After weeks of indecision, I finally decided to make the five hour drive from Evansville to Pikeville, Kentucky, last weekend to attend a neo-Nazi rally. To be real, I didn't totally feel like going. I mean, who wants to spend their weekend listening to arguments in favor of sending gay people and people in mixed race relationships off to re-education camps? It sounded super annoying and it would have been easier to just avoid the whole thing.
But I've been getting more and more concerned lately about the growth of white nationalist movements, all these racist attacks on marginalized groups, and the way the white working class is hitting the streets in support of a billionaire and his fascist policies. Like anybody who's read a few history books, particularly about the growth of fascist movements in Europe in the 1930s, I don't like the way the winds are blowing.
Plus, this shit felt personal given the fact that one of the main groups organizing the event--the Traditionalist Worker Party--has its home base just a few miles up the road in Paoli, Indiana, and its shitbag leader, Matthew Heimbach, has told the media about how he thinks people in Southern Indiana are really open to his dreams of concentration camps and white ethno-states: "Southern Indiana's a natural home for our politics...You have struggling working-class issues; you have the frustration and alienation from Washington insider politics. We need to be where people are being left behind, and I think there are few places that can compete with Kentucky (and) Indiana."
They're targeting us in part because the decline of manufacturing jobs has had a big impact on people in Southern Indiana and Kentucky. In Southeastern Kentucky, the towns around Pikeville have been hemorrhaging people and money since the coal mining industry all but collapsed there. The "Friends of Coal" stickers I saw on cars, businesses and homes in that area seemed to me a desperate attempt to bring back the past. The capitalist economy has globalized and most of the things we use are now produced other places. The available jobs are now largely in the service industry which doesn't offer us the stability, pride or union wages that our fathers and grandfathers (and to some lesser extent our mothers and grandmothers too) found in their jobs.
My reading of history tells me that moments like this can be volatile, with the hard winds of powerful social movements blowing one way or the other. I like to dream that these moments of economic instability could lead to working class people building up our own shit and taking care of each other without bosses and cops, but unfortunately that's not the way it tends to go.
I've been reading lately about how the Klan was able to establish itself as a huge social, political and economic force in Indiana in the 20s. In large part because of a moment of economic instability similar in some ways to this one. Indiana was industrializing and urbanizing fast, with the shift from a majority rural population to a majority urban one happening in just thirty years. This rapid shift was destabilizing the balance of people's lives and shifting power into the hands of a small group of wealthy industrialists.
This left a huge population of frustrated, alienated white people feeling powerless and looking for someone to blame. And instead of blaming the industrial and political elites who were in power, they targeted minority groups--particularly Roman Catholics, but also Jews, Black people and others. At its height in 1924, a third of all white men in Indiana were Klan members, as well as many women and children.
This is a story that has repeated itself over and over again throughout history. It's the same sort of tension that existed in Germany and Italy in the 1930s that made those countries fertile ground for the growth of fascism there. Again and again, we look for someone to blame for our problems, and instead of blaming those who hold power, we punch down.
The economic shifts we are now experiencing are producing the same results in working class white people, and we are again looking for someone to blame. Racists like Heimbach are hoping that we will follow him in blaming Jews, people of color, gay people, immigrants, etc. (They also want women to return to their roles as house-keeping baby factories--no wonder their presence in Pikeville was about 95% male).
I am familiar with this attitude because in some parts of my working class family, negative generalizations about racial groups are deeply ingrained. Many people in my family got caught up in this cycle of blaming racial minorities for their problems; my father even started wearing a swastika pin on the lapel of his biker jacket at some point. The illusion of racial superiority is powerful, particular to those who otherwise feel powerless.
With all this in mind I decided to stop binge watching New Girl, do the dishes and drive my ass to Pikeville. I figured that when they're marching my friends off to concentration camps, I didn't want to remember that I'd been day drinking three dollar Aldi wine in bed with a computer on my lap while the fascists were recruiting in a little town in Kentucky.
Pulling into a mostly-deserted downtown Pikeville, I got pretty nervous when everyone I saw getting out of their car was a huge white dude with a pistol on his hip. I was entering a war zone in which the sides were not yet clearly delineated. But I tried not to fall into the typical bullshit mindset of assuming all working class white men are racists. Throughout the day, I would be repeatedly surprised at what side people ended up being on in the screaming matches that ensued, and I was happy to find that you cannot tell whether someone is a racist by looking at them.
Unless of course they have a huge swastika tattooed on the back of one elbow and SS bolts on the other. Now, I'm no expert in identifying Nazi tattoos (like a Jewish friend of mine recently pointed out to me, I've only very recently started worrying about Nazis, perhaps in part because I've never really felt they were a threat to me), but walking up to the Pike County Courthouse where the rally was to be held, there was no question in my mind that the man walking ten feet in front of me with a pistol tucked in his waistline and emblazoned elbows was a Nazi who would be perfectly happy to rid the Earth of my degeneracy given the right circumstances.
Luckily I made it to the courthouse without mishap at around 1:40 p.m., where I found a crowd of about a hundred anti-fascists gathered already screaming at a small crowd of white nationalists who I later found out were members of the League of the South who hadn't gotten the memo that the majority of their people were going to show up over an hour late.
The day dragged on, the fascists showed up (the National Socialist Movement, the Traditionalist Worker Party and other groups) and the two sides screamed at each other in the 90-some degree heat as we all slowly got sunburned and dehydrated. Media reports vary in their estimation of the numbers on both sides, but to me it looked like the counter demonstration outnumbered the Nazis by about 50 or so. This doesn't count the 30 or 40 locals loosely gathered watching the spectacle from the edges of the crowd.
I talked to a slightly drunk guy who was circulating through the crowd opposing the Nazis, starting conversations with anyone who would pay attention to him. He had a tear drop tattoo in the corner of one eye and told me he'd been in the Aryan Brotherhood while in prison. He said he stayed in the group after he got out of prison but then started questioning the group's stance on homosexuality when a guy he thought was "pretty cute" started texting him. They hung out, got drunk and "he ended up sucking my dick" he told me. After that, he decided to leave the group.
I talked to another local, a slight woman of about 60, who was leaning against the wall in the shade behind the line of people screaming at the Nazis, watching the two sides clash. "God doesn't want it to be this way," she told me. "God made all people, I don't care if you're Black, white, Mexican or whatever you are, God made us all equal in His eyes."
She seemed slightly perplexed by the whole event. "What are they supposed to be, Nazis?" she asked me genuinely.
Some locals took a more confrontational stance. One working class lady in gold hoops, torn jeans and a top knot held a sign made by one of the antifa (anti-fascist) groups with a picture of Adolf Hitler shooting himself in the head and a caption that read "Follow Your Leader." She screamed herself red in the face, imploring the Nazis to suicide. Various other local redneck kids and University of Pikeville students joined in the confrontation, while others milled about on the fringes of the counter-demonstration--joking with their friends and shaking their heads, obviously disgusted by the Nazis.
These people were largely erased by media accounts of the event, which homogenized the oppositional side as out-of-town antifa. I don't know exactly who was who, but if I had to guess, I'd say that about 25% of those actively opposing the Nazis were from the area.
Still, a lot of the people there making sure the Nazis didn't get a platform to spread their ideas were not just everyday people who hated fascism, but were part of the antifa movement/subculture. With their roots in the German Autonomous movements of the 80's, antifa groups were common throughout the U.S. in the 90s and have again begun to proliferate to confront the rise of the white nationalist movement that has been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump.
Although I deeply appreciate the efforts of these groups and their dedication to confronting Nazis, particularly all their work in coordinating jail support and medics for the Pikeville event, I think the fact that antifa groups remain necessary for white nationalists to be confronted and boo-ed out of town shows that opposition to fascism in this country is still weaker than it needs to be.
Here's a story I read about in the news: On August 26, 2016, three KKK members showed up in the small town of Winchester, Indiana (population 4,935) and stood on a street corner downtown handing out recruitment fliers. Someone pulled out their phone and started streaming them on Facebook and in short time, a large crowd of locals had emerged from their houses and surrounded the Klan. They chanted "leave our town" and shouted threats at the three Klansmen. Eventually, the crowd became so heated that local police told the Klansmen they had to leave because they couldn't ensure their safety. As the police escorted the Klan back to their cars, the crowd followed chanting, and cheering as the Klansmen drove off.
I'm inspired by stories like these, and I would like to see such spontaneous, mass rejections of fascist politics become the primary method by which Nazis are confronted. If that were the case, antifa groups could focus on the more necessarily specialized tasks of tracking and doxing Nazis, coordinating complex logistical roles like legal support and medics, and educating people about white nationalist groups and methods of confronting them.
When Nazis are gathering somewhere, it isn't necessary to organize ourselves like some kind of secret society and show up as a unified confrontational force. Everyone within a hundred mile radius who is concerned about the rise of fascism could just get with a couple friends and show up at the time and place of the rally, ready to scream the Nazis out of town.
Until that starts happening more consistently, those of us who do show up can work to organize the opposition in such a way that it's inviting to as many people as possible, and we can work to spread the idea that Nazis need to be confronted and drowned out by a larger, louder crowd every time they gather. Otherwise, we risk devolving into a private cage match between militarized Nazis and militarized antifa--a tactical and cultural sink hole I'd rather not see us drown in.
One of the major risks of inviting this cage match is that it prematurely escalates the conflict to a level that risks scaring off the majority of people. When one section of the population splinters off and forges ahead, escalating their tactics without bringing large sections of the population along, they risk finding themselves alone.
In Pikeville this weekend, local groups had planned an event in opposition to the Nazi rally. Their event was to occur on the other side of town and to be a celebration of "equality and American values." The flier for the rally invited attendees to bring photos of their family members who had died fighting against fascism in World War II. In response to "previously unforeseen credible threats to the safety of our attendees and our community," organizers ended up cancelling the event. This followed shortly after the city issued a ban on masks and hoods, saying it was responding to "online rumors that counter-protest groups could be coming into town with the intention of inciting riots."
I don't know all the specific reasons why those who organized the event decided to cancel it, but it seems possible that the fear of a violent clash between two mysterious out-of-town groups might have had something to do with it. Pikeville's elected officials are largely to blame for sowing this fear and distrust, but I wonder if there's anything that could have been done to prevent it. Although the "Rally for Equality and American Values" was not intending to be a confrontational opposition to the Nazi rally, I think that their event, had it taken place, would still have been a contribution to an overall effort of opposing the growth of the far right.
It might be that there's little that can be done to keep from scaring off groups like the ones who planned the "Rally for Equality and American Values," but I think it's important that those of us who want to keep Nazis from having a platform do so in a way that makes this work as inviting to others as possible. Then from there we can slowly escalate our confrontations to the level that the circumstances allow. If we can do this, we may be able to slowly build to a point where hundreds or even thousands turn out and confront fascists directly and spontaneously in a way that far surpasses our current limitations.
I think it's inspiring that even despite the fear-mongering of Pikeville's elected officials, so many locals still showed up and stood on the front lines, making it clear to the Nazis that they were not welcome in their town.
Toward the end of the rally, a conflict between a few such locals and a few specific Nazis who had been shouting insults at each other across the barricades grew increasingly heated. One local jumped the police barricade and approached the fascist line and then another followed. Then a Nazi jumped into the street. For a moment, it appeared that the 30 or so police were too incompetent or ill-trained to contain these two groups and that a few further escalations could have led to an all-out brawl (or a blood bath given the number of guns on both sides). Only later did we find out that about fifty riot cops were waiting in the air conditioned Pike County Courthouse, although I'm certain they wouldn't have arrived in time to prevent a violent clash had both sides decided to push for one.
After maybe an hour and a half of militant posturing, speeches about the "white race," and insults directed against the counter-demonstrators, the Nazis took a group photo and walked back to their cars with a police escort. The crowd followed them down the street and stood across from the parking lot where they'd parked. The taunts continued. In the parking lot, Traditionalist Worker Party leader Matthew Heimbach was served a criminal summons for charges related his assault on a Black woman at a Trump rally in Louisville in March, 2016. As the Nazis drove out of town, some say one of them fired a shot, others say they threw a concussion grenade of some sort. I thought their truck had backfired.
Overall, I felt like this weekend was a success. Instead of speechifying to a crowd of supporters or even a crowd of interested locals, the Nazis directed their attention largely at us. We kept them on the defensive, hurling insults at us instead of carefully explaining their goals and ideas to disenfranchised white working class people, some of whom may have been won over.
Getting back to Evansville, I'm glad I dragged myself out of bed this weekend. And I'm thinking about ways that I can confront the spread of white nationalism without leaving Evansville. My neighbors and I have real material problems that the economy is putting on us, and I'm thinking about ways we can solve those together. Maybe if we are busy doing that, people in my neighborhood will feel less compelled to blame other marginalized groups for our problems. That way when the haters show up here, we'll be ready for them.