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Showdown in Shelbyville: How old school white nationalists failed to deliver in Tennessee

​Highway 41A into Shelbyville winds through rolling hills, passing by the occasional farmhouses, fields and antique stores.

Early last Saturday morning the scenery in Shelbyville proper was a bit different, resembling more of a war zone than a quiet, country town of 21,000.

Police helicopters circled the town square. Snipers stood watch from fire escapes and rooftops, drones hovered, mounted police stood vigilant, a canine unit patrolled the DMZ between the two groups; the racist “White Lives Matter” (WLM) folks and those who objected to their presence were set for a showdown. Law enforcement — many carrying batons and gas masks as well as guns — stood at the ready.

Just below the courthouse, multiple barriers delineated the boundaries of the “White Lives Matter” rally, creating a series of pens reminiscent of where livestock would be corralled on the numerous ranches surrounding this south central Tennessee town.

Yet there was nothing bucolic about Shelbyville that day; the town’s citizens and law enforcement from around the state were prepared for battle.

Protesters were there early and in impressive numbers, loudly voicing their opposition to the racists poised to invade their town.

Wary of a repeat of Charlottesville, police kept the white nationalists and protesters well-separated — for observers, just skirting the perimeter between the two sides meant a 20-minute walk in 40-degree temperatures — and passing through a checkpoint where banned items included anything that could be used as a weapon, such as bottles, flagpoles, liquids, and even lighters.

The cops, protesters and white nationalists were by no means alone. Media descended upon Shelbyville from around the country and the world, eager to show their audiences more shocking images of neo-Nazis bringing hate to small town America.

Shelbyville police had prepared 100 media passes but ran out an out by 8:30 a.m., falling well short of meeting demand, and reporters mingled with white nationalists both before and during the event as media access was through the white nationalist gate.

One of the more recognizable figures from Charlottesville, due as much to his physical size as his commanding presence, is League of the South (LOS) Chief of Staff Michael Tubbs. A former military demolitions expert and convicted felon, Tubbs called the shots at Charlottesville, led his shield-and-stick-bearing troops into the fray with counter-protesters, and was present in the parking garage when protester DeAndre Harris was savagely beaten.

But if Tubbs was hoping for a similar battle rekindling the glory of last August, he and his troops were about to be seriously disappointed.

The LOS had spent weeks planning for the Tennessee events, but showed up late to their own party. Tubbs and LOS President Michael Hill led an initial wave of black-shirted followers who arrived at the security checkpoint around 10:30 a.m., half-an-hour after the permitted event was set to begin.

An estimated 200 white nationalists made the trek to Shelbyville, but as usual, they were seriously outnumbered by protesters, to the tune of three-to-one.

And if the point of the rally was to get their white supremacist message across, it’s hard to do that when your PA system has all the reach of a 100-watt ‘80s boom box.

White Lives Matter started out on a relatively positive note for Hill and Tubbs. Although protesters, with a fully functioning sound system, taunted the white nationalists as they passed the security checkpoint in a slow trickle. “You’re late for your own party!” they shouted, before playing Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters.”

Heimbach holds a leadership role in the Traditionalist Worker Party. His speech was drowned out by counter-protesters.

The LOS leaders surveyed the scene and were initially optimistic. “We’ve got 300,” Tubbs told Hill. “I think if we keep going this direction we can make a difference.” After the initial wave of LOS arrived, members of Matthew Heimbach’s Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) began filing in with numbers slightly less than LOS. Their leader, Heimbach held back on the other side of the checkpoint talking to media. Heimbach was fresh from an interview on fellow WLM speaker Sacco Vandal’s radio show. “Exterminationism toward the Jews is the only way to do it. Cause they will plant a seed anywhere, like in Antarctica if they have to. If we don’t get them all they will come back. Like they have to f------ go, every God damn one of them,” he said five days before Shelbyville. “The international Jew and the local Jew, I don’t care if he runs a f------ bagel shop, he’s got to go."

While their leader chatted with reporters, TWP members were craving action. Clad all in black and wearing helmets, the young men were restless and rowdy, sparring with each other like a litter of puppies, then banging their shields in unison and shouting “Hail Victory!”

Part of a relatively large contingent of National Socialist Movement (NSM) members, and a scheduled speaker, was Harry Hughes from Arizona, who regularly sends his neo-Nazis down to the border with Mexico to look for undocumented immigrants. Hughes strutted around in full dress uniform, including iron SS bolts pinned to his collar and a package of Skittles clutched in his hand.

At 11:07 the sound of bagpipes wafted through the crowd as an elderly man with a beard began to play, giving the event the air of a police funeral.

The PA system came in in fits and starts, with underlings bringing in an assortment of equipment, one man, wearing a denim jacket with an eclectic mix of Klan and Nazi patches, was not convincing police to allow him to bring in a round, solid metal base which may have been a base for a microphone but could also make a formidable weapon. Tubbs summoned one of the officers, explaining that the man, whom he referred to as Butch, “is with us,” and after a bit of discussion he was allowed to enter with the heavy disk.

At 11:15 there were around 100 white nationalists inside, mainly LOS, TWP and NSM, with about the same amount waiting in line to be searched.

Just before 11:30, the cry of “Fall IN!” came from the head of the pack, where Tubbs and Hill led the charge. LOS first, then TWP, NSM and other groups including Klansmen, assumed formation and began a brisk march to the second checkpoint, which led into the white nationalist holding pen, directly across a wide street from the protestors. Law enforcement officers from various agencies stood vigil in the middle.

Still waiting for the event to officially start, the racists in the pen were getting bored, and resorted to making fun of the opposition’s sea of signs, which included everything from “Heather Heyer, Say Her Name,” to “Make Schnitzel Not War.” They mocked them for being handmade, and in what they called “a bunch of irrelevant colors.”

“Half of them are f----- journalists who should just jump off a bridge, “ one man informed the crowd. “I guarantee half of them are all strung out on heroin. Nazis are literally the only people who don’t use heroin.”

And when protesters called them out over the powerful PA system, deeming the white nationalists “homicidal, genocidal maniacs,” they took it as a compliment.

“Hell Yeah!” A man leaning up against the barriers behind the PA system called back to the snickers of those surrounding him. “You got that right!”

But it’s unlikely any of the 600 or so protesters heard him, or anything the speakers were trying to convey. The sound system was problematic, to put it mildly, and the racists were desperately fiddling with wires attempting to increase the volume.

“We can’t hear you! Your sound system sucks!” the protesters taunted.

After visible frustration on the faces of organizers, the sound quality improved slightly and speeches began, but were drowned out by protesters blasting a recording of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream speech” from the other side of the street.

The racists were good at shouting, and their sporadic “Blood and Soil!” chants, complete with a dozen or so Roman salutes, were deafening until they petered out while protesters blasted Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack,” and once again dominated. A few of the neo-Nazis were actually tapping their feet to the beat.

Tubbs, whose eyes were masked by his trademark contractor’s sunglasses, began pacing through the crowd, then having confabs with other white nationalists shortly after noon, as the speakers shouted out their hate into oblivion, drowned out this time by “La Bamba.” Some of these conversations were about smaller details, like whether anyone from Daily Stormer was present; they weren’t, LOS public relations chief Brad Griffin informed him.

But about half an hour before the event was scheduled to end, Tubbs’ hope of making a difference was clearly not going to be realized. The protesters were simply louder, funnier, more enthusiastic and better organized. They were there on time, too. The racists’ sound issue made any show of unity, besides the standard “Blood and Soil” chants, impossible.

The white nationalists were planning to decamp for rally number two in Murfreesboro, about 45 minutes away, yet by 12:30 LOS’ Griffin was ready to call off the second event all together “We can just say that Murfreesboro was always just a backup plan,” Griffin told Tubbs, in an “I meant to do that” moment worthy of Peewee Herman.

And instead of taking their show on the road to Murfreesboro, where nearly 1,000 protesters awaited, they turned their tails and left, announcing later that the event was cancelled. Some of them went to a nearby park where they reportedly attempted to form a human swastika, and the only real action anyone saw was when Heimbach and his TWP crew brawled with a woman at a Brentwood restaurant.

And while “White Lives Matter” was an obvious flop for LOS, it was a clear success for Tennessee law enforcement and citizens.

Are you a member of a law enforcement agency? Learn what to do if a hate event comes to your town in our latest Roll Call video.

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