SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. — Businesses along downtown’s main stretch have shuttered until Monday. Police officers have been told they’ll be working this weekend. They’re all anxiously holding their breath.
Two Saturday rallies called by white supremacist groups have prompted a wave of worry in this Tennessee town about an hour south of Nashville. Chief among the concerns is that the gatherings will bring bands of violent racists, like those who killed a woman at a similar rally this summer in Charlottesville, or the ones who opened fire at counterprotesters last week in Gainesville, Fla.
And it’s not just the locals. Organizers of the “White Lives Matter” rally are worried, too.
“The world has completely changed since Trump was elected. The streets are incredibly more violent. There is a threat level that didn’t exist before,” said Brad Griffin, 36, a member of the League of the South, a Southern secessionist group that has organized this weekend’s events in Shelbyville and nearby Murfreesboro. “It used to be just us and these peaceful liberals out there yelling at each other.”
While it was once unremarkable for a rural Southern town like this to host a gathering of white supremacists, even event organizers now wonder if it’s possible to keep such rallies peaceful.
Griffin’s group, which has urged attendees not to bring guns, decided earlier this year they wanted to return to Middle Tennessee after holding similar rallies in 2013, when about 75 members in khaki shorts carried cardboard signs and held a picnic lunch.
“I knew the guy organizing the counterprotest,” Griffin, who lives near Montgomery, Ala., recalled of the 2013 event. “It’s not like we were going to go out there and start physically fighting each other.”
Now, Griffin says he worries that these rallies — aimed at attracting new supporters in towns where the white supremacists believe some residents are likely to be sympathetic to the politics of white grievance — are destined to devolve into violence. Griffin said he’s participated in about 30 rallies in recent years. The only ones that turned violent have been this year.
The fear of “antifa” has pushed the groups rallying this weekend to seek strength in numbers, Griffin said, and hold joint events with other strands of white supremacists. Antifa is a black-mask-wearing group of left-wing anarchists, socialists and communists who organize against racial and class oppression and are known to violently disrupt right-wing rallies and demonstrations.
This weekend’s rallies will include some familiar faces from Charlottesville: the Nationalist Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group; the Traditionalist Worker Party, which wants a separate white ethno-state; Anti-Communist Action, a right-wing group that believes America is being threatened by “communists” — a label they apply liberally; and Vanguard America, a white supremacist group that believes America is inherently a white nation and that identity must be preserved.
The spectrum of rhetoric, stated goals and stated identities can be confusing. Carla Hill, an expert on extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, said the most basic way of understanding the gathering is: “They’re all white supremacists.”
Many of the groups reject that term. And they insist they’re nonviolent.
“We do not expect the White Lives Matter rallies in Shelbyville or Murfreesboro to become another Charlottesville. That’s not in our interest,” Griffin wrote in a blog post advertising the event. The post also asked participants not to bring any weapons, to avoid clashes with antifa counterprotesters and to dress well.
“Come to the White Lives Matter rallies to make a good impression,” the post read.
The white supremacists say their aim is to attract recruits by capitalizing on local white frustration over joblessness, immigration and the recent shooting of churchgoers in nearby Antioch by a black man who is a former refugee.
“I think local concerns about changing demographics and the downward economy hasn’t fundamentally changed. So I do think there are a lot of individuals who feel like they’re being denied basic representation,” said Matthew Heimbach, who runs the Traditionalist Worker Party.
Middle Tennessee has seen racist and white supremacist rallies before. The Ku Klux Klan got its start here in the town of Pulaski in 1865. A building on the Middle Tennessee State University campus in Murfreesboro is still named for a Klan member.
“They didn’t just draw Shelbyville out of a hat,” said David Clark, 64, who has lived in this town for all of his life and remembers his grandfather telling him of how the Klan once attempted to recruit him in the 1920s.
But Clark, like many of the residents here, fears that white supremacist forces have been empowered by the Trump presidency and are more likely to turn violent and destructive. He and other residents, calling themselves “Shelbyville Loves” have been holding vigils, prayer services and counter-protests each day for the past two weeks. On Saturday, they’ll hold a community picnic three blocks away from the planned rally.
“A year ago, I don’t know that any of us would have given it the time of day,” said Clark, who works as the janitor at a local elementary school.
“This stuff has been, regrettably, been going on here for 100 years,” he said. “It used to be just a bunch of rednecks in robes who would show their rear end and then leave. Now they’re well-organized and well-funded. Now they’re a real scary bunch.”
Recent years have seen sporadic bursts anti-Muslim activism in response to a growing refugee and immigrant community, much of it focused on the construction of a new mosque in Murfreesboro seven years ago.
“It’s a culture down here,” said Corey Lemley, a 27-year-old antifa activist in Nashville, who traveled to Charlottesville to protest the white supremacists and plans to do the same Saturday.
“You have to expect that locals, especially in your more rural areas and suburban areas, will definitely want to partake” in the rallies, Lemley said. “Even the ones that might not say that they support the Nazis but they support free speech — the ones that will try to blend in and pretend they’re not with the white nationalist movement. I’m expecting quite a bit of those.”
Griffin, who was present in Charlottesville and at several campus speeches by white supremacist Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulous that resulted in violence, said trouble often starts when some at the rally get separated from the main group and then are confronted by counterprotesters. The plan this weekend is to make sure the entire group sticks together, moving as one from the Shelbyville rally in the morning to a picnic lunch and then the Murfreesboro rally in the afternoon. Still, Griffin concedes, it’s unclear if things will go according to plan.
“A lot of these people come from the Internet,” Griffin admits. “Some of these are people who none of us know in real life, who show up with guns and shields. There’s a volatile element there that we can’t always control.”