Chattanooga gives neo-nazis the cold clown shoulder
The din on the east side of the street was enough to drown out the speeches on the west side. There, behind rows upon rows of fencing, the crowd was a hodgepodge of people in clown suits, clergy collars, hipster hair dos and Jewish stars. They screamed obscenities and whispered prayers.
The flags of the National Socialist Movement waved on the courthouse lawn above the protesters. The group was celebrating its 40th anniversary by exercising its First Amendment rights to hold a demonstration and share its views.
The counter-protesters were there to show the out-of-towners that this city was different. Chattanooga was no longer the city of Jim Crowism. According to them, this city was not going to stand the open display of racism, the celebration of white power and Adolf Hitler.
The police had separated everybody. To get at the NSM, a counter-protester would have to cross a fence, the street, walk over a blocked-off sidewalk, climb the retaining wall around the courthouse, cross another fence and deal with scores of officers before they could even stand face to face with their opponents.
That was the assumption. But into the mix, four men in leather biker jackets marched single file. The backs of their jackets read “Soul Survivor Brotherhood.” The jackets had smaller patches, a black swastika on a red background, the SS insignia. The last biker had a sheath knife strapped to his thigh.
They walked straight toward the tightest and loudest knot of protesters.
Give them what they want?
Several groups tried to tell people to stay away from the Nazi protest.
The NAACP of Chattanooga issued a statement, written by President James Mapp, recommending non-confrontation. “If the unfortunate circumstance arises that members of the community do cross paths with this or like-minded groups,” the statement said, “we urge you to immediately contact an appropriate member of law enforcement so that it may be documented at once.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center habitually recommends that people dealing with hate groups divert attention from the group and create a separate event in a totally different part of the city that celebrates, perhaps, diversity.
Mark Potok, senior fellow at the SPLC, said NSM protests usually involve 30 to 40 participants, surrounded by 200 police officers, surrounded by 1,500 anti-racist protesters. “They love these confrontations,” Potok said. The textbook incident happened in 2005. NSM members showed up in Toledo, Ohio, and protested in an inner-city neighborhood. With the counter-protesters watching, NSM stood behind riot police and “yelled things that can’t be printed in a newspaper,” said Potok.
They whipped the counter-protesters into such a furor that a riot broke out. A police car was burned. Hundreds were arrested. And the “Nazis”? The police placed them on a bus and whisked them away. Not a single member was arrested—an utter victory for NSM, according to Potok.
The number of hate groups in the United States is at “historic levels,” Potok said. Every year, the SPLC releases its hate map, intelligence of what hate groups are operating in the country. In Chattanooga, the Aryan Brotherhood and Nation of Islam, a black supremacist group, are on the list. The SPLC looks for activity in the last calendar year. Did the group sell books? Host a rally? Run afoul of the law? In Nation of Islam’s case, they continue to operate a mosque in the city, Potok said.
Chattanooga has had its share of racial violence. On March 19, 1906, a group of 25 men lynched Ed Johnson on the second span of the Walnut Street Bridge. According to newspaper accounts of that day, Johnston was charged with raping a white girl who lived in St. Elmo. His execution was stayed, so men with handkerchiefs covering their faces broke into jail. When the attempt to hang Johnson failed, the lynchers riddled his body with bullets.
Violence broke out again when Joseph Paul Franklin came to the city to bomb a Jewish synagogue in 1977. Franklin was a white supremacist so radical, according to the FBI, that other white supremacists kicked him out of their groups. He killed because he wanted to inspire other white supremacists to do the same. Franklin went on to murder more than 15 people in racially motivated crimes. Last year, on Nov. 11, Franklin was executed for the murder of a man in Missouri.
But the people standing on the sidewalk were ignoring the advice of the NAACP and the SPLC.
Chris “loudmouth” Irwin walked around the Hamilton County Courthouse wearing a suit and a camouflage boonie hat. He held up a white sign that said “FOLLOW YOUR LEADER” with a picture of Adolf Hitler blowing his brains out.
Irwin said he’s there because he’s an American citizen. A Knoxville native, he believes the best way to combat the Nazis is to stage a stronger counter-protest. The power of the Nazis must be matched with power. “They love it when people don’t show,” he said.
The SPLC’s advice is a “proven failed tactic,” and Rev. Jesse Jackson and the rest need to study their history, he said.
“If you want them to come back, don’t confront them,” Irwin said. Read their blogs, their forums on Stormfront.org (a website that breeds domestic terrorism, according to the SPLC) and they hate when they are matched with a strong counter-protest that drowns them out, he believes.
And so during the protest, he shouted down the Nazis through a microphone. “They excel at violence, suck at ideas,” he said. When riled, he’s seen the Nazis cry or get flustered and start proclaiming their whitewashed message, spouting racially offensive remarks.
Lisa Wiley stands on the frontline holding a small canvas with the words “No H8” painted on it. She’s here to combat hate because “Nazis hate everybody that doesn’t fit into their happy bubble.”
She feels bad for the protesters and thinks, “We should combat hate with love and acceptance.” Hate, she says, could result because they are raised in a certain way. But she too thinks the city needed to go out and confront the group. “I don’t know how they could know how much we don’t want them here if we don’t show up.”
Her boyfriend, James Eden, is also curious about the NSM’s message. The protesters do a good job keeping the noise up, drowning out their speeches—also a First Amendment right. But what about a dialogue?
“I didn’t like that I couldn’t hear them and make this decision for myself,” he said.
In the words of the NSM
The day before the rally, spokesman for the National Socialist Movement Brian Culpeper said the rally would be like their others—orderly, no racial slurs on the podium. “We will be discussing border security, rebuilding America’s sovereign economy, veterans’ affairs, protecting American jobs and promoting and defending our predominately Christian cultural heritage,” he said.
Culpepper said the left wing drums up sensationalism and conducts scare tactics to “discourage people from hearing our message.”
He described himself as “a recovering Republican,” who has been politically active since he was 18. The policies of then-President George Bush eight years ago made him leave the party. He works a 9-to-5 job, is building a house, and is local to the area.
“We’re full-time workers and part-time political activists,” he said. Culpepper describes NSM as a grassroots and political organization. Ultimately, NSM would like a white congressional caucus in the U.S. Congress, similar to that of the Latino and black caucuses. As for SPLC labeling NSM a hate group, “They’re race hustlers, plain and simple. Ditto for Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson,” he said. Civil rights are for everyone, he said, and their interest is only for black America.
NSM worries about racial violence, flash-mob attacks, and gang rapes. “These attacks should be termed sectarian violence or even incidents of tribal warfare,” Culpepper said, labeled in the same way as the genocide in Rwanda and the conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The races, NSM alleges, cannot coexist. They predict the nation will topple into a second civil war. “We’re, unfortunately, the bearers of bad tidings,” he said.
According to Culpepper, NSM believes the way to stop this scenario is, “Geographic separation—that is the only answer,” with blacks going to Africa, Asians back to Asia and mixed races back to the Middle East.
Still keeping eyes on the prize
For prominent civil-rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, this kind of hatespeak is only the expression of fear. Race relations in the South have been steadily improving since the ’60s when Jim Crow laws ruled. “There is still resistance,” he said, “but the fact is that we can use any hotel, motel, public park or library. It’s better. We can go to a ball game together.”
Jackson was in Chattanooga for a rally the day before the protest, as a way to take attention off the NSM. “There is an undercurrent of fear trying to go backwards,” Jackson said. “But what’s so irrational about those full of fear is that the new privileges that they now have came from the civil rights movement.”
Under “the Cotton Curtain”, Jackson said, Chattanooga would not have its auto plant, its progress, and its success. Chattanooga has changed. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, riots broke out, and hundreds were arrested in the city. At that time, people were in “self-destruction, of anger and fear, hurt,” Jackson said. He visited the city to talk to community leaders, to try to bring calm.
This time Jackson did not come because he worried rioting and violence would happen. He came to stand with a unified group of pastors, “to solidify a plan of action for continuous fight for jobs and justice, for healthcare and education.”
Not with a bang, but a whimper
At the protest, the bikers walked through the crowd the first time without incident, only pausing to shake the hand of one of the observers. A few minutes later, they returned. They saw another man they knew, standing close and behind some of the most energetic protesters. One of the bikers greeted him with a hug. They stood together in a small knot, their backs to the rest of the crowd.
One protester noticed their presence, then another and another. NSM was distant and now forgotten. The enemy was here, in their midst. A ring formed while police slid between the two groups. One protester in pink hair shouted at the bikers, his two middle fingers inches from their backs. The bikers shouted nothing back.
The police escorted the bikers down the street.
By 4 p.m., the NSM members were done with their protest. One last “Sig Heil” and their flags dipped. For 90 minutes, the counter-protesters had drowned out them out.
There was no direct confrontation between the two groups, no punches thrown, no bloodshed. Racism may have hissed. Brotherhood roared back.