Hundreds of law enforcement officers gathered in a small Georgia town on Saturday in anticipation of a white nationalist rally scheduled to take place that afternoon. However, less than 30 rally participants reportedly showed up, and photos of the neo-Nazi rally in Newnan, Georgia, primarily show a small group of white nationalists outnumbered by dozens more counter-protesters and law enforcement officers.
The rally was organized by the National Socialist Movement (NSM), a neo-Nazi group founded in Minnesota in 1974 by former members of the American Nazi Party. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the NSM as a hate group.
According to The New York Times, the group's current leader, Jeff Schoep, said in a speech at the event that he was "standing on behalf of white nationalism, white patriotism, and our history as American people." He also reportedly decried skinny jeans, illegal immigration, and what he termed the "Zionist media." Additionally, he lamented the removal of Confederate memorials, describing the act as "evil."
"It's U.S. history being erased. Period," he said, according to USA Today. "When you're trying to erase U.S. history, that is evil."
Despite the large amount of attention it received, according to Huffington Post, the rally itself was short, and was cut off promptly at 5 p.m. ET by police who appeared to pull the cord on the NSM's audio equipment. Officers then reportedly told the NSM to leave, or else face arrest. According to HuffPo, the group complied with the order and peacefully dispersed.
The counter-protesters did not get off scot-free, however. USA Today reports that approximately 10 anti-fascist protesters, there to protest the rally, were arrested early on for wearing masks. The law that they were said to have violated was enacted in 1951, and was originally intended to prevent Ku Klux Klan members from shielding their identities.
"The irony of enforcing masking laws to prosecute leftists is just incredible," a counter-protester who traveled down from Charlottesville, Virginia told HuffPo. "Those are anti-Klan statutes."
Anti-fascist protesters were not the only ones attempting to counter the NSM's message on Saturday. Images of the event show that anti-Nazi messages were drawn on the ground around the park where the rally took place. Many of the drawings featured messages of hope and love, and also included etchings of hearts and rainbows. Local children were responsible for the positive markings, having drawn them the night before. At a separate interfaith rally that took place Saturday morning, Newnan's mayor praised the artwork.
"Whether anyone with a heart that is full of hate can read those messages or not and see the light, we don’t know, but the opportunity is there because of the children of Newnan who went there last night and provided the opportunity," said Mayor Keith Brady, according to The Newnan Times-Herald. He reportedly urged those attending the interfaith gathering to leave before the NSM rally took place, asking them to channel their anger in the voting booth.
"Don’t be mad today," he said. "Be mad on May 22 and Nov. 6. And channel all your anger on election day. Be mad, be anger, but don’t sin. Be concerned, but hold that; mark your calendars. So that when it’s time for you to unleash all your anger and disgust, you’ll have somewhere to channel it."
Saturday's rally was intended to mark the birth of Adolf Hitler, which was on April 20. NSM holds a rally every year on or near the date to commemorate the man who led the Nazi party in Germany up through World War II, espousing messages of violent nationalism.
While local authorities granted NSM permission to hold their annual rally in Newnan, not all Georgia officials agreed with the decision. "Every citizen has the constitutional right to express their First Amendment freedoms to free speech and protest, but the racist views of neo-Nazis are completely abhorrent," said Georgia Rep. Drew Ferguson in a statement prior to the event. "I commend Mayor Brady for his work to ensure a peaceful event and urge the entire Newnan community to stand together to show that there is no place for hate or intolerance in Georgia’s Third District."
Burt Colucci, chief of staff for NSM, told The Atlanta-Journal Constitution the group didn't choose to single Newnan out for any particular reason. "We pick these rallies randomly," he said. "It is always preferable that it is in a white town. We just gonna go there and do everything that we legally can."
If the photos are any indication, however, Newnan residents and their supporters are just as capable of and willing to stand up for themselves. This was underscored by local Rabbi David Spinrad, who urged the community to continue countering neo-Nazi rhetoric even after the rally.
"The rally is almost never the work," he said at the interfaith event, according to The Times-Herald. "The work will not be completed in our lifetime because our task in the present is to undo the past to create a future worth passing on to our children."