Tennessee Antifascists Boldly Disrupt, Infiltrate And Expose Annual White Supremacist Gatherings

| Resist!

Above Photo: Antifascists chanting and singing “La Bamba” at the white supremacist gathering in Montgomery Bell State Park last month. (WNV/Alvine)

Despite mounting challenges from a state keen on welcoming white supremacists, antifascist activists are learning that deep organizing is the way they win.

A wooden bridge guarded by two well-armed park rangers was all that separated us from more than 60 of the most infamous national and international white supremacists. It was the last weekend of June, and they had come to Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, Tennessee for the National Solutions Conference, a gathering of “race realism” organizations from around the world.

As the afternoon sun beat down on us — some 50 or so antifascists — we sang and chanted in protest to the hate-filled gathering across the lake.

Knoxville attorney and antifascist Chris Irwin texted me from inside the conference, having somehow registered and paid for entry without detection.

“I can hear ‘La Bamba,’” he wrote. “They can hear you. They’re begging their people not to engage. They know they’ll lose if they do.”

If there is a theme song for antifascists in Tennessee, it is the beloved Mexican folk song “La Bamba.” We received some attention for it a couple years ago — when we drowned out and ultimately shut down a white supremacist rally — and since then we haven’t missed a chance to play our favorite song for them.

As I read Irwin’s message over the microphone to the crowd that had marched to the water’s edge — the closest we were permitted to get — cheers erupted and the music got louder.

Over the next few hours we continued to heckle and taunt them from across the lake. At one point, we got on a boat to get closer to their side, unfurling a banner with the words “White Supremacy Kills.” Although they never engaged us, we knew — thanks to Irwin — that our presence had made an impact.

“None of the Nazis could escape it,” he texted me later.

This was important to find out because — over the eight years we’ve been protesting these gatherings in the park — our ability to mount any kind of opposition has been severely weakened by a state government that’s all too keen on welcoming and defending white supremacists.

Not only was a resolution denouncing white supremacy killed by legislators in 2018, but Gov. Bill Lee recently signed a proclamation declaring July 13 a day of celebration for slave trader and war criminal Nathan Bedford Forrest. To make matters worse, antifascists in Tennessee are routinely met with militarized police and barricades, whenever we show up to protest a white supremacist gathering.

Protesters on boats unfurling a banner with the words “White Supremacy Kills.” (WNV/Alvine)

It should not be surprising then that — according to the Anti-Defamation League — one in every five white supremacist gatherings in the United States takes place in Tennessee. It’s become a safe place for them to spread their ideologies.

Despite these challenges, we continue to do our best to disrupt white supremacist gatherings. If we don’t, they look stronger — making it more likely that those on the fringes (usually young, white men) will be attracted to join their ranks. What’s more, those among us who are white (myself included) feel a particular responsibility to speak out. Plus, it is just safer for us to do so.

Nevertheless, disruption is only part of our goal. We also think it is urgent to find out who attends these gatherings and what they are organizing. After all, it was at a 2017 conference in Montgomery Bell that Richard Spencer announced the deadly “Unite the Right” rally, which took place weeks later in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In short, having Irwin on the inside was about more than finding out how much our protest got to them — it was about getting hours of video depicting the inner workings of the National Solutions Conference, its most virulent followers and leaders like former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke.

Montgomery Bell

White supremacists started coming to Montgomery Bell State Park in 2012. They wanted to hold their gatherings somewhere far away from big cities like Washington, D.C. and Charlotte, North Carolina, where protesters were effective at pressuring private hotels into canceling reservations.

American Renaissance, or AmRen — the 30-year-old white supremacist publication put out by the New Century Foundation — was the first to come to Montgomery Bell. While there have been different sponsors over the years, it’s always a mix of the same hate groups and participants.

For a while, there was only one conference per year. Then, starting in 2018 — around the time the Tennessee legislature killed that resolution denouncing white supremacy — it became a twice per summer affair. Not coincidentally, this is also when protesting started to get a lot harder.

Prior to that, protesters moved freely about the park. We chatted with the park rangers, ate meals in the restaurant and used the public restrooms in the State Park Inn & Conference Center — where the gatherings take place. We also reserved pavilions and held anti-racist teach-ins that brought everyone from church groups to the local NAACP out to protest.

In 2018, the state denied our usual permit to access the public restrooms and have pop-up tents and tables where we had gathered in the past. When we arrived, we were met with barricades, a “protest pen” and dozens of armed officers.

Antifascists encourage white people to speak out against white supremacy. (WNV/Alvine)

Nashville attorney Will York called the denial of the permit a reflection of Tennessee’s racist history, comparing it to “the 1950s sit-ins, when the state protected white business owners wanting to keep people of color from certain establishments. These conferences are virulently racist, and the state is complicit in effectively banning all people of color from the lunch counter in our publicly-funded state park.”

Ultimately, the state’s actions had the desired effect. Our numbers dropped to less than 20 people at the second conference in 2018.

Nevertheless, we returned to the park in May to protest another AmRen conference. This time, we had a group of about 50 activists ranging from individuals aligned with antifa to those with a deep commitment to nonviolence. Despite differences in beliefs and tactics, all agreed to act together — something made possible by years of relationship building and an overall mutual respect for the core work of anti-racism.

Our march was met by a police line on the road to the inn, preventing us from approaching the front of it. At this point, we didn’t know about the spot by the lake that we would use a month later. So, we hunkered down for a standoff with the police. After a few hours in the hot sun, someone squeezed a plastic bottle, shooting a stream of water into the air. Whether it was an accident or a harmless act of frustration is unclear, but it was all it took to get the police — some mounted on horses — to attack the protesters.

Four people were arrested and held in jail under cash-only bonds, an unusually harsh penalty for Dickson County. One protester was charged with felony aggravated assault because of the water. Another is still recovering from seven broken ribs, a broken nose and a displaced heart defibrillator.

Naturally, we expected more of the same when we returned to Montgomery Bell in June to protest the National Solutions Conference.

Protesters range from individuals aligned with antifa to those with a deep commitment to nonviolence. (WNV/Alvine)

This time, however, the police had set up the barricade in such a way that we were funneled down a road we hadn’t noticed before. At first, we assumed it would take us further away from the conference center, but much to our surprise we found ourselves by the edge of the lake — facing the back of the inn. We weren’t more than a stone’s throw away.

Part of me believes that this was a smart change in strategy by the police. They got what they wanted (the protesters in an area separate from the white supremacists that they could control) and we got what we wanted (a spot close enough to make our presence known). That said, it was likely just dumb luck on both of our parts. Looking back, the police probably expected us to stop at the barricade and for there to be another standoff. Regardless, if it was strategy or luck, for the first time in four conferences, the white supremacists could see and hear us.

What most of them didn’t realize, however, is that we could also see and hear them. Irwin was on the inside, and he was recording everything.

Organize, organize, organize

Despite being well known throughout Tennessee for showing up at white supremacist events to heckle participants, Irwin was able to walk in the front door and pay his entry fee like everyone else attending the National Solutions Conference. No one stopped him and — unlike most people there — he made no effort to conceal his identity.

At one point, Irwin even found himself sitting next to David Duke. So, he introduced himself and told the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard that he was an antifascist. There was no response from Duke or other conference-goers as they learned Irwin’s identity.

“I don’t think they knew what to do with me,” he said. “But by the end of the second day they were getting some ideas.”

Nevertheless, that’s not what frightened Irwin the most. It was the organizing he saw.

“There were tables laden with propaganda — talk about alternative financial networks. I heard some crazy stuff, but I saw organization. They’re talking about brothers not fighting brothers anymore because they have one enemy. They’re flying fascists in to participate from around the world. These guys are serious. They can come up with large amounts of cash.”

Irwin said he didn’t see that kind of organization — or desire to work together — among antifascists and anti-racists.

“Good anarchists and activists are always fighting with one another. We’ve benefited for decades with them fighting each other, but they’re starting to put the knives down. We’re not.”

According to Irwin, they’re creating structures and frameworks for when climatic or economic collapse occurs, and they have a network that crosses the nation.

“We’re just on the internet. We’ve abandoned that ground. We’re one economic collapse away. We’re not prepared. They are.”

Irwin said that the first step toward building an antifascist movement that can effectively respond in the present and future is to organize at the community level, face to face.

“We’re going to lose if it comes down to violence,” Irwin said. “If this becomes about violence, they’re going to beat us.”

Despite their efforts at organizing, Irwin noted that it’s not their strength.

“They’re worried about organizing. They know that’s where they’ll get beat. If it comes down to punching it out with them, that’s fighting on their ground. They’d love it.”

Tennessee activists are planning to do more organizing throughout the year, and not just in Montgomery Bell State Park. (WNV/Alvine)

While those of us organizing around Montgomery Bell were already thinking along these lines, Irwin’s undercover work confirmed our intuition. Now more than ever, we realize our organizing can’t be confined to the conference and the week leading up to it.

Going forward, we’ll be organizing in Burns and the surrounding communities in the months before and between the conferences. We want to do our own flyering and chalking, and we want to meet with local congregations and organizations to talk about what is happening in their own backyard.

That’s what it means to fight on our ground. What’s more, it’s something most of us are already doing on a daily basis. If we can do it more consciously and in unison, then we can create an antifascist movement that’s able to respond in the present, as well as in the future, leaving little space for violent and hateful ideologies to spread.

  • Greeley Miklashek

    Here’s a little “race reality” for us all: we are 99.9% genetically identical from one human to the next, irrespective of the superficial “racial” distinctions between us. Furthermore, we only vary at 40 of our 40,000 genes, which is a level of genetic identity only found in one other mammal, the blind mole rat, and in 16 social insects, and sets us apart from the other many millions of species on God’s green earth. Want to celebrate something? Try celebrating our commonality. Go Bernie and Elizabeth!

  • ANTONIO

    AHHHH the resistance! For every action there is a counter action. The Resistance was alive and well during Vichy France against the invading Germans, and ultimately won and kicked the bastards out. The problem is that these are Americans and cannot be kicked out. They can be silenced, where the silence can rot and fester, leading to even more dangerous ground. The US Nazis must be educated, and love must be part of the equation, otherwise Nazism will never be wiped out. Why are they racist xenophobes, etc? They must be made to understand that they are the puppets of capitalism in a grotesque game of “divide and rule”. Its a mistake to treat them as the enemy when the enemy is actually behind the sleight of hand.

  • Michael MacPherson

    Brilliant and well said! If we want to defeat racism, the Police State our country has become, and throw the racist, Xenophobes, and misogynistic fascists out of power, we have to elect a candidate who is not taking money from corporations and the right wing billionaires.

    If we elect a candidate who is taking money from corporations and billionaires, if elected they will work for them, not for the people, and the corporations will continue running the country as they see fit, and never be held accountable, unfortunately too many voters see elections as reality shows and contests to vote for the candidate who looks the most presidential, sounds the most presidential, and tells us what we want to hear, this is how we got Trump.

    Unless we elect candidates like Elisabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who are not taking money from corporations and Billionaires, corporations like the fossil Fuel industry, Banks, and insurance companies will continue to run the country. Bernie and Elisabeth only take money from the people and if elected we are who they will work for.

  • tsyganka

    I’m all for Bernie — Warren, not so much, for reasons I can more fully detail later if you like. But as to accepting big money:

    1) Warren’s re-election campaign’s Federal Election Commission (FEC) report shows that Jonathan Lavine and his wife both donated $5,400. Lavine is co-managing partner at Bain Capital and chief investment officer at Bain Capital Credit. The FEC report also shows $5,400 donations from Larry Rasky and his wife. Rasky heads Rasky Partners, one of the busiest and most powerful lobbying firm in Massachusetts. — This info is from the Washington Examiner, via the Washington Free Beacon; both are right-wing rags, but would they lie about FEC reports? (Could be; they’re right-wing, after all.)

    2) In an interview with Chris Hayes, Warren talked about her 2020 presidential campaign decision to forego big-ticket fundraisers during the Democratic primary but not in the general election (assuming she’s nominated):

    “So, look, I’ve never actually been in a deeply competitive primary. I get it. Republicans come to the table armed to the teeth. They’ve got all of their donors, their wealthy, wealthy donors. They’ve gone their super PACs. They’ve got their dark money. … I’m just going to be blunt. I do not believe in unilateral disarmament. We got to go into these fights, and we got to be willing to win these fights.” — This info is from RealClearPolitics, rather more trustworthy than the above two. I can see her point, but still… it does constitute a renege, and she puts everything in war terms.

    I wish she’d quit yelling “fight” all the time. We’ve had enough of war and other violence.

    I strongly object to Warren due to her war votes (budget, sanctions, etc.) and stances that 1) it’s a “moral imperative” to militarily and financially support Israel (i.e., its terrorist govt that slaughters Palestinians) and 2) the US is right to support violent Juan Guaido in the overthrow of Venezuela’s elected govt. I also feel she’s untrustworthy in that she failed to endorse Bernie in 2016, but apparently cut a deal with war-monger Clinton, the self-proclaimed “architect” of the overthrow of Libya (the war refugee crisis continues).

    Nonetheless, if Bernie chose her as VP, I’d vote for that ticket (Sanders/Warren). I would not vote for a Warren/Sanders ticket, however.

    Also, if Biden, Harris, or Buttigieg is nominated or is on a Sanders/X ticket, I would not vote for that either. Running any of those 3 will guarantee a win by fascist trump (with a little help from his foreign friends).

    I look forward to some bright day when the two-party whipsaw is no more and candidates from Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative can run for office without being sabotaged. Good luck, world.

  • Michael MacPherson

    Thank you for the update, I am saddened to find out that Elisabeth Warren has so many skeletons in her closet. My number one is Bernie Sanders, if Bernie wins the presidency this country will once again have Democracy, freedom, and Constitutional Law for everyone back again, actually the Constitution needs some amendments to serve everyone equally. I have no use for the rest of the Democrats because they are taking too much money from corporations and the billionaire right wing.

    I agree that a Bernie/warren ticket would be one I would vote for. But if Warren wins the nomination, in my opinion even with her faults there is no one else that would work more for the people then her. The other candidates are too involved with the corporations. We don’t need another debacle like in 2016 where Bernie supporters gave their votes to Trump, which still baffles me that they could be that stupid.

  • tsyganka

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    I’m also baffled that any Bernie voters gave their votes to trump, who’s the antithesis of everything our country needs, and who’s so-called platform was the antithesis of Bernie’s. I think some of those voters were duped by the media’s deliberate conflation of Bernie’s populism with trump’s demagoguery; I think many others stayed home out of disgust for the candidates the corporations and media toadies chose ‘for‘ us.

    What do you think of Tulsi Gabbard? I’d vote for a Sanders/Gabbard ticket too. I have some misgivings about Tulsi, but she’s the only one who’s made peace the focus of her campaign and also the only one with the courage to call out Harris on Harris’s terrible record as D.A. and A.G. in California. Tulsi didn’t back down from that in a post-debate interview either. Moreover, the interviewer asked Tulsi if she’d got the answer she wanted from Harris, and Tulsi refused to make it about herself. She said what was important was that the voters didn’t get any answer from Harris. (I saw that clip; Harris was flustered and deflected from here to breakfast.)

    My question may be meaningless at this point, as Tulsi so far hasn’t met the donation and poll requirements for the September debates. I hope people step up in that regard, because PEACE is one of the most important wishes of all normal people – and not many candidates are talking about it.

  • Michael MacPherson

    I agree with you there Tulsi seams to be a good candidate, but what I would like to to see is someone tackling getting money out of politics, climate change, switching over to renewable energy, forcing the corporations out of power in this country. Between Bernie and Warren most of those have been addressed, and mostly by Bernie, but it will be an up hill battle for Bernie, the DNC made it tough for him the last time out because he is not a Democrat.

    It is still incomprehensible to me that the idiot voters still have Joe Biden as one of the top contenders, as soon as he declared he was running for the presidency the big corporations were throwing him fund raising parties and he was giving his loyalty to them. The voters don’t care that these Democrats taking money from the corporations will be working part time for the corporations which means they will not be held accountable for their crimes and no corporate CEO will do jail time. Also Cory Booker took over $60,000 in bribes from the banking industry to vote in favor of getting rid of most of the regulations from the Dodd-Frank bill so we are vulnerable to another 2008 bank bail out.

    It really bothers me that politicians who are good charismatic orators like former president Obama, who did the Bidding of the Banking Industry, Insurance companies, and Fossil fuel industries protected them and allowed Goldman sacks to name all cabinet positions that dealt with finance, allowed the fossil fuel industry to do as they pleased, and even the ACA was to appease the insurance industry as the medical insurance companies could still make their profits, at one point during the Obama administration the democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, at that point Obama could have put through single payer healthcare but the insurance industry would not allow that. Obama’s Attorney Generals refused to put George W. Bush on trail for war crimes and would not prosecute the corporations for their crimes against the American people.