Dozens of anti-racist and anti-fascist activists gathered near the Inn at Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, Tennessee to protest a conference held by the white supremacist magazine, American Renaissance.
The magazine has hosted its annual gathering of the far-right at the facility since 2012. Park rangers and more than 100 law enforcement officers from multiple agencies patrolled the park and guarded the Inn.
While conference attendees heard from speakers—including American Renaissance founder and white supremacist Jared Taylor, and Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist media personality—protesters voiced their disdain for both the racist conference and law enforcement outside.
“Nazis go home!,” they chanted, when people, presumed to be attendees, arrived or left the area. When officers escorted people in and out of the building, protesters chanted, “Who you serve? Who do you protect?”
Beth Foster, co-director of Mercy Junction Peace and Justice Center, an interfaith social justice center in Chattanooga, said white supremacists regularly gather in Tennessee because “Our state welcomes them. They are welcomed. They are protected. They are made to feel very comfortable here.”
Foster noted the Tennessee state legislature recently failed to pass a simple resolution condemning neo-Nazis not once but twice this year.
In March, a bill denouncing neo-nazis and white nationalism died in a House subcommittee in merely 36 seconds.
A nearly identical piece of legislation, which stated that the legislature “strongly denounce and oppose the totalitarian impulses, violent terrorism, xenophobic biases, and bigoted ideologies that are promoted by white nationalists and neo-Nazis,” failed in April after Republican Caucus chair Ryan Williams withdrew it from consideration. No Republican lawmakers would provide feedback.
Meanwhile, the state legislature approved legislation that will punish cities if they remove “historical monuments,” including monuments to the Confederacy. The bill passed a week after lawmakers took $250,000 from the budget of the City of Memphis for removing Confederate monuments in 2017.
While the entire park wasn’t closed off for the white supremacist conference, the area where it took place was cordoned off by a heavy police presence, including park rangers, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Tennessee Department of Corrections Special Operations Division, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Demonstrators and press were required to submit to a search of their belongings and be scanned with a hand-held metal detector before entering an area enclosed by metal barricades across from the facility. Dozens of officers stood in front of the building, while others remained in parking lots, some providing escort from behind the barricades for conference attendees to and from their cars. Officers with binoculars were perched on the rooftop while a police helicopter buzzed overhead.
“For six years, we were able to go inside. We were able to just hang out at the venue, and there was no issue,” Daryle Lamont Jenkins, co-director of One People’s Project, an anti-racist organization that monitors and researches the far right, told demonstrators gathered in the park. “It sounds like they’re scared of us, to fortify like this.”
A heavy police presence at counter-demonstrations of fascist rallies and other events held by white nationalists is common, and restrictions imposed by law enforcement on demonstrators seem to be increasing. Foster added that anti-racist demonstrators were also kept out of facilities at the University of Tennessee when the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party marched on the school’s campus in February.
A recent rally held by the neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Movement, in Newnan, Georgia, saw a large presence of counter-demonstrators and 700 law enforcement officers. During at least one heated encounter, an officer pointed an assault weapon at protesters and media.
While counter-protesters in Newnan were banned from carrying a litany of items (ranging from tasers to poles to masks), the same rules were not enforced equally for the fascists who rallied there.
Vermin Supreme, a performance artist and former presidential candidate who has for years been a fixture at liberal and leftist protests, came out to counter the gathering of white supremacists in Burns. “I think we’re used to that at a demonstration,” he said of the heavy police presence. “Having to pass through ridiculous checkpoints to get into a free speech pen, unfortunately I think it’s not that uncommon…Welcome to the boiling frog pot, y’all.”
Protesters remained in the park for more than five hours, and only one direct confrontation took place when the police crossed over the metal barricades unprovoked into the protest area.
Demonstrators claimed officers entered the pen because a protester donned a mask. Police and some demonstrators formed a tight circle around a small group of people, who were escorted to the exit.
Other protesters followed, chanting, “Let him go, let him go.” At the exit, the group was allowed to leave freely and no one was arrested. Later in the day, several demonstrators donned masks and stood at the barricade without incident.
Paul Adams, a resident of Smyrna who works with an organization that assists refugees, showed up to protest the conference and said that the first time he protested Nazis was in Illinois in the early 1970’s.
“If you would have told me back then that they’d have access to the White House, I don’t know. I would find that hard to believe,” he said.
This was Adams’ first time protesting the American Renaissance conference, and he said he turned out to counter the event because, “If there was a rattlesnake in my friend’s backyard, I’d sure go tell them. And so I think we need to [protest].”
Both Jenkins and Foster made reference to yet another white supremacist gathering that is planned for Montgomery Bell State Park this summer.
The white nationalist group, American Freedom Party, formerly known as the American Third Position Party (or AP3), and the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens are slated to co-host a conference at the park in mid-June, according to Idavox, a One People’s Project website.
The increased militarized police presence—which most often focuses on anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstrators—rather than nazis, who have committed numerous acts of violence at demonstrations, is, for some, evidence of rising fascism in the United States.
“We are not gradually moving towards fascism. We are accelerating there very quickly,” asserted Foster. “And if that happened in a year, where are we gonna be in June when we come back when there’s more nazis in our state park? In Tennessee, from Memphis to Knoxville to here, everywhere we go, this is the way anti-racist protesters are treated, and that’s the way nazis were treated.”