After recent violent confrontations at Auburn University and U.C. Berkeley, the site of the next bloody showdown between white nationalists and anti-fascists was set to be Pikeville, Kentucky, a small, sleepy town nestled in the Appalachian foothills. That’s where the white nationalist Traditionalist Worker Party announced they and other groups would hold a rally on the steps of the courthouse, and where antifa groups from across the South and Midwest immediately announced they would meet them. In the end, despite heavy bluster on both sides, the event was reasonably peaceful: lots of shouting, lots of racial slurs, but no head wounds or broken windows.
The rally itself was held on Saturday, April 29, but the night before the Traditionalist Worker Party and their new coalition—among them a KKK affiliate called the Global Crusaders, the National Socialist Movement, some militia types, and an old anti-Semite from Illinois named Arthur Jones — held an informal assembly up in the hills of Democrat, KY near Whitesburg, in a grassy field on private land off a muddy, winding dirt road.
The event was organized by the head of TWP, Matthew Heinberg, who chose Pikeville due to the economic downturn from the loss of coal industry jobs, and because eastern Kentucky is a predominantly white area that overwhelmingly voted for Trump. Heimbach sees the region, as he told his new friends, as symbolic of a sector of white America that’s been abandoned by the federal government.
“We didn’t leave America,” he told the crowd. “America left us. Our people were motivated by Donald Trump’s election and by the promises he made us.”
Among the many speakers, “Commander” Jeff Schoep, head of the National Socialist Movement, was particularly fiery and blunt when discussing the burgeoning racist alliance. “It’s not about the uniform you wear or the flag you fly,” he told the group. “It’s about the color of our skin.”
Among various reaffirmations of the group’s core white supremacist beliefs, the potential for violence was also discussed frequently. Schoeps made clear that any cowardice in the face of antifa violence would be met harshly.
“If I see anybody running or breaking ranks you better hope the reds catch you,” he said, not quite joking, to nervous-sounding laughter. “You better hope the antifa get you.”
Most of the speakers only briefly mentioned immigration or jobs, focused as they were on more ancient hatreds. Arthur Jones, who is 69 years old, denounced the government as a “two-party, Jew party, queer party system,” and complained, “President Trump has surrounded himself by Jews, including a Jew in his own family.” The crowd muttered in disgust.
The next day, in an empty downtown Pikeville, a barricaded section around the courthouse awaited the TWP and friends, as did a line of various local and state law enforcement officers and roughly over a hundred counter protesters. At the rally’s scheduled start time of 2 p.m., only a few people from the secessionist neo-Confederate League of the South were penned into the designated Nazi area; Heimbach and his followers were more than an hour late. The protesters and the League of the South passed the time by trading insults, as the locals stood by and watched in dismay.
“I just wish everybody would pack up and go home and give us our town back,” Steve Hartsock said, a Pikeville city commissioner.
“These people are not from here,” said another man standing by, who declined to give his name (“I work in local government,” he explained.) “Neither side. They singled us out for an unknown reason. I wish they’d just go back to wherever they’re from.”
Heimbach and friends finally showed up late and loud, in a long convoy of cars. A few openly carried assault rifles. The antifa crowd responded with boos, jeers, and chants: “Punch a Nazi in the face! Every nation, every race!” a section of the crowd yelled, in unison.
“What are you waiting for?” a guy in a TWP shirt roared back. He had SS lightning bolts tattooed on his face, along with a straight razor running down his jawline; a Confederate flag decorated his arm. A few minutes later, the white supremacists broke into taunts of their own: “Take a bath! Take a bath!” they yelled, and “Race traitor cucks!” mixed with an occasional Nazi salute.
The afternoon wore on, hotter and louder with each passing minute. The various white supremacist groups took turns at the mic, which was occasionally interrupted by antifa agents disconnecting its power source. Yet for the most part both camps stayed docilely on their sides of the street. Reporters and photographers roamed between them, snapping photos. Rob Musick, a local pastor in a long white robe, tried to remind everyone of Jesus’ love for all parties involved, and tried vainly to get Heimbach’s attention.
“Matt!” he yelled “It’s nice to see you, brother.”
“We started dialoguing a few days ago,” he explained hopefully. Heimbach didn’t meet his eyes or respond to his greetings.
The TWP and associates, having had their say, posed for a group photo in front of the courthouse and began a procession back to their vehicles. Antifa loudly followed, still remaining on their side of the street. The barb-trading increased in aggressiveness, as the borders became less delineated without the metal barricades. So much so that suddenly a column of state police in riot gear swiftly appeared and created a wall of shields.
Neither group seemed interested in challenging the wall of helmeted police, focusing instead on congratulating their side on a clear-cut victory. The TWP drove away, tossing a single concussion grenade a block away from the protestors as a parting noisy gift. The antifa marched back through downtown to their cars, a column of riot police nervously keeping an eye on them and the storefront windows they passed by, a noticeable shared sense of victory in the air and a few relieved expressions on the faces of local police.
The war would next move to the most familiar battlefront of them all: Twitter.
Additional reporting by Anna Merlan.