White nationalist groups are planning political rallies in Kentucky on Saturday, prompting fears of violent clashes with counter-protesters.
The Traditionalist Worker Party and the National Socialist Movement are hosting events in Pikeville, Ky., where city officials have taken steps to preempt disorder.
Local events have been canceled and businesses are closed for the day. The University of Pikeville shut down, telling students to leave town for safety reasons. City officials have taken the unusual step of banning the use of masks, a tactic used by counter-protesters.
Matthew Heimbach, chairman of the Traditionalist Worker Party, said Friday that his group won’t be covering their faces.
“Our mission is to be here and to be a force for the people,” he said. “We are part of the region.”
He said his group has been communicating with Pikeville authorities “to be sure all sides are safe and all sides are able to express themselves.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups across the country, describes the National Socialist Movement as one that “specializes in theatrical and provocative protests … (and) is one of the largest and most prominent neo-Nazi groups in the United States.” It describes the Traditionalist Worker Party as “a white nationalist group that advocates for racially pure nations and communities and blames Jews for many of the world’s problems” and is allied with neo-Nazi organizations.
Law enforcement officers have been preparing for potential clashes. A substantial police force will be deployed between designated protest and counter-protest zones. The city is collaborating with the Kentucky State Police, and the Kentucky National Guard has been briefed on the situation.
“I don’t know if one person will show up or 1,000 people will show up,” said City Manager Donovan Blackburn, who said he supports the University of Pikeville’s decision to recommend people avoid downtown or leave the area.
State Sen. Ray Jones, who represents the area, also said people should avoid the downtown area just to be safe.
“This should not be a reflection on the people of Pikeville or eastern Kentucky,” he said. “These people are coming from outside the region.”
At the same time, Blackburn said the city intends to allow people to exercise their First Amendment rights to free expression, as long as it’s done in a lawful manner.
One counter event — the Rally for Equality for American Values — has been canceled, with organizers saying they plan to reschedule.
“While we understand any disappointment and share in it ourselves, our original goal of a safe, family-friendly celebration of equality and American values is no longer possible at this time,” Christian Tyler Marcum, one of the organizers of the event, said in a statement. “We look forward to seeing everyone at the rescheduled event.”
University of Pikeville President Burton Webb posted a cautionary letter to parents, writing that “several reputable sources” consider the Traditionalist Worker Party to be a “Neo-Nazi organization that has a strongly racist platform.”
He further wrote that at least two other groups are planning to come to Pikeville, those calling themselves Anti-Racist Action and Anti-Fascist Action. “These two groups are vehemently opposed to the (Traditionalist Worker Party), but their tendency to incite violence causes me grave concern,” he said.
The state’s Office of Homeland Security also offered advice for residents: “The people who are apt to be participating in the protest and rally feed off of controversy and confrontation,” said Mike Sunseri, deputy director of the agency. “The best thing that people can do is not engage with these folks.”
Residents told to avoid Ky. town over white nationalist, counter rallies