Late into the night of Saturday, April 29, I was standing in front of the Holiday Inn Express in Pikeville, Kentucky smoking a cigarette and trying to get my head around what I had just experienced. I was taking a break from trying to crank out a piece more along the lines of what you’re now reading than what I had originally published that following day for my newsroom. “Surrender Under Protest,” a song by the rock band Drive-By Truckers, played on the speakers mounted somewhere near the entryway as a big, black pickup truck stopped at what would surely have been a valet parking area in any large American city.
A group of men, dressed all in black and some with shaved heads, grabbed Miller Lite cans from a cooler and cracked them while taking drags from cigarettes. A few of them had handguns strapped to their waists — an open acknowledgement of Kentucky’s permitless, open-carry gun laws.
A black woman dressed in hospital scrubs walked past them and then me on her way into the hotel. She glanced up at me as she passed and our eyes met briefly. The group of men dressed in black stared at her with deliberate focus as she walked into the hotel. They uttered something indiscernible to me amongst themselves, but gestured and continued to gaze in her direction as she neared the door. It was obvious they were talking about her.
Mike Cooley, a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter of Drive-By Truckers, had hit the third verse:
Does the color really matter?
On the face you blame for failure
On the shamin’ for a battle’s losing cause
If the victims and aggressors
Just remain each other’s others
And the instigators never fight their own
In this song, like many others from Drive-By Truckers, Cooley and his longtime songwriting counterpart and founding member Patterson Hood have aimed to deconstruct the complexities of the American South. Where the band originated in Muscle Shoals, Alabama sits Colbert County — the heart of the South and near the southern end of the 420 counties across 13 states that comprise Appalachia. It’s a place, like elsewhere, that continues to be riddled with the struggles of one person’s “heritage” grappling with another person’s “progress,” more than 150 years after the Civil War. A place, like much of Appalachia that once was something else but isn’t now — still trying to find its way. A place not unlike my home state of West Virginia or Pike County, Kentucky — for reasons all uniquely their own.
It was then that the irony of this moment — all of it — hit me at once:
Here I was, in a Kentucky county in the midst of grappling with its own struggles of heritage and progress in the form of a disappearing coal economy. But Pike County, despite its coal-laden past, is one of the few counties in Central Appalachia actually growing in population. They’re evolving, or at least noticeably trying to evolve. But in that very moment, I was standing 15 feet away from group of neo-Nazis as they drunkenly cackled amongst themselves as the black woman quickly stepped into the hotel. All the while Cooley was singing — pleading rather — for these men dressed in black, these neo-Nazis, to surrender under protest if they must.
‘These guys lost 70 years ago,’ I thought to myself. ‘How could they be so blind to history?’ And, more importantly, ‘why hate someone for something over which they have no control or anything else — like the color of their skin, what god they pray to, who they love or any other godforsaken reason?’ I realized the latter part of this thought was naive, but it didn’t stop me from being perplexed by the questions themselves.
Earlier Saturday, a colleague and I had been covering a rally of white supremacist groups and the counter protest by a group known as antifa — short for anti-fascists. Initially billed as a “rally for white working families” by the Traditionalist Worker Party, other white supremacists had latched on to the opportunity, including the National Socialist Movement and the League of the South.
In the 48 or so hours I spent in Pikeville, not one person I spoke to who identified themselves as a local wanted anything to do with it. At best — if you want to even call it that — they said it was a First Amendment right to do this. They weren’t wrong, and I agree.
A chaplain for the local university went as far as calling it “Appalachian shaming” — a phrase that wound up making its way into the headline of the report I filed on the event.
I had rolled into Pikeville Friday evening. The gentleman behind the check-in counter at the hotel sized me up based on what I was wearing (a plaid button-down shirt and jeans and a baseball cap with a camera bag, a laptop bag and the hiking bag I nomadically throw clothes in to travel for work) and discerned I wasn’t one of “them.”
“Them,” being a white supremacist or an antifa counter protester.
He seemed somewhat relieved when I identified myself as media, but not entirely. I told him I drove down from Morgantown, West Virginia and had spent my college years and a few more in Huntington, West Virginia and, until December, had lived in Charleston, West Virginia. I told him I had taught a semester at the community college in Williamson, West Virginia, just 30-some miles to the east along US Route 119. I was familiar with the area, I assured him. I wasn’t some outsider coming in with no clue — at least it was my goal to not seem that way — and, maybe, I was telling myself that as much as I was telling him. It seemed to help break the tension that he, and surely others in the community were feeling — you know, with a potentially violent white supremacist rally and counter protest looming the next day.
“No one here wants this,” he said to me somewhat nervously. He was ready to go — ready to get home to his family, whomever he loved, or just be by himself and away from anything resembling what would happen in this town the next day. Whatever that might be.
We chatted for a moment about what was to come tomorrow, what he had heard around town and who else might be staying in the hotel that might be of interest. He told me “both sides” were staying in there.
‘Great,’ I thought to myself, sarcastically. ‘How do I write this into a story? You see, the violence was supposed to go down on Pikeville’s Main Street, but these guys couldn’t even wait that long. Does a white supremacist rally and antifa counter protest get canceled if someone dies before the two groups meet in a publicly-permitted exercise of First Amendment rights? No, no, no — the rioting would just spiral out from here. This would be Ground Zero.’ It seemed impossible not to think these thoughts.
I made a trip to the Wal-Mart a few miles from the hotel to stock up on a few supplies — bandanas to cover my face in case of tear gas, a water bottle to combat the impending near-90 degree day on Saturday and a few other provisions that seemed necessary, considering it still felt at that time like I could be walking into a war zone. But, hell, I felt like I was already in a war zone. I walked around the store thinking I would see white supremacists lurking about in the sporting goods section. I was paying closer attention to what people were grabbing from the racks or shelves. ‘Are you…’ I thought to myself while sizing up everyone in eyesight, ‘…someone that has anything to do with tomorrow?’
On the way back to the hotel, I also stopped at the Buffalo Wild Wings for a bite to eat. Normally, I would have patronized some locally-owned spot — even if I weren’t traveling — but it was understood that most businesses were closed downtown, and it seemed like a good enough spot for food, a beer and a chance to chat up locals if any were out and about.
When I first got there, I spoke to a young lady who called Pikeville home and said she was “terrified.” It was understandable. White supremacists were rolling through and she was Asian-American.
Others strung together sentiments that echoed what I wound up hearing all weekend — variations on: “Yeah, we’re mostly white, and there are certainly pockets of racism here. Sure, the coal economy is down, and it’s hurting this place and the people here. But, a rally for ‘white working families’? Gimme a break, no one asked for this, and that’s not who we are.”
I believed them, or at least I wanted to. I wound up squeaking in a side conversation with the locals about a musician friend of mine, Tyler Childers, who is originally from a nearby county and on his way to “making it.” It took the edge off from whatever the hell I was getting myself into, if nothing else.
There was one young man, maybe in his mid-20s, who argued that “if black people are allowed to be proud of their race, so are white people.” I stifled a groan at this increasingly common lament from disgruntled white people. ‘Where to start?,’ I thought. The cultural significance of James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” surely would have been lost on this young man, I figured. So would anything relating to the word “plight” that wasn’t rooted in his own struggles. He criticized the Black Lives Matter Movement for being violent and did so with a cursory knowledge of news based on facts. Admittedly, I was somewhat impressed. Not that he would outright admit it — and, honestly, I’m a bit uncomfortable pegging him as such myself — but he would qualify as a racist, any reasonable person might say. Still yet, he said wouldn’t be hanging around downtown on Saturday.
I headed back to the hotel and waited on the photographer I would be working with for the weekend, West Virginia University media college professor Joel Beeson, to get into town. He got in after 1 a.m and I caught him up on the latest: a peaceful counter protest was canceled due to threats of violence, the city banned hoods and masks to stave off threats of violence, the locals were worried about threats of violence — and, well, the general threat of violence.
Earlier that morning while still in Morgantown, Joel had asked me if I had body armor or a helmet. I had gathered he was a seasoned professional at covering things like this, but I couldn’t quite discern whether his question was a joke or a carefully calculated plea out of legitimate fear masked with a smirk.
We wound up chatting late into the night in the hotel’s lounge that would eventually become our makeshift “war room” for talking out the story, writing and editing photos on Saturday night and into Sunday afternoon. We finally each turned into our respective rooms and planned to meet at the same spot for breakfast come morning.
I got up around 6:30 Saturday morning and spent some time figuring out logistics. I checked in with local city officials about road closures and who would be assisting with the law enforcement presence that would be downtown. I also checked in with another public media reporter I knew who would on the ground and who had secured a safe spot in case anything went down. I filed a spot for NPR newscast about how crazy this had been so far and told them that, if anything happened, I’d be in touch with the editors and producers covering the weekend news magazine shows. Around 9:00, I headed to breakfast.
As soon as I walked in, I realized I had stumbled into the belly-of-the-white-supremacist-movement-beast. Neo-Nazi’s were chowing down on artificial scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy with members of the League of the South — a neo-confederate group reminiscent of the KKK without the white hoods — chatting about other weekend gatherings they had been to or had marked on the calendar. A few others in the room, who may have been parents visiting their children at the University of Pikeville for the weekend, gave strange glances, but stayed away from the breakfast line while the white supremacist guys milled about.
The idea of these men eating a cheap hotel’s crap version of biscuits and gravy and hypothetically discussing the good ol’ days of the South had me searching for some new qualification of “authenticity.” The day before was long, and I had already been up a few hours. Maybe I couldn’t discern anything about “authenticity” quite yet. Coffee and crap biscuits and gravy first, I thought.
I texted Joel, “Well, they’re here. Pretty bizarre scene.” When he got to the breakfast room he quickly figured out who “they” were. We found ourselves back in the corner where we had been sitting maybe eight hours earlier, now talking about the plan for the day — as if all of this was completely normal; as if a gathering of white supremacists eating biscuits and gravy in a Holiday Inn Express breakfast room was something that just happens all of the time. After this bizarre breakfast huddle, Joel and I agreed to meet a few hours later at the entrance of the hotel to head downtown.
I walked outside to make a phone call to Kelly McEvers, the host of NPR’s podcast “Embedded.” She was in the area the night before at a camp out on private property that hosted the coalition of white supremacist groups. I had been looped in on some emails with her regarding coverage of the weekend, seeing as how she has been following the far-right / white supremacist movement.
While on the phone, I noticed that a couple of the big, burly men with guns on their hips and dressed in black were standing at their vehicle, putting some things in and taking a few things out. One had a shirt on that was embroidered in a semi-cursive font that read “The League of the South.”
Figuring this might be a moment to get some idea of what was expected, I walked up to them and asked, “You fellas headed downtown?”
They turned to me, gave me a look up and down, but no answer. They went about talking amongst themselves and ignoring me the best they could. I didn’t exist to them.
“Did y’all head out to the camp out last night?” I asked, likely sounding much more nervous than I did with the first question.
“No idea what you’re talking about,” the one closest to me said. He then turned his back to me and crossed his arms, tucking his fists underneath biceps as big as my thighs.
I figured it was time to leave well enough alone. I walked about 50 feet toward the entrance and went back into the hotel. I came out a bit later with my gear on me, ready to load up the car — ready for whatever the hell was about to happen.
I stood outside with some time to kill knowing Joel would be down soon. Or, at least I hoped he was on his way right that very second, suddenly wanting some backup.
The other guy from the League of the South who hadn’t yet spoken to me — and who had acknowledged my existence even less than the one who said he didn’t have an idea what I was talking about — began walking towards me. He was an older man, likely in his 60s with a big, bushy, white beard, a big belly and wearing dark sunglasses.
“Who’d you say you were with?” he asked, even though I hadn’t said by that point who I was or what I was doing.
I told him media.
“Yeah, I figured you’d say that. But, who?”
I told him I was with 100 Days in Appalachia, that I worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting but I’m assigned to a project with West Virginia University. I drove down from Morgantown the night before to cover all of this. We’re covering the first 100 days of the Trump Administration and what it means for Appalachia since 399 of the region’s 420 counties voted for him. Pike County went 80 percent for Trump and a lot of people think it’s because coal jobs are declining here and…well, this was happening here.
I realized I was anxiously spewing way more information beyond what he might deem necessary, that I might as well cough up my Social Security number, my bank account information, my address — hell, even maybe sign a contract promising to hand him over my first-born child.
“Let me see your credentials.”
I showed him a credential my colleague at WVU — creative head of 100 Days in Appalachia and Joel’s wife, Dana Coester — had hastily printed up for me and sent down. It said everything I had just told him. It didn’t have my Social Security number, my bank account information, my address. It also didn’t include a boilerplate contract promising someone my first-born child. All of this was running through my head at the time and — as ridiculous as it seems — I was able to realize how insane and seemingly distracted I was to be able to actually process this thought. Except I wasn’t distracted and I was processing everything just fine. I contemplated cracking a joke about it all to the big bellied, bushy bearded man with the sunglasses. I was terrified. I’d never been shaken down by a white supremacist before. He could tell.
In the days leading up to this, my friends had made it a point to remind me of how threatening this situation might become. I passed it off. You have to have thick skin to be a journalist, I figured. Sure, right. But it was starting to sink in that something actually might happen down here. Dana just sent her husband and me to get killed, I thought.
“You’re not one of them damn antifa, are you?” the big bellied, big bearded man with the sunglasses said.
“You know who the antifa are, don’t you?”
The truth is, I knew only a bit about antifa — but not much. I’d read reports of them counter protesting the far-right and white supremacist/nationalist movement. I knew the City of Pikeville had banned masks and hoods because of antifa. But, not enough to qualify a resounding yes — at least not for this man.
“Yes,” I said.
“Don’t you think it would be a good idea for an antifa to pose as media, just to get close to us and cause trouble?” he asked.
“Look, man. I’m just here to do my job,” I said.
He eased up on me but not on antifa, or at least what he believes them to be. The big bellied, bushy bearded man with sunglasses dressed all in black went on a tirade about how antifa represented the downfall of American society, “the scum of the earth.” He’d kill every last one of them if he could, he told me.
I nodded along to acknowledge him speaking. We finally parted ways by telling one another to “be safe.” He told me he hoped it didn’t get ugly downtown but, if it did, he was prepared.
I realize then that I tell a lot of people to “be safe” when I part ways with them. Usually, there’s no impending threat of danger ahead. Usually, it’s just an awkward way of expressing a sentiment like: “You’re a human being sharing this earth with me. I hope you stay healthy and well, out of harm’s way and remain happy. So, be safe.” Usually, I’m not saying “be safe” to someone who had just terrified me — someone who says they want entire groups of people to be dead.
Joel and I drove downtown just before noon to scope it out and try to find a spot to duck into if things went off the rails. I checked in with the public media reporter who I knew was on the ground. He said he’d be at the newsroom of the Appalachian News-Express, Pikeville’s local newspaper. We parked the car just in front of the newspaper office and I called the public media reporter, Benny Becker, asking him to meet us if he could. As it turned out, he was in the building right across the street from us. He told us to walk to the advertising door. It was a door that had “ADVERTISING” painted in block letters in gold and outlined in red.
Joel wandered around the block we were parked on, past building after building — business after business — that had shut down for this spectacle, whatever it might turn out to be. You could tell this was normally one of those good old busting American small towns even on a Saturday. Today, though, Pikeville was a ghost town.
We walked to the advertising door, Benny unlocked it and let us in. Through emails, text messages and over the phone, Benny had told us not to wear black. He had told us he planned to hang out on a rooftop to witness the standoff between the white supremacists and antifa. He told me he wanted to stay out of the way, with him appearing “overly Jewish” and all. The journalist (crazy person) in me couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t want to be as close to the action as possible. The human (rational person) — despite never being discriminated against in my life — understood his reasoning perfectly.
We were introduced to the staff of the News Express and other reporters who had come in from around the region. Folks from the Associated Press, others from Lexington, a few others from elsewhere scattered about. It was a makeshift newsroom in a real newsroom.
They gave us the rundown on how to get back in should anything happen — to text a guy who would be there all day, come to this door, show your credentials. We would do the same for others, but it was imperative they show a credential to get in the door. They offered us food and coffee. It was home away from home. We told them, sincerely, we’d offer the same if it were happening on our turf — a blend of Appalachian hospitality and journalistic camaraderie.
I would wind up spending the next five hours or so between Main Street and the News-Express’ newsroom trying to figure out what the hell I would actually write about. ‘So, these racists showed up dressed all in black and a bunch of antifa from outside of Pike County — some of whom were actually from Appalachia and clad in red bandanas as a cultural homage to rednecks — counter protested.’
I tweeted a string of observations at one point while taking a break back in the real-makeshift newsroom to rehydrate and get out of the heat for a moment:
— Dave Mistich (@davemistich) April 29, 2017
People here didn’t want this. They don’t feel threatened by other races, nationalities, ethnicities, etc.
— Dave Mistich (@davemistich) April 29, 2017
Coal is going away. Are people here (and, yes, are they predominately white) frustrated? Yes. But all say no one is threatening their lives.
— Dave Mistich (@davemistich) April 29, 2017
That’s the story at this point: Heimbach, TWP and others are stretching in their appeal to a bunch of people who are understandably upset.
— Dave Mistich (@davemistich) April 29, 2017
No one was getting shot. The few locals who had showed up to see it all go down stood in a neutral position off to the side. And there was one black guy who said he lived in Pikeville. He had a semi-automatic rifle strapped to his chest and said he regularly carries it downtown openly just as he was right then. That was something he normally did, he told me. Everything else happening around him, me and a few hundred other people — wasn’t normal though.
There was a thoughtful chaplain from the university who kept calling the day’s events “Appalachian shaming.” The phrase worked perfectly, I thought. That was the story, as long as no one got hurt and shifted my course of writing and who I was filing for into a tailspin.
As it turned out, thankfully, no one did get hurt. Only three arrests — with one person cited for disorderly conduct, according to local officials — and a court summons issued to Matt Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party, for a charge stemming from a March 2016 Trump rally in Louisville. Heimbach had physically harassed a black woman protesting Trump at the rally and was eventually identified after video of the incident quickly spread on social media.
After the scene had dissipated downtown, the journalists all packed into the real-makeshift newsroom. There were grilled hotdogs and hamburgers, as if we all we’re retreating inside from the heat from a friendly, late spring cookout — rather than a white supremacist rally with terrifying potential.
One guy from AP, whose name I failed to remember, spoke up in a moment of silence.
“Did anyone else out there feel like you just saw a social media battle manifest itself in real life?” he asked. He was halfway joking and — like everyone else in that real-makeshift newsroom — fully trying to get his mind around what he had just witnessed. I laughed, knowing that such a comment would piss off many of the participants of the rally and counter-protest.
Of course, there have been many examinations in news media on the far-right and alt-right culture using the internet to drum up support for the white supremacist movement. There’s also the concept of “doxxing” — releasing hyper-personal information of those on either side of this bubbling culture war by the opposition. Even that day in Pikeville, participants recognized one another from the opposite side of Main Street and shouted at one another as if they were familiar enemies — some meeting for the first time, while others were finally getting a chance to put a face to a likely pseudo-anonymous social media profile.
There was also a theatrical, borderline geeky, element to it all. A hundred or so antifa marching in with a banner that read “Antifascists Worldwide United” — chanting, blowing whistles and drumming as they joined others in their group along their barricade that lined Main Street. Later on, members of the Traditionalist Worker Party and National Socialist Movement also marched in with homemade shields and banners. It seemed obnoxious — like a live action role playing game repurposed for the white supremacist movement — except many of them were packing heat.
And, of course, there was the media, from all over the world, who had descended into Pikeville in an attempt to document this whole thing. The Guardian, the Associated Press, public media outlets, local and regional press. Partisan and not. Real journalists and those who figured anyone equipped with a smartphone and a Facebook Page or Twitter account that was branded well enough could and should narrate this story.
One outlet that seemed to be embedded with antifa known as Unicorn Riot was streaming the whole thing live — their reporters in body armor and helmets, in case something should go down. ‘Who are the professionals here, anyway?’ I thought. Another group of reporters from EKB (Eastern Kentucky Broadcasting) were clad in neon orange vests. They looked to be covering this whole deal well enough through a Facebook Live stream. Still yet, they looked more like misplaced construction workers than reporters.
But, in the end we weren’t just seeing a social media battle manifest itself in real life. The social media battle that had manifested itself in real life was also being broadcast on social media in real time — hell, even I did that. As a person with a journalism education, I racked my brain for some academic reasoning behind it all, McLuhan came to mind, as did Benjamin, Adorno and a few other media theorists. Just as I had struggled to make a connection between crap biscuits and gravy and the neo-confederates’ authenticity, ‘meta,’ was all I could conjure.
Joel and I got back to the hotel and set up our own makeshift newsroom — the same room earlier that morning that served as the belly of the beast, where the white supremacists were chomping down on crap biscuits and gravy.
We sat in the corner we had occupied and talked through the story. Joel edited photos while I uploaded audio of interviews to an online-based transcription software to save time. I jotted down possible ledes and a few notes. I looked up numbers from the most recent census and election results for Pike County. We chatted with other journalists who were on the “far-right, white supremacist beat” and hotel workers who wanted to know where we were from and what we thought about all of this. We didn’t have much of an answer for them — just the same as we couldn’t really answer their other, even bigger, question: “Why here?”
Joel and I eventually took a break for dinner and decided to walk down to a Mexican restaurant. A small group of antifa was at the cash register. One woman told us she had been doxxed by white supremacists. They even went so far as releasing the address of her parents, even though she hadn’t lived in that home for years.
Joel struck up a conversation in Spanish with the waiter. They talked about what we had seen that day, Trump’s proposed border wall, immigration and, even, coal. The waiter eventually brought over his brother and he joined in the conversation as well. I sat there and ate and picked up on every tenth word or so they exchanged. I chimed in occasionally in English to Joel, feeling somewhat inadequate about an inability to speak Spanish. Mostly, I was just braindead — mentally and emotionally drained from the past few months of writing and editing stories that covered “Trump’s America” in Appalachia, and ready to unplug.
A few days later, agents from the federal Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (well known under the Trump Administration as ICE) detained three workers from another Mexican restaurant in town, just days after white supremacists held a rally for “white working families.” This couldn’t be a coincidence, I thought, when the news broke.
Joel and I wound up working in our makeshift hotel newsroom into Sunday afternoon. Late into Saturday night — after the Nazis gawked at the black woman as she scooted past them and into the hotel — one hotel worker told me her boyfriend had lost his job in the coal mines and had moved away. They were trying to make things work from a distance. She told me about how proud she was of her son, who had graduated from the University of Pikeville and had landed a good job there with the Kentucky Innovation Network.
She told us to come back and do a story on him — to say something nice about their community; to show they weren’t a bunch of backwards hicks that supported what had just happened in town. She had already read the story I had written, which I didn’t think depicted Pikeville in any such way. But, maybe I had left this woman dissatisfied by my reporting — that I hadn’t adequately captured her community. I felt it best not to even bother asking her.
As we left town, I thought about Mike Cooley’s words in “Surrender Under Protest.” I thought about Cooley and Patterson Hood devoting a lifetime of artistic output as an attempt to distill their home — a place they love for all of its flaws and misguided interpretations of the past and present. I thought about how, 150 years after the Civil War, a bunch of neo-confederates were still wanting to return to the days of slavery and intimidate young men like myself who were just there to tell a story. I thought about how, 70 years after World War II, Nazis still gave Hitler salutes and cackled at black people as they passed by. I thought about the social media battle manifesting itself in real life and being broadcast on social media in real time. I thought about Pike County, Kentucky and West Virginia and Appalachia and coal — and all the struggles over one person’s so-called heritage grappling with another’s so-called progress.
I thought someone, somewhere out there was surrendering under protest. But I couldn’t figure out who it was or to whom they were surrendering.
Dave Mistich (@davemistich) is the managing editor of 100 Days in Appalachia.
Header photo by Joel Beeson.