US POLITICS

Neo-Nazis Tried To Take Over This Tiny Mining Town. It Didn’t Work.

White nationalists may have overestimated how they would be received in coal country.

US POLITICS
Nick Wagner
May 04, 2017 at 10:19 AM ET

PIKEVILLE, KY — Danny Carr is a self-described “mountain man,” and he certainly looks the part.

Leaning up against his truck in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country, the 65-year-old wears a coonskin cap and a “Duck Dynasty” T-shirt, with a large knife holstered on one hip. His cat, Precious, who accompanies him to his job doing yardwork, is on a leash tethered to the truck behind him. His Appalachian accent can be a little hard to understand, but one phrase comes ringing through: “Ku Klux Klan.”

Carr and I are talking about the Klan because deeper in the mountains, about 25 miles away, a group of about 70 white nationalists and neo-Nazis from around the country are gathering at a desolate property for a long-planned rally — and Carr isn’t happy about it.

“The sad thing about it is this is not our fight. This is not the way we believe. This is not the way we live,” Carr said. “Take it back to where you live at if you wanna live like that, but don’t bring it to us.”

The collection of white supremacist groups descended on Pikeville with the goal of spreading their message of white nationalism to a demographic that they thought would be receptive to it: white Appalachians who felt left behind during the eight years of the Obama administration and the decline of the coal industry under his watch. People, presumably, like Carr, who lives in a cabin further into the mountains than downtown Pikeville, and is proud that he doesn’t rely on the electric company for power. He’s OK with the fact that he doesn’t have running water. He loves his analogue TV, on which he can pick up five channels. He moved to Kentucky from South Carolina in the late ‘70s to work in the coalmines that once kept towns like Pikeville employed but have since fallen flat as the coal industry sputtered.

“The first thing I noticed about [Pikeville] was there was no racists,” Carr said. “Everybody got along great… the blacks and the whites loved one another and got along great. I said, ‘This is where I’m gonna live and die.’ It’s been over 40 years and guess what? This is where I’m gonna live and die.”

Neo-Nazis see Pikeville differently.

“This part of Kentucky has been hit really hard economically and this area in particular, a lot of people voted for Donald Trump, so we feel that it’s an area that’s ripe for nationalism,” said Jeff Schoep, the commander of the National Socialist Movement, the country’s most prominent neo-Nazi organization. “Trump was elected for speaking out on issues such as illegal immigration [and] bringing back American jobs – a lot of things that we talk about, that we’ve been talking about for years. So, if the people are gonna vote for him here, then we feel this is a receptive area for us.”

There’s no disputing that towns like Pikeville are Trump country. A look at most county-by-county maps of the 2016 election results show nothing but red blotches along the Appalachian Trail, from Tennessee to western New York, especially in the coal country of eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and eastern Ohio. In these areas, voters bought into the president’s campaign rhetoric, and helped propel him into the White House. He made grand promises to the people in coal country and offered lip service about how he wanted to “put our miners back to work.”

But despite the region’s appetite for Trump, Schoep may have overestimated the reception a group of neo-Nazis would receive there. Many of these people are down and out, but for most of the people I met in the predominantly white town, race relations aren’t front of mind.

Carr has seen groups, like Schoep’s NSM, come through Pikeville before — and be rejected by its residents. He remembers a time when the KKK dropped by and were nearly run out of town. He also remembers a time when there was a known racist in Pikeville, a KKK leader, who ran for constable against one of the few black men in the town – a race he lost.

Derrick Lilly, a black man who lives in Pikeville and attended Saturday’s neo-Nazi rally armed with a semi-automatic rifle, echoed Carr’s feelings about the small town he’s come to call home. He also shot down the idea that the NSM could offer anything of value to the people who live there.

“It ain’t like they’re gonna come in and create jobs,” he said. “They’re [just] creating controversy.”

‘NAZIS, GO HOME!’

The majority of the white nationalists who invaded Pikeville on a Saturday afternoon in late April were from places other than Kentucky, as were many of the people who showed up to protest their presence. The people who actually live in Pikeville, the people who the neo-Nazis are trying to court, want nothing to do with any of it.

Brent Debord, 48, has lived in town for about 20 years and worked in the coal mines for many of them. When mine work dried up, he was forced to find other jobs in landscaping. Debord, who now works at a grocery store, will be the first to tell you that times are tough for he and his wife. But no matter how tough the times are financially for him, he’s not interested in buddying up with a bunch of Nazis because, he said, “their rhetoric is just garbage.”

“I can understand some of the views [the white nationalists] have because…if you go and you try to get a job [in certain places in Pikeville] they’re not gonna hire you, because you look around and it’s mostly foreigners who are working,” he said. “That’s the reason people are a little upset, but they’re not gonna go so far as being racist. They’re a little upset, though. There’s certain places around here you can’t get a job at unless you’re a certain color.”

At about 3 pm Saturday, Schoep’s group marched into town, wearing all-black military-looking uniforms — many toting pistols or semi-automatic weapons — for their rally outside the town’s historic courthouse.

They were met by nearly 200 protesters, screaming things through megaphones, like “Nazis, go home!” and carrying signs. One protester had a drawing of Adolf Hitler blowing his brains out with the caption, “Follow Your Leader.” Another had a photo of Richard Spencer, the de-facto leader of the “alt-right” movement, getting punched in the face.

For all the white supremacists’ guns and aggressive gear, one notorious neo-Nazi symbol is conspicuously absent: Swastikas, which have been the symbol of Schoep’s NSM since the ‘70s, are nowhere to be seen — minus one that’s tattooed on a woman’s bare ribcage.

“We’ve been changing our image,” Schoep said with a smirk back in the mountains after the rally, where he and the rest of the white nationalists were holding a post-rally party. Schoep said they’d “stopped using the swastika publicly” in November in an effort to appeal to a broader audience, since Trump supporters, many of whom he thinks could align with the NSM, have been “conditioned to feel that [the NSM] is a little too extreme.”

“Breaking through that stereotype that we’re all racists, and killers, and genocidal maniacs –  that’s part of it,” he said.

FULL OF ‘HATE’ AND ‘BITTERNESS’

Intentions aside, the rally in Pikeville did little to break any stereotypes the general public may have about the NSM being racists or maniacs. While there weren’t any swastikas, the NSM showed up in a tiny town where they were clearly not welcome, and proceeded to scream words like “faggot” and “kike” at the swarms of Antifas who’d driven in to protest them — and who were equally vitriolic in their attempt to disrupt the rally. As some of the white supremacists shrieked anti-Semitic, racist rhetoric at the protestors, others — typically older members of the groups — told them to tone it down while they were in public.

The NSM opened their rally with several Nazi salutes, including “heiling” Matthew Heimbach, the white supremacist leader of the Traditionalist Workers Party, which also had a presence at the rally. (Heimbach was later served a summons for allegedly harassing a black woman at a Trump rally in Kentucky last year, by a police officer who’d apparently been waiting for Heimback to show up back in the state.)

Afterwards, they all shared rides back to the after-party in the mountains, at a property about 25 miles from Pikeville located a few miles past an abandoned coal mine and a scattering of the ramshackle homes of the people who used to work there; the entire area looks like it’s straight out of Deliverance — like banjos should be twanging in the distance. Neo-Nazi musician Paddy Tarleton, whose catalogue includes songs like “Shut Your Lyin’ Jew Mouths” and “Globalist Bastards (Will the Wetbacks Be Deported),” performed as some younger members of the organization joked about beating up a “chinc.”

Despite the protesters and the sentiments of opposition from ordinary residents, Schoep was feeling optimistic. “We do have a lot of support here,” he said. “We have support on the ground here or we wouldn’t be here. We don’t just pick an area out of the clear blue sky and go, ‘Let’s hit this area.’”

For local detractors like Carr, the message to the NSM, and those who want to bring their brand of hate to Pikeville, remained crystal clear. “You’re full of hate,” he said about the NSM. “You’re full of bitterness.”

He added: “The younger generation can’t help what our forefathers did, but we don’t have to carry the tradition on.”