Fayette County

White supremacists went to Pikeville in April. Here’s how that city kept the peace.

White nationalists rally in Pikeville

White nationalist groups held a rally in downtown Pikeville, Ky., on Saturday. Antifa and other protesters met them on the streets.
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White nationalist groups held a rally in downtown Pikeville, Ky., on Saturday. Antifa and other protesters met them on the streets.

If a promised white supremacist protest eventually occurs in Lexington, Police Chief Mark Barnard has said that the city will use “an overwhelming amount of law enforcement” to ensure public safety.

How exactly that would play out remains unknown, but one place Lexington can look for guidance is Pikeville.

Some of the same white nationalist groups that participated in a rally that turned deadly Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., were screaming in the streets of Pikeville in April. There were three arrests at the Eastern Kentucky rally, but no violent confrontations.

Here’s how officials kept the peace in Pikeville.

1. Encourage people to stay away

Donovan Blackburn, who was Pikeville’s city manager at the time, said he warned people in Pikeville that safety was the city’s top concern, but that he could not guarantee it.

“Every single business on Main Street closed that day,” Blackburn said.

Also, two University of Pikeville students who had organized what promised to be a large counterprotest ultimately called it off because of safety concerns.

“This community showed their feelings by not showing up,” Blackburn said.

Officials think the vast majority of the counterprotesters were from out of town, he said.

On Thursday, Barnard urged Lexingtonians to avoid engaging with white nationalists. People who want to speak out should consider attending other events elsewhere rather than staging a counterprotest at the same time and place, he said.

“Don’t give this group the attention, if they come to town, that’s what they want,” he said. “I know they like conflict. I know they like attention.”

Police Chief Mark Bernard advises, "Don't give them the attention they want" concerning potential protesters coming to town to protest against moving two confederate statues from the old courthouse building downtown.

2. Separation is key

Police didn’t let white nationalists and counterprotesters get close enough to touch each other, using both metal and human barricades.

About 125 white nationalists were on one side of Main Street, and about 200 counterprotesters were on the other side. Metal barricades were placed in front of the sidewalks on both sides of the street, Blackburn said.

In the middle of the street was a wall of police.

When the white nationalists began to move toward their vehicles after the rally had ended, the line of police officers moved with them, never allowing the two groups to cross paths.

“We had a designated place for (the white supremacist groups) to park,” Blackburn said. “We moved with them when they went from the parking area to the area in front of the courthouse.”

3. Remain calm

Protesters and counterprotesters sometimes try to provoke police into taking action, so it’s important for law enforcement to show restraint when possible, Blackburn said.

Pikeville officials were careful to have a strong police presence at the site of the protest but kept SWAT units and a National Guard unit on side streets, out of sight but on standby if things turned violent.

4. Ask for help

Multiple agencies, including the Pike County Sheriff’s Department and Kentucky State Police, helped Pikeville police coordinate their response to the protest.

Blackburn praised Pikeville Police Chief Chris Edmonds for coordinating with so many agencies and said the advanced planning and coordination helped.

“Having these resources was invaluable in controlling the crowd,” Blackburn said.

In Lexington, Police Chief Mark Barnard said Kentucky State Police and Louisville Metro Police have already pledged their assistance if white supremacists hold a rally to protest the possible removal of two Confederate statues from the old courthouse lawn.

5. No masks

Pikeville passed an emergency ordinance days before the rally that banned people from wearing masks in public. As a result, anyone who committed a crime could be easily identified.

Lexington already has such an ordinance.

6. Require a permit

Unlike Pikeville, Lexington does not require groups that want to gather in public spaces to get a permit. Only groups that want to block streets need a permit.

7. Close the streets

A key difference between the protest in Pikeville and a violent clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., is that Pikeville closed its streets. In Charlottesville, one woman was killed and dozens were injured when James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old from Ohio, allegedly drove into a group of counterprotesters near a pedestrian mall.

In Pikeville, Blackburn closed Main Street and all secondary streets leading to Main Street.

Blackburn, who has since taken a job in the private sector, said managing a potentially violent protest is worrisome work for public officials.

“I know what they are going through and the anxiety they are facing. My heart really goes out to these communities and to the people in Charlottesville,” Blackburn said. “It was the first time in 13 years as city manager that I had to wear a bullet-proof vest.”

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall