In Tennessee, locals fight back against neo-Nazis with humor and humiliation

In Tennessee, locals fight back against neo-Nazis with humor and humiliation
The country’s largest cadre of neo-Nazis gathered in Tennessee on Saturday and were mocked viciously by counter-protesters. Jack Smith IV/Mic
The country’s largest cadre of neo-Nazis gathered in Tennessee on Saturday and were mocked viciously by counter-protesters. Jack Smith IV/Mic

At a rally of the nation’s top neo-Nazi coalition in Tennessee on Saturday, one noise drowned out the violent calls for a whites-only ethno-state in America: Beyoncé.

Across the barricades, the highway and lines of heavily armed police officers, a coalition of counterprotesters were dancing and deriding the white nationalists, taunting them with a sound system that drowned out the neo-Nazis’ own set of speakers.

“This is what your kids are listening to at home right now,” a counterprotester shouted through a song from Beyoncé’s album Lemonade. “Hope you hired a white nationalist babysitter!”

The Nationalist Front, the largest coalition of white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups in the country, descended on the city of Shelbyville, Tennessee, for a “White Lives Matter” rally, one of at least two white supremacist rallies planned in the Volunteer State that weekend. And as Americans fiercely debate how to respond to far right rallies and speeches by celebrity racists, an anti-racist coalition in Tennessee chose humor, music and mockery.

“They want people to be afraid of them, but really they’re just objects of ridicule,” Chris Irwin, a local lawyer who led many of the derisive chants, said at the rally. “Their kids hate them, and they’re exiled by their own family.”

Chris Irwin, pictured on the right, is a Tennessee native who says that humor is the best way to show that nobody is afraid of groups like the Nationalist Front.
Chris Irwin, pictured on the right, is a Tennessee native who says that humor is the best way to show that nobody is afraid of groups like the Nationalist Front. Getty Images

As the white nationalists began their rally in Shelbyville, setting up the sound system and struggling to gather the 100 or so white nationalists around so that they could all hear the speakers, the counterprotesters blasted the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. over their heads.

“I just want to say how beautiful it is that Nazis and the KKK got together to listen to Martin Luther King in silence,” Irwin said on the bullhorn.

The white nationalists shouted back, “Fuck you,” and “Jews will not replace us!”

“What’s that you’re saying?” Irwin asked. “You’re saying you want more Martin Luther King? Well, ok then.”

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is perhaps the most famous rallying cry against fascism and racism in America, but there are many more slogans that have been deployed throughout the century-long history of anti-fascist protest. On Saturday, the counterprotesters added “Y’all wild” and “Send nudes” to that storied list.

Two signs held up by antifascists at the Shelbyville neo-Nazi rally.
Two signs held up by antifascists at the Shelbyville neo-Nazi rally. Jack Smith IV/Mic

“You’re sexy! You’re cute! Take off the Nazi suit!” they cheered.

Since Trump’s election, protest groups and organizations that monitor right-wing activity have hotly debated how to respond to demonstrations by hate groups across the country. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League often discourage protesting speeches by white nationalists like Richard Spencer, arguing that the attention does more harm in amplifying the profile of prominent racists than it does good.

Even the local chapter of Black Lives Matter in Nashville issued a statement ahead of the rally saying they would not be protesting — that neo-Nazi groups are held up as chance to scapegoat the “obvious racists” and let white America at large off the hook.

“It is white America who invited them in, and it is white America who has the responsibility to see them out,” the statement said.

But the majority-white protesters in Shelbyville said that as locals, it was their duty to show up. The Nationalist Front chose Shelbyville for their rally because, unlike Charlottesville, it’s a solidly rural town in a Red State. On the heels of an NPR poll showing that a majority of white Americans believe that they’re discriminated against, Nationalist Front leaders like Matthew Heimbach, one of the country’s foremost neo-Nazis, believes small, Trump-voting towns like Shelbyville are the frontier for his ideas of a white ethno-state.

Protesters chanted “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye,” as the neo-Nazis left their rally for their next stop in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where they arrived to their next, cancelled rally.
Protesters chanted “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye,” as the neo-Nazis left their rally for their next stop in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where they arrived to their next, cancelled rally. Getty Images

“There might be local pastors or business owners who want to flagellate themselves in the media saying how horrible it is that we’re coming,” Heimbach said in Shelbyville on Saturday. “But we’re here speaking for families who have lost loved ones to oxycontin or heroine. To be a voice for the average, working guy.”

But Irwin said that once you rile the white nationalists up a bit, the pomp of anti-capitalist, pro-steelworker rhetoric falls away.

“You just poke them a bit, the crazy comes out, and you win,” he said. “We’ve already won. We’ve shown clearly that they’re not from around here and nobody’s afraid of them.”

“We’re sending a message across the country right now, that if they can’t make it here, they can’t make it anywhere.”