Tennessee community braces for conflict ahead of White Lives Matter rally

SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. — In the rows of matching brick duplexes, natives of this Tennessee community live among immigrants from Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, a sign of the slowly changing demographics of this city 60 miles southeast of Nashville.

The Shelbyville Housing Authority neighborhood sits just behind one of the city’s main intersections, the site of a “White Lives Matter” rally set for Saturday in protest of longtime Middle Tennesseans having to coexist with their newer, foreign-born neighbors. It follows a similar demonstration held in Charlottesville, Va., this August, a rally that turned violent and left one counterprotester dead.

Now, some Shelbyville residents are concerned about how events will unfold this weekend in their city of 21,000.

Varina Hinojosa talks with friends Oct. 12, 2017, about her concerns with the upcoming White Lives Matter rally that is scheduled for Oct. 28, 2017, in Shelbyville, Tenn.

“It does worry me, because most of the housing project is a bunch of different races,” said Varina Hinojosa, 37.

More: Across Tennessee, counterprotesters prepare for White Lives Matter rally

Across the street, Connie Price looked out at the children playing in the public housing development.

She remembers in 1980 watching robed Ku Klux Klan members walk the sidewalk along U.S. 41 in Shelbyville, lingering outside Bright Temple Church of God in Christ — a predominately African-American church where one of her friends attended — and passing out fliers on the corner.

Nearly four decades later, Price said she dreads the thought of another white supremacist demonstration in her city.

“I’m not going to have them coming over here starting nothing,” said Price, who like Hinojosa is a white woman born and raised in Tennessee.

Why this town?

Though speculation and rumors continue to spread among residents in Shelbyville as to why a group of white nationalist organizations — including those that were part of the August “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville — chose their city, the leaders of the event have made it clear: The demographics of Middle Tennessee have changed, in part because of the resettlement of refugees and other immigrants moving to the region.

The State Department reports that over the last 15 years around 18,000 refugees have arrived in Tennessee, amounting to just over one-quarter of 1% of the state’s population. That figure doesn’t include immigrants who have moved to the region.

More: Far right’s Richard Spencer returns to Charlottesville, tiki torch in hand

“There has been a big dumping of refugees all over the area,” said Brad Griffin, a member of League of the South, which has spearheaded the organization of the "White Lives Matter" rally in Shelbyville and a possible second demonstration that day in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Nashville police investigate after a shooting at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn., Sept. 24, 2017. One person was killed in the shooting.

The cause is hardly new for League of the South, an organization seeking the independence of Southern states.

Griffin said mass immigration and refugee resettlement has become even more relevant after police say 25-year-old Emanuel Kidega Samson, who moved to the United States from Sudan in 1996, opened fire at a church in Antioch, Tenn., last month, killing one woman and injuring seven others as Sunday service let out, according to authorities.

Griffin said Nationalist Front chose Middle Tennessee, in part, because it believes law enforcement here will keep counterprotesters away from his group, which he said didn’t happen when they rallied in Charlottesville.

“We just do not trust the police in a lot of these Democratic-leaning cities to enforce the law,” Griffin said.

More: ‘White Lives Matter’ rally planned Oct. 28 for Tennessee

On top of that, they don’t suspect nearly as many anti-Fascist counterprotesters to show up to an event in Middle Tennessee, compared to the turnout in Virginia.

Among the groups rallying as part of Nationalist Front are the National Socialist Movement, the Traditionalist Worker Party, League of the South and Vanguard America. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers each organization to be a hate group, falling under neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate and white nationalist categories.

‘Everybody is talking about it’

Inside Pop a Top, one of the few bars in Shelbyville, Ruby Tucker said the White Lives Matter rally has been discussed more than anything else in her bar over the last two weeks.

“Everybody is talking about it,” Tucker said. “And I’ve heard one person say they’re in favor of it.”

A counterprotester clubs a man’s head during a feud in the street in front of Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park, during the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017.

Tucker, 49, who has co-owned a bar here with her mother for 27 years describes the dimly lit watering hole as a “country bar.”

When the mother and daughter first opened their business nearly three decades ago, Tucker said, “you didn’t hardly see black people come to the bar.”

Today, Tucker describes Pop a Top as a place where "the N-word is not allowed," a place where Latino customers are some of her best tippers and where Somali immigrants — “good people like Memo and Antonio and all of them,” she said — are welcomed like everyone else.

More: Charlottesville fallout disrupts, delays plans for more far-right, alt-right rallies

James Keele, 50, a self-described "country boy," disagrees with much of the cause and message perpetuated by white nationalist groups such as those who rallied in Charlottesville.

Keele’s great, great-grandfather fought in the Civil War.

“To me, it’s a disgrace for them to carry around symbols of the Confederacy, because this has nothing to do with the Civil War, period,” said Keele. “Never has, never will.”

Keele said he is hardly bothered by immigrants who are in Bedford County, Tenn.

“What I would like to ask the White Lives Matter group is, if they’re willing to, do they want a job at Tyson’s?” Keele said. “They’re going to say no. They don’t want a job at Tyson (Food). They’re not going to work there. So what’s wrong with a Somalian or Mexican or whoever working there?”

Shelbyville stays neutral

Last week, Shelbyville’s city council passed a resolution committing to support efforts by law enforcement to keep people and property safe while upholding both parties’ constitutional rights to free speech in public spaces.

No event permit is required to hold the rally on a public sidewalk in the city, which Nationalist Front says it will do.

In the resolution, Mayor Ewing Wallace Cartwright and council members said they acknowledged that the “community is caught between conflicting ideological ideas,” but they didn’t specifically denounce the views of those involved in the event.

Although Murfreesboro has not yet determined whether it will grant a permit to League of the South to rally outside the Rutherford County courthouse on Saturday, the city opposes the beliefs of the organizers behind the White Lives Matter rally.

"We condemn in no uncertain terms the ideologies of white supremacy and white nationalism," Mayor Shane McFarland said in a statement.

Sharon Edwards, chair of the Bedford County Democratic Party, is campaigning against the rally.

“As a white person, I feel like it’s my job to stand up to other white people who are saying these things,” said Edwards. “I was born and raised here. We love where we live. We love everyone in it. And they don’t get to come into the town and speak for us.”

Follow Natalie Allison on Twitter: @natalie_allison

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