Tennessee police on high alert but white nationalist rallies pass quietly

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  • ‘White Lives Matter’ rallies held in Shelbyville and Murfreesboro
  • Counter-protesters heavily outnumber extremist groups

Counter-protesters demonstrate against a ‘White Lives Matter’ rally in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Photograph: Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images

White nationalists were heavily outnumbered by around 600 counter-protesters during a Saturday afternoon “White Lives Matter” rally in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that passed off uneventfully after police kept the two groups separated.

At around 3pm, a small group of white nationalists left the city’s public square. Counter-protesters, who had lined routes into town chanting “Murfreesboro loves”, “refugees are welcome here” and “this is what democracy looks like”, chanted “black lives matter” and “na na na na goodbye”.

Murfreesboro city officials, who had been anticipating a large number of white nationalists coming into the area, said the rally had been “without reports of incident”.

Earlier in the day, another rally was held in nearby Shelbyville. Police said one counterprotester was arrested and cited for disorderly conduct after he exhibited “threatening behavior”. Shelbyville police lieutenant Brian Crews told the Tennessean that besides that, “everything went lovely”.

The Tennessean later reported that the group which obtained the permit for the Murfreesboro event, the League of the South, had decided not to participate.

The announcement of the two rallies had prompted concern that they could produce the kind of violence that resulted in the death of a counter-protester at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August. Nineteen people were also injured then, when a car was driven into a crowd.

Earlier this month, three white supremacists were charged with attempted homicide after they argued with a group protesting a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer and fired a shot at them, after at rally at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida.

Ahead of the Tennessee rallies, law enforcement imposed strict security measures including the use of hand-held metal detectors to detect guns, pipes, chains and a long list of other banned objects.

The town of Murfreesboro shut down several blocks around its public square and officials “strongly encouraged” residents to avoid the area “in the interest of reducing tension and avoiding conflicts”.

The white nationalist groups said they were protesting a range of issues, including refugee resettlement, the impact of the opioid epidemic and what they say is a lack of media attention around a mass shooting in Antioch, Tennessee in September in which one woman was killed and seven people were injured. The suspect is black and reportedly came to the US from Sudan.

“The first amendment provides a right to free speech and a right to peaceably assemble and thus neither the city nor the county can legally prohibit the event,” the city of Murfreesboro said in a statement before the event, adding that the city and county were “proud of the community we are building and the diversity of its residents”.

“The slightest indication of disruption or violence will initiate immediate law enforcement action to uphold the rights of citizens and ensure their safety,” Sheriff Mike Fitzhugh and police interim chief Michael Bowen said.

People hold Confederate flags during the ‘White Lives Matter’ rally in Murfreesboro. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

A series of open white supremacist rallies in cities across the US has put American towns on edge, with city leaders fearful of violence and residents and business owners often resenting any association with neo-Nazis and other racist hate groups.

In Charlottesville, the largest US white nationalist rally in decades sparked open fighting in the streets, with neo-Nazis wearing helmets and shields clashing with counter-protesters and being doused with bottles of urine.

One white supremacist was arrested for firing a gun towards protesters but the worst of the violence happened after the official rally was shut down, when a car plowed into a crowd in a narrow street. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old civil rights activist, was killed.

James Fields, the 20-year-old charged over the incident, was photographed at the rally demonstrating with Vanguard America, though the group has said he was not a member. Vanguard America was set to march on Saturday in Tennessee.

“We’re not going to back down and be content to be closeted,” one Tennessee organizer wrote on the white nationalist blog Occidental Dissent earlier this month. “Instead, we are going to soldier on and move beyond what happened in Charlottesville. It has been a black cloud hanging over us ever since 12 August and we need to move forward.”

Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party, said he expected the Tennessee protests to draw about the same number as a largely peaceful rally in Pikeville, Kentucky in April. That event brought together about 150 neo-Nazis and white supremacists, many armed, as well as more than 100 counter-protesters, in a small town which voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.

“Most folks burned through a lot of vacation days” to get to the Charlottesville event, Heimbach said.



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