Why I Wanted to Talk to White Supremacists at Shelbyville


I tend to ignore white nationalists, and I’m not a fan of Antifa, but when James Alex Fields Jr. rammed his car into a group of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others, I decided it was time to do more.

I was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, and when I heard about a white supremacist “White Lives Matter” rally being held an hour south in the towns of Shelbyville and Murfreesboro, I didn’t hesitate.

My decision to counter-protest led me to grapple with questions about how to do it effectively. I decided I needed to speak directly to the organizers of the rally.

picture of white lives matter rally and counter-protesters
Police and barricades stood between the counter-protesters and the “White Lives Matter” rally. Photo: Annabel Park

I spoke with Commander Jeff Schoep as he was driving from Detroit to Shelbyville. He is the leader of the Nationalist Socialist Movement (NSM), part of an alliance of several white nationalist groups know as the Nationalist Front.

“We’re not Nazis,” Schoep told me, “We’re a white civil rights organization. Like Martin Luther King for white people.”

I also spoke with Brad Griffin (AKA Hunter Wallace), Public Relations Chief for the League of the South, the primary organizer of the demonstration. He argued that countries across the world are founded on common ground, such as ethnicity and race.

“This country was founded by white people for white people. That’s not racist; that’s a fact,” he explained to me the night before the demonstration. “We don’t believe white people are superior or that non-whites don’t belong in this country; we just think the laws ought to treat us like we’re supreme the way they used to. America is our homeland. We will not be replaced.”

“How is that not racist?” I asked.

Griffin’s answer was convoluted but this is the gist of it: White people from Germany, England, France and other “white” nations settled the “new world” and interbred, forging a new ethnicity: the White American. In the way, Japan, India, Iran, and other countries are based on ethnicity and race —  “blood rather than abstract ideas” —  the United States is a white nation that ought to be fashioned to favor white people.

picture of author
The author, left, and another counter-protester at the “White Lives Matter” rally. Photo: Annabel Park

In other words: That’s not racist; that’s just a fact about how strong nations are built according to both Griffin and Schoep.

“We have a lot of support in Shelbyville and Murfreesboro,” explains Griffin when I ask him “Why Shelbyville and Murfreesboro?”

“We held a rally in Shelbyville in 2013 and several others across the state in 2014, and they all went very well. People there are angry as hell about all the refugees.”

Tennessee has become home to approximately 18,000 refugees from Somalia, Iraq, and other countries over the last fifteen years, according to the Tennessean. “They might make up 1% of the population of the state today, but that was true in Europe not long ago and now look at all the terrorist attacks they’ve had. White people need a country for white culture and values just like the Japanese or the Kurds. We planned all this before Emanuel Samson even happened.”

Griffin is referring to Emanuel Samson, a refugee from Sudan who has lived in the United States since 1996. On September 24 of this year, he entered the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch (a Nashville suburb) and opened fire, killing one person and injuring seven others. In his car, he left a note indicating part of his rationale was in retaliation for the Charleston Church Massacre perpetrated by Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.

“Samson is just the beginning, and you didn’t hear a peep about it,” says Griffin. “Our goals for tomorrow are to bring national attention to the race war going on in this country and to show people we’re not violent or racist or any of that. We simply want to protect our homeland and to practice free speech. We think we’ll have a good turnout.”

This is personal

The reason I’m talking to them is personal.

My mother was an anti-war and civil rights activist in the 60s and 70s, and my dad was a conscientious objector during Vietnam and participated in many civil rights marches in his day. Both are feminists who despised Ronald Reagan and loved Bill Clinton.

My parents also taught me the importance of listening and forgiveness. My father is an agnostic while my mother is an atheist, but she loves singing in the choir and attending sermons. I was not raised in a church, but my poetry is often about spirituality. The essential, and I believe best, principles of Christianity were certainly part of my upbringing. “If thine enemy hunger, feed him: if he thirst, give him drink.” That approach, my parents would argue, is how you make change, not yelling and screaming at each other.

I do want to understand why people hate, not ridicule them for it. I also wanted to understand if they actually do hate, or if they are simply being portrayed that way.

Are they really Nazis or do they just look like Nazis? I wondered.

When I explain this to people, I get a lot of side-eye.

“If it walks like a duck, if it talks like a duck, it’s a duck,” says Aaron Gallagher, a twenty-year resident of Murfreesboro. “They are not welcome here.”

While swastikas were banned at the demonstration, Schoep sports a swastika tie pin in his blog pic and Sacco Vandal called counter-protesters “Commie faggots” when he took the mic in Shelbyville. Wearing black motorcycle helmets and brandishing shields emblazoned with rather third-Reich-looking emblems, the Nationalist Front tends to look more like a band of marauding Visigoths than peaceful followers of Martin Luther King.

“We love to fight,” Schoep told me over the phone in the days following the demonstration. “I shouldn’t say that…I shouldn’t say that,” he continued, “but take a lot of angry white men and give them an opportunity to defend themselves and they’re going to take it.”

The more you look into these groups, the more the notion they are peaceful is a bit ridiculous.

Let’s not punch a Nazi

Here’s the thing: My side of things doesn’t always look much better.

One counter-protester in Shelbyville made signs that displayed Hitler blowing his brains out. Many counter-protesters chanted “Punch a Nazi,” and called protestors “white trash” and “rednecks.” One protester even yelled, “I’ll kill you, I swear to god, I’ll kill you,” to one of three female demonstrators.

Then there’s Antifa: a group of angry, young, mostly-white activists decked out in black leather jackets and aviators. Something tells me they’re itching for a chance to protect themselves just as much as Schoep’s membership. Or maybe they just want to look cool.

Either way, it’s not hard to imagine why so many people think the left is just as hateful as the right. I’m not saying this is a fair assessment of the left. It isn’t. While we have our moments, there are few instances of civil rights activists killing anyone. The Nazis did that, not us, and we’re not the ones walking around looking like Nazis.

That’s not the point.

The point is neither side seems to know much of anything about each other.

Our impressions are based on associations that may or may not be correct. Very few of us are conducting reasonable investigations of who these people are and what they believe. There is zero dialogue. Most of our impressions of the “Nazis” are a product of groupthink, confirmation bias, and conformity.

Sound familiar? It should.

We say they look like Nazis, so they’re Nazis. They say we look like communists, so we’re communists, and the cycle continues ad infinitum.

I’ve been called a racist more than a few times because of my activities with the NAACP and Black Lives Matter.

“It’s all lives matter,” Sarai Vargas, a fifteen-year resident of Shelbyville whose parents illegally immigrated to the United States from Honduras before she was born, “not just black lives.”

When I explain the actual meaning of the hashtag (all lives can’t matter until black lives matter), I get oddly similar side-eye followed by, again Vargas, “Well, it sure doesn’t come off that way.”

Thus my question: Are these people Nazis who follow Hitler’s ideology, or do they just “come off that way.”

Answering this question on your own is next to impossible. Trying to get a better sense of who these people are via the news is a total crapshoot, and while speaking to people on my side of this conflict is helpful, I wanted to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth.

Thus, I’m on the phone with a bunch of Nazis or white supremacists or white nationalists or white civil rights activists.

And it’s scary, y’all. It’s scary as fuck.

What went down in Shelbyville 

By now, you may have heard what happened in Shelbyville.

The demonstration was held on a street corner northwest of the public square where they had hoped to stage the event. The south side of the intersection was barricaded off for White Lives Matter demonstrators while the north side was reserved for counter-protesters. Two police checkpoints were deployed on each side. A line of police in riot gear stood between us. Police snipers dotted the roofs of just about every building. Several drones and helicopters patrolled the skies.

When I arrived at 9:30 AM, roughly 50 counter-protesters had gathered. By 10 AM, the official start time, there were 500 of us, but not a single “White Lives Matter” demonstrator was to be seen. It wasn’t until 11 AM that roughly 200 demonstrators finally marched in, dressed in black and banging their fists against their riot shields. Many wore helmets, waved Confederate battle flags, and held signs that read things like “Blood and Soil,” “You will not replace us,” and “Stop Southern Cultural Genocide.” There were only three women among them, and they were all white. When they chanted, they chanted things like, “Build the wall!” and “No more refugees.” If there were any locals with them, that was impossible to tell.

When they spoke, most of what they said was drowned out by Knoxville attorney Chris Irwin, a self-proclaimed “Nazi heckler” who piped “La Bamba” and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech through a PA system when he wasn’t yelling things like, “You showed up an hour late to your own rally” or leading chants for the crowd like, “The people united will never be divided” and “No Trump, No KKK, No racist USA!”

When the white supremacists were done with their speeches, they departed, supposedly for Murfreesboro. We now know they went to Henry Horton State Park and canceled the demonstration in Murfreesboro. Griffin claims they were driven out of the state park by Antifa and had to cancel a candlelight vigil they planned for the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ.

“We had a few objectives in Shelbyville,” says Griffin. “One of them was to remind people of the Emanuel Samson terrorist attack. We didn’t get to do that, but we did prove that if the police do their jobs, we can hold a peaceful event.”

Counter-protesters at Shelbyville rally. Photo: Annabel Park

Schoep agrees: “The media keeps telling you that we started the violence in Charlottesville when it was Antifa [who started it]. They threw acid and bricks and balloons full of urine at us, and the cops just stood there. To even get to our side in Charlottesville, we had to go through Antifa and the communists.” Schoep refers to all counter-protesters as either Antifa or Communists. “They did a much better job in Shelbyville. Antifa couldn’t get to us, and there was no violence. It didn’t look that way in Murfreesboro, so we decided to cancel. We do not want violence; we just want to practice free speech.”

When you ask them about Dylann Roof or James Alex Fields Jr., they point to Emanuel Samson and Micah Xavier Johnson who killed five Dallas police officers and injured nine in 2016. When you point out that neither Samson nor Johnson were members of Antifa or the NAACP or Black Lives Matter, they point out that Roof and Fields weren’t members of the League of the South, the National Socialist Movement, or any other group within the Nationalist Front.

“That’s a pretty basic tactic,” says Griffin, “to use a single example of some lunatic to paint us all that way. It’s just not true.”

In my introductory email to Schoep and Griffin, I explained that “Even though I do not agree with what I understand of your movement and its objectives, that does not mean I am not interested in better understanding it and sharing that with people, particularly those who immediately reject you out of hand.”

Thus far, I have failed in that endeavor. I don’t know who or what to believe. My hands shake whenever I get them on the phone.

Maybe that’s the problem: I’m afraid of a thing I do not understand.

Here’s the other problem: Us.

We walk around thinking we’re following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr. when we clearly are not.

King didn’t just practice not starting a fight; he practiced not fighting at all. I wasn’t in Charlottesville. I can’t possibly speak to the violence there, but I doubt King would have supported it.

I like to think that if someone had tried to hurt me, I would have followed the example of our heroes of the Selma to Montgomery marches and the sit-ins. But, for all I know, I would have resorted to fighting back. For all I know, if those who fought back in Charlottesville hadn’t fought back, many more people would be dead.

It’s impossible to know.

What is the best response when Nazis come into your town?

What I do know is that if Tennessee is a blueprint for kicking Nazis out of our communities, it’s a fairly easy one to follow:

  • Militarize free speech with barricaded sections for protesters and counter-protesters
  • Slow the bad guys down at multiple checkpoints
  • Drown them out when they start talking

Easy peasy.

But is this approach going to bring about the change we desperately need, or is it going to fuel the fire?

The question answers itself. These tactics may have worked this time to drive them out, but in general forceful resistance will only lead to more bloodshed.

There must be a better way. There has to be a better way. If we are the righteous freedom fighters we claim to be, it’s up to us to find it. What I do know is that we can’t give in to violence and bloodthirst ourselves. We must continue to engage them as human beings.

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Livecast video of Shelbyville rally by the author

Interview of the author after Shelbyville by Annabel Park

Why I Wanted to Talk to White Supremacists at Shelbyville

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