On President Donald Trump’s 100th day in office, a Saturday afternoon standoff in Pikeville, Kentucky between a coalition of white supremacist groups and anti-fascist counter protesters fell short of violence that had local officials on high alert in the days and hours leading up to the event. Hundreds from each side of a bubbling culture war over race and ideology — as well dozens of regional, national and international media — lined Main Street in an otherwise deserted downtown. But locals say they didn’t want or ask for any of it to happen.
Pike County residents, who voted 80 percent in favor of Trump in the November election, say Saturday wasn’t representative of the area and some went as far as calling the course of events “an exercise in futility.”
“This is Appalachian shaming. They both think they need to speak for us and we can speak for ourselves,” said University of Pikeville Chaplain Robert Musick.
Despite the decline of the coal industry and the loss of many good paying jobs in the area, Musick said many places in Central Appalachia, particularly Pikeville, are evolving the best they can.
Billed as a “rally for white working families” by white nationalist/supremacist group the Traditionalist Worker Party, word spread on social media as early as February and drew attention from anti-fascist (a collective known online and elsewhere as “antifa”) groups in the surrounding region and elsewhere across the country.
Participants from both sides were mostly from out of state, leaving locals few and far between Saturday afternoon in downtown Pikeville. A few dozen Pike County residents came downtown to witness the scene from a neutral position along main street.
“[I plan to stick around] until it gets crazy and then I plan on leaving. I mean, all of the law enforcement expects it to and their history sort of would seem to show that — that any time these two groups are together — it always ends up with with a fight,” said University of Pikeville student and county native Kyle Newsome.
Newsome’s concerns echoed public safety warnings from city officials and the university urged students not to go downtown Saturday afternoon — or, better yet, leave town altogether. He stuck around and found himself closest to the dozens of law enforcement officers who had formed a line in the middle of Main Street.
“I don’t know if it’s a stereotype of the South — or if Kentucky is just not Southern enough — but we’re predominantly white. I don’t really know anyone who’s afraid of minorities are afraid of some impending invasion of minorities,” said Newsome.
With a population of just over 65,000, Pike County is 98 percent white, according to data from the 2010 U.S. Census. Still yet, locals say displays of white supremacy don’t reflect their way of life.
Earlier in the week, Pikeville city officials passed an ordinance banning hoods and masks, citing what they called a perceived threat of violence from anti-fascist groups on social media. At least one counter protest expected to be peaceful in nature at a nearby city park and billed as a “rally for equality and American values” was cancelled by Friday afternoon. Organizers of that event said they had received credible threats to their safety.
As the rally and counter protest began just after 1 p.m., about a dozen members of the League of the South stood across the street from an anti-fascist coalition — whose early numbers of a few dozen quickly turned into a few hundred after a march.
Anti-fascists, many of whom were clad in black and donned red bandanas, chanted phrases like “black lives matter” and “Appalachia comin’ atcha, Nazi scum we’re gonna smash ya.”
The group also chanted, “We want Heimbach” — a reference taunting Traditionalist Worker Party leader Matt Heimbach of Indiana, who had yet to appear at the rally by that point.
One member of the League of the South retorted to the anti-fascists, “We can’t understand you because we don’t speak n****r!”
Heimbach and The Traditionalist Worker Party — part of a hyper-conservative, white supremacist movement on the far-right that has gained increased attention in recent years — has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. Other groups participating on the white supremacist side, including the National Socialist Movement — identified as a neo-Nazi organization notable for its violent anti-Jewish rhetoric — have also been identified by SPLC as hate groups.
As the afternoon went on, members of Traditionalist Worker Party and National Socialist Movement marched out together to a barricaded area to join members of the League of the South who were standing in front of the courthouse along Main Street.
“Hail Pikeville! Hail the white race!” yelled many members of the National Socialist Movement as they gave a hand signal commonly used by white supremacists. Nazi, Confederate and American flags blew in the wind around them and dozens of members of the white supremacist groups were openly carrying handguns.
Kevin Keathley, a professional basketball coach originally from Pike County who said he coached the first all-black team in the area some years ago, said Pikeville is an generally opened-minded place despite what most outsiders think of Eastern Kentucky and the heart of Appalachia.
“They were both told to stay out. They’ve been told not to come. They’re not welcome here. If you want to be inclusive — all inclusive — you’re more than welcome,” said Keathley.
“But at the same time, it’s free speech if they do it peacefully, they don’t invoke, and they don’t incite. You know, you let them do what they got to do and let them get out of town and to go to the next town,” he said.
As white supremacists groups exited downtown in their vehicles and were followed out by anti-fascists on foot, two squads of Kentucky State Police were mobilized to stave off the potential for violence as each group had exited their respective barricaded areas.
As he was exiting the rally, Heimbach was served a court summons in which he is accused of criminal physical harassment. Those charges were brought in July following a March 2016 Trump campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky where Heimbach shoved and struck a black woman who was protesting then-presidential candidate Trump. The incident was recorded on video. Saturday was the first time Heimbach had been back in Kentucky since charges were filed in July 2016, according to Pikeville City Manager Donovan Blackburn.
Chaplain Musick hinted that part of the reason for Saturday’s rally is a perception of eastern Kentucky as down and out — a result of media narrative that’s focused on a downtrodden and distressed white working class.
“You know they talk of how poor we are and how bad it is. You look around at what we’re doing okay and life is good here. And, of course, the national narrative is that life is awful,” said Musick.
The chaplain explained that he feels Heimbach and The Traditionalist Worker Party — along with other groups involved in Saturday’s rally — are misguided in their appeal to the people of the region.
“[In the eyes of these rallying white supremacist groups] we’re shoeless ignorant hillbillies that need everyone’s help, and we actually don’t. We’re doing quite fine and we have committed loving people and, of course, we have conservative people, too. And I just think — Heimbach and even the antifascists — I just wish they would listen to us as opposed to speaking for us.”
Dave Mistich (@davemistich) is the managing editor of 100 Days in Appalachia.