, about 60 miles outside Nashville, a separate rally in Murfreesboro, and a vigil at a church in Antioch. Local news had also reported that police at Middle Tennessee State University warned students of a possible torchlit rally Friday night, but that did not materialize.
The same groups came together with others for the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville in August. During that rally a man who marched with Vanguard America allegedly killed an anti-racist protester with his car and injured 19 others.
In the end, the Murfreesboro rally was replaced with a private picnic, and the vigil never happened.
Brad Griffin, who blogs under the name Hunter Wallace for the white nationalist site Occidental Dissent and helped organize the rally as a member League of the South, told BuzzFeed News that the Nationalist Front had "accomplished everything it set out to do" and that the Shelbyville rally "went great." He traveled from Montgomery, Alabama, to attend.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News prior to the rally, Griffin said one of the goals was to display unity across the Nationalist Front after the groups had spent the past two months out of the public eye weathering the backlash against them over the death in Charlottesvile. He also said they were shifting their strategy to focus on areas like rural Tennessee where they could draw a sympathetic base. They didn't shy away from invoking Charlottesville, however, as they chanted "We don't see Heather Heyer in the crowd!" in Shelbyville.
Griffin argued with people on Twitter in the week leading up to the event about the "optics" of the affair, how it appears in photographs and social media posts seen by people across the country. Another word for it would be "the narrative" — how people perceive how the events went. Rally organizers in Shelbyville were pursuing a new narrative for themselves.
Perception of white nationalism has become a sore spot and the subject of online debate among the alt-right, alt-lite, and their fellow far-right groups since Charlottesville sparked such a widespread backlash against them.
Griffin and other white nationalists, including Unite the Right organizers Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, believe they are not at fault for the violence in Charlottesville. They blame left-wing protesters for starting the violence and the Charlottesville police and city government (particularly outspoken vice mayor Wes Bellamy, who is black) for not stopping it.
Hardcore white nationalists like Griffin believe the "alt-lite," a former faction of the alt-right that has distanced itself from the more openly racist elements of the group, has given up advancing racial politics in favor of looking respectable since Charlottesville.
Griffin, Spencer, and other white nationalists believe that police are obligated to keep protesters separate from white nationalists to protect free speech and prevent violence. They expressed this concern after Charlottesville, alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos's canceled speaking event at the University of California, Berkeley, in February, and other Berkeley clashes in March and April. By contrast, they applauded the forceful police response in Pikeville, Kentucky, in April and in Gainesville, Florida, last week.
About 100 white nationalists — and roughly 200 counterprotesters — gathered in downtown Shelbyville on Saturday morning. Police kept the two sides on opposite sidewalks with metal barricades. Police banned protesters from bringing a laundry list of items, but several white nationalists were allowed in with shields and helmets. Some gave Nazi salutes throughout the event.
Each side spent most of the event trying to shout the other down. Several white nationalist leaders spoke on a range of topics, among them the "degeneracy" of the other side, the promise of a white ethnostate, the perils of globalism to white workers, and their vision for a health care plan.
Anti-racists played party songs and speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., and did their best to roast the other side. One counterprotester who attempted to infiltrate the white nationalist side was arrested after a scuffle.
In a particularly absurd moment, Michael Hill, the leader of League of the South, said over the loud chorus of "La Bamba," "We are the people whose ancestors civilized this nation, and we are the people who will protect it from degenerate whores like you."
Around 1 p.m., the Nationalist Front left, and protesters dispersed soon after. The white nationalists planned to hold a second rally in Murfreesboro.
The city of Murfreesboro had made extensive preparations in anticipation of the rally and counterprotest, including boarding up the windows of businesses on the town square, deploying the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, busing in horses for mounted police, and setting up barricades throughout the square.
But instead of going to Murfreesboro, the Nationalist Front called what seemed like an audible and drove to Henry Horton State Park, 55 miles away, for a picnic near the birthplace of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the KKK. Still, several white nationalists showed up in Murfreesboro, confused about where everyone else had gone. At least one decided the drive wasn't worth it and went home.
Griffin at first made cryptic statements on Twitter about the cancellation and relocation: "Murfreesboro cancelled," one tweet read. Another: "Had some intel Murfreesboro was a lawsuit trap. Wasn't worth the risk."
He later explained, "It took an hour to get through security in Shelbyville. Pushed back lunch. We have nothing to gain in Murfreesboro."
"I would rather hang out with and meet our own people than go engage in some clash with Antifa. We don't need to add to our problems," he wrote to one person taunting him, adding that Murfreesboro was a "backup location."
Just after 3 p.m. in Henry Horton, about 50 White Lives Matter picnickers hastily packed up when BuzzFeed News reporters approached them for interviews, leaving a large fire still burning in the picnic site's fire pit as they departed. Park rangers said the white nationalists were in the park for "around an hour."
BuzzFeed News did speak to one man who identified himself as Harry Hughes, the "master of ceremonies" of the rally in Shelbyville and a member of the Arizona National Socialist Movement. He said NSM members had a good time at the event and finished it by arranging themselves into a human swastika visible to a helicopter circling overhead and giving the Nazi salute to the pilots.
"We didn't do it to send any kind of message," Hughes said. "Just for kicks." When asked about the swastika's obvious associations with the Nazi party, he said it was symbol found "throughout history."
Around 6 p.m., some members of the Nationalist Front gathered at the Home Depot in Antioch, 35 miles from Henry Horton, where they bought tiki torches. According to Griffin, the Nationalist Front planned to hold a "vigil" at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, though he said they "never planned to do anything with torches."
In late September, a Sudanese immigrant named Emanuel Samson opened fire on the mostly white congregation of Burnette Chapel, killing one woman and injuring eight others. The Nationalist Front wanted to bring more attention to the shooting, which it said the national media did not pay attention to, as well as to general refugee resettlement in Tennessee. Speakers in Shelbyville spent little time talking about the attack or refugees.
But by 6:30 p.m., the vigil had also been canceled. Griffin said he and other organizers aborted the event because Louisville Anti-Racist Action, an anti-fascist group, tweeted the location of the gathering and called for its followers to show up and protest.
For antifa, protesting sometimes involves punching their far-right opponents. Griffin said: "The last thing I wanted was a brawl with those idiots in a church parking lot."
Video from late in the evening appears to show white nationalists from the Traditionalist Worker Party in a fight with an interracial couple they allegedly harassed at Corner Pub in Brentwood, Tennessee, according to local news channel Fox 17. Matthew Heimbach, of the Traditionalist Worker Party, told Mic that the white nationalist in the fight wasn't a member of the Nationalist Front and that the black man in the couple started the fight.
The white woman in the couple said white nationalists started the argument by telling her to leave her black boyfriend and join them. She and her boyfriend left the restaurant and were followed, they told Fox 17, sparking a confrontation that ended with her being punched in the face by a man wearing all black. White Lives Matter organizers asked attendees to wear either all black or a white shirt with khaki pants.
Despite the seeming disorganization of the day, Griffin tweeted that he and his fellow protesters had succeeded in changing the perception of their movement. He tweeted about the narrative around Shelbyville, Pikeville, and Charlottesville throughout the day and well into the night.
"No shootings. No arrests. No violence. Triggered leftists. Blew up the Charlottesville narrative," he wrote.
Griffin previously told BuzzFeed News that many white nationalists no longer trust law enforcement after Charlottesville police evicted them from Emancipation Park in August after violence erupted. Charlottesville was also one of the first protests in recent memory where white nationalists physically fought against law enforcement orders.
He echoed the sentiment on Twitter after the event in Shelbyville, saying that Charlottesville would now be compared with two other rallies where law enforcement maintained stringent security and separation between white nationalists and counter protesters.
It's an attempt to shift guilt from white nationalists to Charlottesville police, who hung back even as violence erupted.
"In Shelbyville, we proved Nationalist Front and [the Right Stuff] weren't responsible for the violence in Charlottesville. It was the city that failed," Griffin tweeted on Saturday.
But the violence that followed the rally involving the Traditionalist Worker Party as well as the shots fired at protesters after Spencer's speech in Florida may mar the sympathetic, peaceful image that white nationalists want to cultivate as they tour the country.
BuzzFeed News covered the rally in Shelbyville live:
Blake Montgomery is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Blake Montgomery at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.