The demonstrations in downtown Pikeville, Kentucky, on Saturday, April 29. Photograph: Pat Jarrett for the Guardian
Armed Neo-Nazis and anti-fascists largely from outside of the town of Pikeville faced off without violence on Saturday in a demonstration that left residents perplexed.
More than 150 neo-Nazis and white supremacists, many of them armed, staged a rally on Saturday in a Kentucky county that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.
The demonstrators were met by more than 100 self-described “anti-fascist” protesters, who chanted and jeered and waved a poster of a prominent far-right activist getting punched in the face. There was, however, no violence.
Residents of the town of Pikeville, which has a population of about 7,000, said the demonstration perplexed and infuriated them. Both the neo-Nazis and the anti-fascists appeared to be largely from elsewhere.
Nathan Sesco, a military veteran, said he was angry that the protest might damage eastern Kentucky’s reputation in the eyes of outsiders, making Pikeville look like a “hate town”.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said.
In the event, the rally itself was more ridiculous than dangerous. But the planned protest had set Pikeville on edge. In the past year, intense and sometimes violent clashes between far-right activists and anti-fascists in California and elsewhere have resulted in property damage, stabbings and one shooting. Pikeville officials worried that Kentucky gun laws, which permit the open carry of firearms, would make the protest even more volatile.
Intensive planning focused on how law enforcement officers should handle the protest, and media interest from across the country. The town passed an ordinance that forbade anyone from wearing masks or hoods.
Along with the neo-Nazi and anti-fascist protesters, a small group of militia members also showed up with their guns, saying they were disgusted by both sides and wanted to prevent property damage and guard the town.
In the event, the two-hour protest proceeded raucously but peacefully under a hot sun, the sides separated by barriers and lines of state police officers.
The neo-Nazis were more than an hour late to their own rally. The anti-fascists arrived early, leaving them to shout at a mostly empty and fenced-off plaza, in which there were only a handful of neo-Confederates from the League of the South, a racist group that according to the Southern Poverty Law Center still favours southern secession.
“If fascists make the trains run on time, where are your people?” the “antifa” jeered at 3pm, an hour after the demonstration was supposed to start.
A few minutes later, more than 100 neo-Nazis marched into town, carrying guns, homemade painted shields and a fasces, the icon of fascism, made from a bundle of wooden dowels and an axe. Most wore black pants and black shirts with black combat boots, although some had to settle for black sneakers. Asked why the group was late, one leader said something about car trouble.
The neo-Nazis set up a sound system and launched into a series of long and racist speeches, which the anti-fascists tried to drown out with shouts, chants, whistles and bullhorns. The sound system was repeatedly unplugged.
In between speeches, the neo-Nazis waved flags, saluted and chanted the names of their leaders. They did not hide their delight at having a hostile crowd to play to.
“You’re like movie extras we don’t have to pay!” a regional leader of the National Socialist Movement shouted.
The neo-Nazis said they had chosen Pikeville for their rally in order to support working-class white families in Appalachia, a region they said had been abandoned by both political parties and left struggling with drug addiction and economic woes. Pike County is more than 98% white.
One infuriated Pikeville resident, however, noted that in a propaganda video announcing the protest, one of the neo-Nazi leaders had mispronounced “Appalachia”.
The rally ended with a group portrait.
“Why do you put people through this?” an anti-fascist shouted, through a bullhorn.
The neo-Nazis got into their cars to leave. A line of riot police blocked the counter-protesters. Both groups claimed victory.
“Yeah, we win,” a counter-protester said into her phone, her red bandanna tucked into a back pocket.
“We are fucking fantastic!” two anti-fascists briefly chanted, through bullhorns.
An extremist dangled his combat boots out of his car window as he drove off. Others waved the Confederate flag or gave the finger.
Even the riot cops got a smattering of applause from a small group of bystanders. “Blue lives matter!” someone shouted.
One anti-fascist protester, designated a media contact, said she was a mother who lived in the region.
“We do not have time for this in Appalachia,” she said. “People in Appalachia have real problems. We do not need Nazi groups coming in, acting like they know or have some idea what’s best for us.
“Grow up, get over your silly race war fantasies, leave me and my kids and my neighbors alone.”
Events in Pikeville at a close, the neo-Nazis retreated to a hilltop deep in the woods, south of Pikeville, for the rest of their weekend unity summit, which included an evening of “white ethnic music”. At around 8pm, guards kicked out invited reporters. Irish folk songs were being sung. Someone had brought mead.
As reporters drove away, a few last chants of “Hail Victory!” could be heard – along with the sound of the neo-Nazis applauding themselves.
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