SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. — Crowds of protesters began gathering at 8 a.m. on a cold, cloudy Saturday. They’d come to see Nazis. But, two hours later, there were still none.
Around 10:30 a.m., one of the organizers of the counterprotest grabbed a microphone and began taunting the handful of rallygoers who had just shown up across the street.
“Some master race,” he snickered. “Can’t even show up on time.”
Local residents and leaders spent most of the week anxiously wondering how many would travel the rural highway that snakes south from Nashville over Christmas Creek into Shelbyville for a “White Lives Matter” rally planned by several national white supremacist groups.
Such rallies have turned violent, even deadly, in recent months, sparking fears that the Shelbyville gathering could as well. Once the white supremacists showed up — the rally started about an hour late — there was yelling, but no violence.
Rally organizers had anticipated about 175 people, while Tennessee’s racial justice and liberal groups were unsure of how many of their members would attend. Ultimately it appeared that about 300 people attended — about 100 “White Lives Matter” attendees and twice as many counterprotesters.
An elaborate set of police barricades kept the white supremacists and protesters on opposite sides of the street. Police formed a line between the groups, as other officers with large weapons perched on nearby rooftops.
“This right here is what it’s all about!” declared Scott Lacey, who has spoken at White Lives Matter rallies across the country. “It’s all about the color of our skin!”
Organizers included the National 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; and Vanguard America, a white supremacist group that believes America is inherently a white nation that must be preserved. This rally, they said, was specifically about immigration and refugee policies.
The plan was for speakers to address the assembled white supremacists, some of whom carried shields and Confederate flags, before the group would depart to nearby Murfreesboro for another rally.
At moments, the rally speakers spouted verbose diatribes about a “genocide” they claim is being perpetrated against “the white race” and “white Southern culture.” At other times, the speeches seemed to be a grab-bag of talking points. One speaker complained that black Americans often say the n-word, but when he does, people are offended. The speaker after him railed against Black History Month.
“What about me? Me and my children have a right to exist,” screamed another speaker, his voice cracking as it wailed into a microphone. “White lives matter!”
Local residents spent two weeks preparing their opposition to the rally, holding vigils and prayer services and practicing their chants.
“We don’t want these people here, trying to recruit our neighbors to this disgusting cause,” said David Clark, who helped organize Shelbyville LOVES, the primary counterprotest group.
Throughout the morning, the counterprotest oscillated between mocking the rally and drowning it out with music. At various points, they played the “Ghostbusters” song, Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” and the theme song to “Jeopardy.” When the rally’s speakers tried to address the crowd they were drown out by “black lives matter” chants. In between speakers, organizers teased the white supremacists.
“Yo, Nazis!” a counterprotester with a megaphone shouted. “How does it feel knowing your daughters are probably all at home listening to rap music and hanging out with their black boyfriends right now?”
“It was an effective show of force,” said Kubby Barry, 39, who traveled from nearby DeKalb County with her roommate and sheepdog, Molly, who wore a sign that declared “farm dogs against fascism.”
“It was important to show up and show people that we don’t stand for their message,” Barry said.
Promptly at 1 p.m., the assembled ralliers bowed their heads in prayer and, after being told that boxed lunches were available on the bus, departed.
In Murfreesboro, about 20 minutes away, a second set of counterprotesters lined the roadway, ready to challenge attendees of the second rally. But the rally didn’t happen; the bus of white supremacists never showed up.