Pikeville passes emergency law banning masks ahead of white nationalist rally

Matthew Heimbach (center), chairman of the Traditionalist Worker Party, and fellow supporters spread support for their third party movement in Beattyville, Ky., in 2016.
Matthew Heimbach (center), chairman of the Traditionalist Worker Party, and fellow supporters spread support for their third party movement in Beattyville, Ky., in 2016. For The Washington Post

Officials are taking steps to counter the potential for violence at a planned white nationalist rally Saturday in Pikeville, including increasing security and banning people from wearing masks that could conceal the identity of protesters seeking to provoke a confrontation.

Still, security concerns led local residents Thursday to postpone an event they had set up to counter the white nationalist rally.

There have been clashes at other white nationalist rallies between their supporters and opponents, called anti-racists or anti-fascists.

That’s a concern in Pikeville because there has been information circulating on social media that anti-racists will protest the white nationalist rally.

Some of the chatter was about Pikeville not having a law barring people from wearing masks, and the fact that people can carry guns openly, city manager Donovan Blackburn said.

The website of Anti-Racist Action, a group that confronts white nationalists, said members sometimes wear masks because racists take pictures of opponents so they can later find and attack them.

But Heidi Beirich, who helps track hate groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Birmingham, said anti-racists often instigate confrontations and violence at white nationalist rallies.

The SPLC doesn’t support such tactics, which can put police and the public at risk, Beirich said.

“We’re greatly concerned with them,” she said of the militant anti-racists.

Jeff Schoep, a Michigan man who heads the National Socialist Movement and plans to be in Kentucky for white nationalist events this weekend, said there has been talk among anti-fascists about raising money for bail and medical costs in Pikeville.

“We’ll fight, but we’re not gonna start it,” Schoep said. “We’re not there to fight.”

Blackburn said he couldn’t release details on the security measures for Saturday, but he said the city is working with multiple agencies.

The goal will be to prevent or quickly stop any physical confrontation, Blackburn said.

“Obviously the intent is to not allow them to clash,” Blackburn said of white nationalists and opponents. “We’re going to try to cover logistics on every different angle and make public safety our No. 1 priority.”

Blackburn said the city was obligated to allow the white nationalists to exercise their right to free speech and assembly, but is determined to keep the peace.

The city commission approved the anti-mask ordinance on an emergency basis earlier this week, motivated by the concern that masked opponents of the white nationalists will try to incite violence during their rally in front of the county courthouse.

The law, which took effect Wednesday, bars anyone over 16 from publicly wearing a hood, mask, false whiskers or other disguise that conceals the wearer’s identity. It has exemptions for Halloween, people in theatrical or circus productions and people who wear masks for work or health reasons.

A violation is punishable by 50 days to one year in jail, depending on the circumstances.

City attorney Rusty Davis told the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville there was another idea behind the ordinance: the city will be filming the events downtown Saturday with high-definition cameras, so if a problem comes up authorities can identify people involved.

In addition, police will close Main Street on Saturday afternoon so there will be no vehicle traffic passing the rally.

Blackburn said he has heard that some downtown restaurants will close during the time of the rally. Some people also canceled events in town during that time, including a birthday party, he said.

Schoep said the groups that plan to take part in the events in Eastern Kentucky include the National Socialist Movement; the Traditionalist Worker Party; and the League of the South, which are allied under the umbrella of the Nationalist Front.

Members plan to meet on private property at an undisclosed location Friday night for a dinner and speeches, then hold training classes Saturday on issues such as how to spread the groups’ message before the public rally Saturday afternoon.

The National Socialist Movement and the Traditionalist Worker Party each advance tenets of economic populism, but the Southern Poverty Law Center labels each a hate group because of their views on race.

The center says the Traditionalist Worker Party “advocates for racially pure nations and communities and blames Jews for many of the world’s problems,” while the National Socialist Movement is “notable for its violent anti-Jewish rhetoric” and racist views.

The website of the NSM says “only those of pure white blood, whatever their creed, may be members of the nation” and that all non-white immigration must be prevented.

The League of the South is a neo-Confederate group that advocates for a second Southern secession and a society dominated by “European Americans,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Schoep said the National Socialist Movement advocates for the rights of white people, but denied that it is a hate group.

Economic problems in Eastern Kentucky were one reason the white nationalist groups decided to hold events in the area, Schoep said .

The area has been hurt by a sharp drop in coal jobs since 2012. White nationalist groups believe they can recruit members with a message that white working families have been abandoned and ignored by politicians.

“Pike County and the surrounding region has been specifically hurt by globalist trade policies, an increasingly destructive drug problem, and a lack of response to the needs of working families, the youth, and small business owners by the Republican and Democratic establishments,” Schoep said in a message to the Herald-Leader.

Shoep also noted that Donald Trump touted principles that agreed with white nationalists during the presidential election last year, and easily won Pike County. Trump’s margin in the county was 19,747 votes to 4,280 for Hillary Clinton, according to the state Board of Elections.

But local officials and others said few people in the region would embrace the white nationalists’ beliefs.

“They’re not going to find approval here,” state Rep. Angie Hatton said of the white nationalists. “We love each other here. We help each other here.”

Hatton, a Democrat who represents Letcher County and part of Pike County, and state Sen. Ray Jones, a Democrat from Pikeville, sponsored resolutions in the legislature condemning the planned white nationalists rally.

Every Kentuckian should vigorously oppose hatred “to show that we will not tolerate the spread of these ideas and the propagation of this ignorance inside our great commonwealth,” the resolutions said.

Pikeville residents had organized a counter event called the Rally for Equality and American Values to take place on the University of Pikeville campus at the same time as the white nationalist rally a few blocks away.

With speeches by elected officials and others, a salute to veterans and a prayer for the victims of the Holocaust and casualties of World War II, residents wanted to get out the message that most don’t agree with the white nationalists.

“We want the headline ‘Pikeville rejects Nazis,’ “ said Christian Marcum, a student at University of Pikeville’s medical school who helped organize the event.

Thursday afternoon, however, organizers decided to reschedule the event after consulting with police and others.

“This has been a tough decision, but real and previously unforeseen credible threats to the safety of our attendees and our community have led us to believe this is the right call,” organizers said on Facebook. “While we understand any disappointment, and share in it ourselves, our original goal of a safe, family-friendly celebration of equality and American values is no longer possible.”

Bill Estep: 606-678-4655, @billestep1