For weeks, fears had been spreading throughout the community as several white nationalist groups, including the Traditionalist Worker Party and National Socialist Movement, planned a rally in downtown Pikeville which was expected to be attended by several counter groups.
Intelligence led authorities to believe that some of those who were coming to the event intended for violence to break out.
However, by the end of the day Saturday, as the last of the protesters were cleared out, the impacts were minimal, and officials said this week that a great deal of planning and onthe ground work led to the quelling of the threatened violence. Only a handful of arrests resulted from the event and no injuries resulted as the white nationalist groups and protestors yelled, chanted and made noise at each other for hours with a line of local and state police standing between the sides.
Matthew Heimbach, leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party, the main white nationalist group behind Saturday’s event, told the News-Express that the rally was set for Pikeville because the group was invited by locals.
“We’re here because we were invited by members of Pikeville that are our party members that said that we need to be able to have rallies like this, be able to bring a voice to a region that has been so abandoned and ignored by the political establishment since the war on poverty was launched,” he said. “Nothing has fundamentally gotten better.”
The date of the rally was not accidental. Instead, Heimbach said, the event was intended to be connected to the upcoming May Day holiday, which is traditionally a labor holiday. The Traditionalist Worker Party refers to itself as a socialist organization.
“Appalachia has a strong working class tradition, a strong labor tradition, so we wanted to be able to be here to celebrate the workers, especially the coal miners here, and to be able to bring an economic message, a social message that you don’t have to pick Republicans or Democrats anymore,” he said. “ You can pick a political party, a political movement that actually advocates in your best interest.”
Heimbach said his group wants to have a presence in the community and field candidates for public office.
Many of those on both the side of the white nationalists and the side of the counter protestors were not locals.
Antifascist protestor Lacy MacAuley, who was on the ground for the event early Saturday, told the News-Express she, too, had come at the request of local organizers.
“They asked us to come to show solidarity in opposing the kind of hate, exclusion and bitter fascist world that these people support,” MacAuley said. “(Members of groups such as the TWP) are very much the minority. They know it. But, they are trying to build momentum, and we’re here to show them that, absolutely, we stand opposed.
“We support a world based on love, inclusion and the celebration of diversity,” she continued. “That is what mixed communities crave. It’s not their brand of weird, creepy eugenics. They think some races are superior and some are not. They have a delusion that there is something called ‘white genocide.’ White people, and I’m speaking for myself, white people, we are not the ones with police knocking down our doors. We are not the ones being questioned at the border. Our children are not being arrested when they are 13 years old and shot by police. There is not white genocide. That is a delusion they have.”
While the protestors on the antifascist side chanted slogans, including “From the Midwest to the South, punch a Nazi in the mouth,” on the other side, members of the the white nationalist groups, which included groups such as the National Socialist Movement, League of the South and Klu Klux Klan, gave speeches, often drowned out by noisemakers and the shouts of protestors.
Both sides hurled insults at each other for hours as protestors displayed middle fingers and the white supremacists answered with gestures such as the Roman salute, which was used by the Nazi Party in Germany.
Brad Griffin, with the League of the South, said his group held a rally in Pikeville in 2014 which wasn’t well attended, but that the environment is more polarized now.
“You have people who believe in beating people up in the streets, shutting them down,” Griffin said. “If you disagree with the National Socialist Movement, they have the right to speak. They have the right to do that without violence.”
No violence occurred on Saturday, although a few on either side jumped over the barriers set by local law enforcement. They were quickly stopped.
As the Traditionalist Worker Party and other groups left town, riot police were dispatched to ensure no clashes ensued. At that time, a compressed air canister was detonated, making a sound like a gunshot, but no violent reaction occurred as a result.
After a brief time, the last of the protesters left, without incident.
Pikeville City Manager Donovan Blackburn said Monday that one reason the threat of violence was turned away was because of the massive show of force from numerous police and response agencies on Saturday.
The rally, he said, has been a point of discussion and planning since it was first announced in February.
“Like any other time, that permit was approved and it wasn’t until a week or so later that we realized what this group represented,” Blackburn said, adding that the group’s views were a moot point. “As a government entity, we have a responsibility to ensure the First Amendment is upheld.”
As time went on after the issuance of the permit, Blackburn said, credible threats were received through various means, including social media, which resulted in the involvement of several agencies, including local, state and federal.
Last week, after Hillbilly Days, Blackburn said, the decision was made to pass an ordinance which banned masks and hoods in downtown Pikeville, which was intended to prevent violent incidents.
After that, he said, the possibility of a credible threat became clearer.
“There was then chatter back on social media that we were doing this,” he said. “At the same time, numbers of our law enforcement agency were being published. They were talking about legal help, they had hired an attorney to my understanding. They were looking at where our hospital was.”
The information received by officials from that point forward, Blackburn said, confirmed concerns about potential violence between the two groups.
Federal officials, he said, were “spot-on” with crowd estimates. Blackburn said the federal authorities told Pikeville officials to expect between 500 and 1,000 people, including both protesters and those affiliated with the permitted groups, and bystanders and media. Blackburn said everyone who gathered for the event was not in the downtown area.
In the week prior to the rally, a lot of action was taken, including the cancellation of a planned counter rally at the University of Pikeville and the city informing local businesses of the potential danger.
The businesses, Blackburn said, were given information and given a choice as to whether to stay open. All of them, he said, decided to close, to not only protect customers and employees, but also to send a message that they didn’t support the messages being sent Saturday.
Blackburn said there has been some criticism of the city and accusations in the aftermath that the city overreacted.
“If we had not had the presence and taken the practical steps we had taken with these great agencies, things would have went down,” he said. “There were some groups that had intent. And, on a couple of occasions, there were attempts.”