On 28 October 2017, a coalition of white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups descended on two towns in Middle Tennessee for a ‘White Lives Matter’ rally. Seeking to draw attention to the resettlement of Somali and Sudanese refugees in Tennessee, organizers of the demonstration protested that the refugees harbour an inherent dislike for white people and white culture; and through a succession of speeches, coined the idea of a nationalist socialist country, an explicitly Nazi America. In a victory for Antifa (anti-fascists), the demonstrators at the first scheduled rally in Shelbyville were met by a large police presence and over 400 counter-protesters, leaving the 160 ‘White Lives Matter’ demonstrators, clad with swastikas and other oppressive symbols of white supremacy, starkly outnumbered. A second afternoon demonstration scheduled to take place in Murfreesboro was abruptly cancelled, which was news to the hundreds of boisterous counter-protesters already waiting there.
The rallies were organized by an umbrella of white supremacist organizations, including the League of the South, Traditionalist Worker’s Party, National Socialist Movement and Vanguard America – all considered neo-Nazi or neo-Confederate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which tracks hate groups. The white supremacist protesters gathered behind white shields emblazoned with red crosses, and many used Nazi salutes and chanted “blood and soil”, a Nazi slogan. Brad Griffin, a member of a group known as the League of the South, told HuffPost, “We don’t want the federal government to keep dumping all these refugees into Middle Tennessee,” before going on to discuss his desire to create a white “ethnostate.”
Meanwhile, counter-protesters came laden with signs promoting peace, human rights and love. Doing their best to drown out the racist blustering of the demonstrators, Antifa played celebratory songs such as ‘La Bamba’, as well as speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. Local Tennessee officials and faith leaders strongly denounced the rallies, asserting that they inflamed the already rife racial, ethnic and religious animosities that exist in Tennessee. “Tennessee is one of the states that has seen a rise in anti-Muslim bigotry in recent years, particularly since the election,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, referring to Saturday’s protesters. Reflecting on the power of Antifa’s counter-protest, one participant said, “If we want to fight hate, we need to do it with love. Love is very powerful.”
Over the last 15 years, around 18,000 refugees have been resettled in Tennessee, less than 1 percent of the state’s population, according to the Tennessean newspaper. Unfortunately, the protests targeted at this minority population are only the latest in a series of rallies being carried out by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in the U.S. The largest of their kind since the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where one counter protester died, the rallies are the human embodiment of the tense U.S. race relations in the Trump era. Speaking to this point, University of Toronto sociology professor Ellen Berrey told Global News “They are on the rise, in the sense that white supremacists have been emboldened by the current political movement, by the racial politics of U.S. President Donald Trump.” Notably, or perhaps more so disturbingly, many of the protesters who took part in the ‘White Lives Matter’ rallies in Tennessee were key figureheads in the organising and execution of the violent Charlottesville demonstrations in August 2017.
Tennessee’s opposition to white supremacy, and against the denunciation of refugees, ultimately defined the day’s events. Antifa arrived earlier than the white nationalists in Shelbyville, and in greater number. Furthermore, the counter-protesters were represented in both Tennessee cities by an abundance of different ethnicities, faiths, and backgrounds; a victory in pursuit of dismantling racism in the U.S., and across the globe – a victory for world peace.