An announcement was made several weeks ago that a permit had been issued for a KKK and neo-Nazi march in Knoxville. The spokesperson for the group when the story broke was from Detroit and it appeared Knoxville was chosen in hopes a receptive audience might be found to the anti-immigration focus of the rally. Debate began immediately about how free speech should be when it is hate speech. A discussion followed among many groups regarding an appropriate response. Some advocated ignoring the protesters, contending that they want attention and if they don’t get it, they will go away. Others pointed out that they seem to not return to places where they are clearly not welcome and that large crowds should be on hand to ridicule the protesters.
There is no way to know how many people stayed home to pointedly ignore them, but large numbers of people came downtown to ridicule them and let them know they are not welcome in Knoxville.
The first sign that this was not a normal Saturday Farmer’s Market downtown was the beat of the helicopter blades hovering over the city. By 1:30 groups of counter-protesters had gathered in Krutch Park. Some moved on the old Knoxville Courthouse, while others waited for the National Socialists, which is what they prefer to be called, to march past. The other evidence that something was about to happen was the massive police presence on the square and, particularly, just off the north end of the square.
A small confrontation erupted in Krutch Park regarding a sign that read, “Yankees Go Home,” in reference to the fact that this march was sponsored by a group from Detroit.
While a lone figure had circulated throughout the square looking for something I could not ascertain, a motorcade finally came through well past the originally reported start time of 2:00. Most of the vehicles had darkly tinted windows and out of state license plates. After parking in the Market Square Garage, the group assembled just inside its exit as startled Knoxvillians left the farmer’s market and arrived downtown for an afternoon in the city. The police presence on Wall Street grew to a size I’ve never witnessed. Reports are circulating that much of the force was from state and federal authorities.
The group finally began their march just after 3:00, winding through Market Square, down Market Street to Cumberland, then left to Gay Street, passing the Bijou on their way to the corner of Main where they were searched for weapons. Throughout the march, they were accosted by epithets from the counter protesters who were sometimes across the street and sometimes, particularly at the end of the march, on all sides. The proximity of the two groups, while carefully monitored otherwise, was uncomfortably close when the searches began. The closest exchanges and the greatest tension came on the north end of the Whittle building while they waited for the searches.
Despite the fact that the march was billed as a protest of the Arizona immigration law, inevitably other grievances and topics emerged. “Love your race,” was an oft repeated refrain. I heard references to abortion and the person-most-dressed-like-Hitler kept calling out particular counter-protesters by saying he knew who they were – they were Jews. Another phrase that got great circulation among the group was “Keep the south free.” The traditional Stars and Bars or Rebel flags mixed with Nazi flags and White Supremacy flags throughout the group.
After the protesters were through security, the counter-protesters were told they had to walk to the other end of the Whittle building to be screened before being admitted to the designated area. At least one weapon was dropped just short of the search area.
After that clearance, the two groups were positioned across Main Street, with the protesters on the front lawn of the old courthouse and the counter protesters on the opposite sidewalk. Police in riot gear lined up two and three deep were positioned between the two groups.
For most of the next hour neither group could hear the other as the two groups battled each other with their respective sound systems. The counter-protesters sang songs in Spanish, as well as “One Love,” by Bob Marley. For the most part, their efforts seemed devoted to ridiculing the Socialists and drowning out their speeches.
Given all of the above, I could hear little of what the neo-Nazis had to say. I heard one person introduced as their candidate for president. I heard one speaker compare the ridicule they were receiving to that Jesus Christ had to endure. Another stated that America had five years to make things right and if it did not then, presumably, their group would do so. It was unclear to me what, specifically, America had to do, but one might assume it would be to fulfill some of the goals of their group, such as to remove all non-whites from the country.
As 5:00 approached, with a soft rain falling, the group gathered for their return march. It was much the same as the reverse, with much yelling and screaming, charges and counter charges, but the course for the return went down Gay Street to Wall and back into the Market Square Garage. An interesting postlude happened there, when the protesters gathered on the top floor, hung their banners over the side and yelled at the group gathered below. For their part, many of the group on the ground encouraged the Nazis to jump. This paralleled one of the more popular posters carried by the counter-protesters which exhorted the Nazis to follow their leader over an image of Hitler killing himself.
The police finally moved the protesters away from the ledge and the motorcade soon sped away. It has been previously reported that there would be a cross-burning on private property tonight. One final dramatic element was added when a call came that an officer was down, prompting a number of police vehicles to leave the scene rapidly. Later word indicated he fell from one of the vehicles.
I’ll stop with the report and leave analysis and random thoughts to a later post.