Police, businesses and residents feared a white supremacist rally and the expected left-wing response Saturday would spark violence in the small town of Pikeville, Kentucky, but clashes between opposing sides were limited to yelling matches.
The demonstrations of the far left and right, merging in the town with a population of 7,038 kept the town under lockdown in anticipation of violence.
The rally, organized by Neo-Nazi groups National Socialist Movement, the Traditionalist Workers Party, and the National Front was scheduled for 2 p.m. ET Saturday. Left-wing groups from across the South assembled a militant response.
Both the far left and the far right issued calls online to gather in Pikeville and oppose the enemy with force.
In the end, clashes between the two groups seemed to be limited to yelling profanity against opposite sides while local and state police maintained a heavy presence.
Pikeville Police Chief Chris Edmonds told BuzzFeed News two people were arrested during the protests under charges that included disorderly conduct, public intoxication and making threats.
Anarchist activist Lacy Macauley said that she expected a large number of militant Leftist activists — who identify as anarchist "antifa," short for anti-fascists — to travel to Pikeville.
Kentucky is an Open Carry state, which elevated the possibility of lethal violence above that of gun-shy Berkeley, California, where similar clashes have taken place.
Macauley said that many leftists were keeping guns in the trunks of their cars (though she was not, she said) because they expect the other side to be doing the same.
"I’m hoping that we all make it. We’re all very worried," she said. "If I owned a bulletproof vest, I’d be wearing it. I’ve got a megaphone and a flag with a sturdy pole."
The protests generated a large police presence in Pikeville, where law enforcement erected barriers to keep the opposing sides separated.
Officers also showed up in riot gear in anticipation of potential violence between the groups.
The Lexington Herald Leader reported about 125 white nationalists were on hand Saturday, many of them dressed in black and waving American and Confederate flags while giving the Nazi salute.
About 150 counter-protesters also showed up, the paper reported.
No violence was reported, the paper said.
Pikeville Police officials told BuzzFeed News information about arrests was not immediately available.
Though the Far Right and Far Left have clashed repeatedly in Berkeley, California, and in Washington, the forces coming together in Pikeville signal an expansion of the violent culture wars enflamed by Donald Trump's election beyond universities and liberal towns into deeply conservative counties (Pike county voted 80% for Trump).
The key players are also different than those who clashed in Berkeley or Washington.
The groups that organized the original gathering are old guard white supremacists, more akin to the Ku Klux Klan than the so-called alt-right, the loose online coalition of white nationalists, libertarians, and internet trolls that support Donald Trump. The National Socialist Movement, National Front, and Traditionalist Workers Party openly and collectively campaign for white power. By contrast, many within the alt-right balk at the generalization that everyone within the movement is a white nationalist, though prominent individuals like Richard Spencer are avowedly so.
Similarly, the Leftists converging on Pikeville are different from those in Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay Area, where radical movements have flourished since the 1960s and where the populace at large leans left.
According to Macauley, those in Pikeville are antifa from across the South — liberal enclaves like Asheville, North Carlina, or Atlanta, and from rural areas — where there are noticeably fewer people on the Far Left than in Berkeley.
Macauley herself drove to Pikeville from Washington, DC. She said that groups she's affiliated with saw a spike in membership after the election and the inauguration because more people than ever before "felt the call to rise up against this tide of white supremacy that’s been rising in this country."
To Macauley and to a number of her antifa comrades, the protest in Pikeville is symbolic because it will be one of the first major confrontations in the South, a place where extremist groups like the KKK have long held sway and where the majority of people voted for Donald Trump. The KKK and other hate groups have been emboldened by Trump's election in some places in the South.
Pikeville is scrambling to adjust to its newfound place in the culture wars and prevent violence on Saturday.
According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the city banned masks for the day, likely to counteract Black Bloc protesting tactics. Businesses downtown closed for the day. An event organized to counter the white supremacist rally, the Rally for Equality for American Values, was canceled over fears of violence. The Kentucky State Police was also on hand to reinforce local law enforcement, and the Kentucky National Guard was briefed about the possible clash as well, according to the newspaper.
The University of Pikeville also shut down for the day to keep students safe. The school's president has told students to leave town. He opened a warning letter by saying, "Usually, Pikeville is a quiet and safe town in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. This weekend could be different. Very different." A state senator representing the area has also advised his constituents to avoid downtown, the Courier-Journal reported.
Even the neighboring town of Coal Run, less than five miles away, advised citizens to avoid their own downtown. Many Coal Run businesses were closed Saturday. "There's certainly anxiety in the air," Coal Run Mayor Andrew H. Scott told BuzzFeed News. "It's gonna be a long day.
In a last ditch effort to maintain calm, the Twitter account Pikeville Project, @MMPikeville, sent out several desperate messages on Friday imploring residents, ralliers, and protesters to keep the peace, using the hashtag #PrayersForPikeville
Blake Montgomery is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Blake Montgomery at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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