On August 12, white supremacists, Southern nationalists and other groups under the “alt-right” banner fought anti-fascists and protesters in the streets of Charlottesville, traumatizing a city and leaving three people dead.
Left unchecked by law enforcement, the violence boiled out of control, culminating when James Fields allegedly crashed a car into a crowd of protesters, killing Heather Heyer and wounding others.
The events of Charlottesville serve as a warning for law enforcement and community leaders about the potential results of what has become an increasingly common sight: White supremacists, neo-Confederates, or others plan a demonstration or of gathering, with anti-fascists (or antifa) and protesters then amassing to oppose them.
The challenge is all the starker for small towns and rural counties, which don’t have the funding and resources of their urban counterparts. Yet they’re still responsible for balancing freedom of speech and public safety in a way that allows people to voice their convictions without violence.
So far in 2017, white supremacy or neo-Confederate groups have staged events in small towns and rural areas throughout the South. More events are likely to come. White supremacists have shown a penchant for trying to recruit in these areas. They’re also drawn to Confederate symbols, and small towns and crossroads across the South have statues or monuments to those who fought in the conflict. Despite the disparity in resources, none of these events has erupted into Charlottesville-scale violence.
The response by Charlottesville’s police has become the subject of a lawsuit alleging that its non-intervention significantly contributed to the violence. The city government also has been criticized for poor communication and the city manager’s decision to go on vacation just before the event.
These events in rural America, especially in the South, predate Charlottesville. In April, the Traditionalist Worker Party staged a rally in Pikeville, Kentucky, a town of about 6,900 in a county of 65,000 along the state’s border with West Virginia. The group was joined by others such as the League of the South. Antifa groups gathered to protest, and the Oath Keepers, a militia group of current and former military and police who say they are unaffiliated with either side, showed up as well.
In Tennessee, white supremacists have gathered in state parks for several years running. In late September, groups affiliated with white supremacy website Stormfront met at a lodge in Cumberland Mountain State Park, a little south of Crossville, a town of 11,000 in a county of 56,000, on the Cumberland Plateau. The supremacists were met by protesters who amassed nearby and shouted at them throughout the weekend.
Tension similarly rose this year around the third annual running of Confederate battle flags on a circuit that wound up in Floyd, Virginia, a town of 425 residents in the southwest part of the state. The event, started in August of 2015 as a response to the removal of rebel flags from Amazon, Walmart, and other retailers, was different this year in that the riders wanted to congregate around a Confederate statue in front of the courthouse at the center of town. As word spread, protesters started organizing a response.
In many ways, these rural rallies and meetings fit the profile for how white supremacy and neo-Confederate groups have operated in the past, said Ryan Lenz, senior writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project and editor of its Hatewatch blog. However, the strategy has changed in 2017, with the groups expanding their targets to include larger cities.
“Increasingly, in era of Donald Trump, these rallies are being held in large areas where the hope is to ultimately trigger a response from protesters in the anti fascist movement and others,” Lenz said. “No part of the country, rural or urban, is being spared from an effort of the alt-right to put racist and hate ideologies in front of everyone’s faces. The hope is they can capitalize on this Trump moment to take these ideologies out of the shadows forever.”
There’s no unifying strategy in the disparate alt-right movement, which consists of a wide variety of groups that embrace a mix of racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and populism. Overall, though, there’s a two-fold approach: Show up in rural areas to recruit, and hit larger cities to provoke outrage and media coverage, Lenz said. The Pikeville rally, for instance, was part of the Traditionalist Workers Party’s efforts to build support in rural areas in the eastern Midwest and northern South.
When these demonstrations or gatherings are announced, community leaders, especially those in law enforcement, are faced with the challenge of balancing the right to free speech—for both the organizers and for those opposing them—with public safety.
Here are a few lessons learned by those who have had to manage white supremacist and neo-Confederate gatherings in rural communities in 2017.
1) Get informed.
When the Pikeville rally was announced in February, local officials scrambled to learn more.
“Shortly after it was scheduled, we started obtaining information about what the event was about, who would be attending,” said Pikeville Commissioner of Public Safety Phillip Reed. “We were learning ourselves for the first time, because an event like that had never happened in our town.”
In Tennessee, white nationalists have made a habit of using state parks for gatherings. They usually rent a facility, which sometimes—but not always—gives officials there a heads-up about the gathering. “Sometimes they’re hit and miss and we’re not always aware until they’re there,” said Mike Robertson, director of operations for Tennessee State Parks.
Similarly, protesters have had to apply for permits, Robertson said, which gives officials the chance to station them near the group they are protesting, but far enough away to minimize physical conflict.
Robertson said the parks have a mandate to provide access to public lands, as well as to provide opportunities for free speech. State parks have managed that tension for years. One group in particular, American Renaissance, which according to the SPLC “promotes pseudo-scientific studies and research that purport to show the inferiority of blacks to whites,” has visited Tennessee’s Montgomery Bell State Park for six years running. Its first year, Robertson said, it was met by a significant protest. Since then, the number of protesters has bounced around, but spiked this year.
2) Find support from other communities.
Pikeville’s police department, which has only 21 officers, reached out to other agencies for personnel and support ahead of its rally, which allowed it to supplement its force.
In Floyd County, Virginia, Sheriff Brian Craig, who had fewer than 20 officers on staff at the time of the flag rally, also put the call out to other law enforcement officers—which turned out to be more complicated than one might expect, given that Virginia Tech was playing a home football game in neighboring Montgomery County, which also needed staffed by multiple agencies. A total of about 90 law enforcement officers—some wearing riot gear—were on duty in Floyd when the flag ride came through.
Tennessee state parks officials also partner with regional agencies, but in addition, all of its staff are commissioned law enforcement officers themselves. The state park system also employs a special operations response team trained in crowd control.
3) Keep the lines of communication open.
Unlike the events in Pikeville and in Tennessee State Parks, the flag rally and protest in Floyd County were both organized largely by people from the area. Craig personally knew the lead organizers on both sides.
“One of beautiful things about my position here as sheriff with this incident was that I had an open line of communication with both folks,” Craig said. “It was very nice to be able to talk with both those groups to find out what they were going to do, so we could strategically plan. What I was worried about was folks who would come in who don’t have connections to either side.”
By the time the riders arrived that afternoon, the plan had changed significantly, on both sides. Craig consulted with a local judge about blocking access to the courthouse lawn and statue. He then had a conversation with the ride organizer, who agreed that for safety purposes his group would just ride around the courthouse, instead of parking and physically approaching the statue. Likewise, a primary organizer of the protest agreed to call for her people to instead support an event at a nearby black church. Protesters still gathered on the sidewalk across from the courthouse, but the group was smaller than it would have been.
“No one was arrested, no one was hurt, no one was injured,” Craig said. “It couldn’t have gone any better.”
4) Keep ’em separated.
Pikeville also used interlocking metal bike racks to contain the opposing groups and keep them separated across two lanes of traffic. That separation largely prevented arguments from escalating to shoving or fist-fights, Reed said. When the Oath Keepers, a militia consisting of current and former military and police, arrived in Pikeville, they too were directed to remain in one contained spot, he said.
That’s not what happened in Charlottesville. When police there cleared white nationalists from Emancipation Park, where the Robert E. Lee statue stands, they effectively drove them directly into protesters on nearby streets—then took a mostly hands-off approach while white supremacists, protesters, and militia skirmished in the build-up to Heyer’s death.
Separating opposing sides is a focal point for law enforcement managing these sorts of demonstrations, and it’s unclear exactly why Charlottesville police failed in that respect. The city police department declined comment for this story, citing an ongoing lawsuit in which it is involved.
5) You can’t over-prepare.
Both Floyd County Sheriff Craig and Pikeville Policy Chief Reed emphasized the importance of preparation ahead of these events to achieving some semblance of public safety, even if the atmosphere is charged.
“The biggest thing is, always prepare for the worst scenario,” Reed said. “When you think that you’re prepared, keep preparing more. I don’t think you can be fully prepared for what can happen unexpectedly at an event like this. Tempers seem to flare and get out of control very easily. When people want to voice their beliefs and their feelings, having the preparedness to not only react, but also pro-act to prevent escalating it, is a very key component.”
Mason Adams is a freelance journalist from southwestern Virginia. He has reported for the Roanoke (Virginia) Times, 100 Days in Appalachia, Politico Magazine, Blue Ridge Outdoors, New Republic and Scalawag. Learn more at masonadams.net.