published Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Stage is set for Chattanooga to be next flash point for neo-Nazi group with a history of provocation

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Ham. County Courthouse Assembly Permit
Ham. County Courthouse Assembly Permit

How does a city handle a flood of swastikas? They're coming to Chattanooga, hung from uniforms, inked into skin and planted onto flags.

On March 26, the Hamilton County Commission granted an assembly permit to the National Socialist Movement, one of the most prominent neo-Nazi groups in the United States. The group will travel here in two weeks, first to hold a private meeting on April 25 just outside the city, where party leaders will discuss "internal business."

The next day, the neo-Nazis will gather at the Hamilton County Courthouse at 2:30 p.m. for a 90-minute rally. Officially, they will protest illegal immigration. Unofficially, if history is any indication, they will incite counter-protests -- potentially violent ones.

The group doesn't like the label "white supremacist;" it prefers "white civil rights group." The leader, Commander Jeff Schoep, says the members' actions are similar to those of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.

Except, in its thesis, the National Socialist Movement demands a union of all whites. And a colony for all whites. And mass media outlets controlled by "the nation."

In its literature, the group calls Adolf Hitler "the beloved Holy Father of our age."

But ultimately, the group is a collection of white men shouting "white power" who do not have any, not really. In a country of 316 million, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the group has between 100 and 1,000 members, though the center doesn't have official figures.

The National Socialist Movement claims it wants to usurp the United States' traditional, two-party system and replace it with a unified, white-run nation. But the group has no members in elected office.

For his part, Schoep said the group chose Tennessee for its annual meeting and rally this month because of the large number of supporters in the state. But he declined to say how many people are in the National Socialist Movement, here or throughout the country.

"We don't talk about members, as far as that goes," he said. "That's a question everybody asks. We don't give out numbers."

Why?

"We just don't. I don't know. I don't know what our numbers are."

In his assembly permit application submitted to Hamilton County government, Schoep estimated that between 50 and 110 people would attend the event.

But regardless of population or political clout, the party's appearances across the country have led to fights, arrests and burning buildings. Which leaves Chattanooga leaders with a decision.

Should they prepare heavy security, giving the National Socialist Movement more attention? Or should Chattanooga officials ignore the group, knowing that the neo-Nazis can get under the skin of residents and lead to violence -- city-damaging, image-crumbling, headline-making violence?

Mayor Andy Berke says he has two roles in a situation like this. First, he will meet with police officials to create a safety plan. Berke declined to say specifically what that plan will entail, and Chattanooga police public information officer Tim McFarland did not return multiple calls and an email seeking information Wednesday.

Berke's second role is to protect Chattanooga's image across the country. This is not a group from the city, he pointed out. These are outsiders. And, though the group can visit, the mayor said residents do not support the neo-Nazi message.

  • photo
    Members of a neo-Nazi group stage a rally in 2005 in Toledo, Ohio. The same group is planning an event in Chattanooga.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"It's awful. I can't stand having them in our city," said Berke, who is Jewish. "I don't believe that it is productive or helpful to anyone, in the least. They have a constitutional right to assemble. We will make sure it occurs in a peaceful manner. And then I hope they leave town as quickly as humanly possible."

The mayor, who learned about the event Tuesday, added: "The last thing in the world we want to see is this group in our city."

Elsewhere in the country, the National Socialist Movement has sparked violence, including:

• An October 2005 riot in Toledo, Ohio, where protesters chucked rocks and bricks at the neo-Nazis after members of the group marched through a predominantly African-American neighborhood to protest "black violence." In all, police arrested more than 120 people, according to the Toledo Blade, and the riot damage cost the city $330,000.

• An April 2006 fight in Lansing, Mich., where 800 protesters gathered against 75 neo-Nazis, according to the Lansing State Journal. Police arrested 16 people.

• An April 2010 brawl in Los Angeles, where protesters hurled rocks and glass bottles at the neo-Nazis, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Mark Potok, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said members of the National Socialist Movement provoke these riots by shouting the N-word and other racial epithets. With events such as the one coming to Chattanooga, this is their goal.

"They are essentially provokers," he said. "They will create incidents."

The SPLC has published a book called "Ten Ways to Fight Hate," and Potok said he sometimes consults with city leaders when the National Socialist Movement or similar groups come to town.

First, he said, government officials should know that they can't just ignore the groups. Ignoring them sends a message that the city and its residents tacitly agree with the groups' positions. This might encourage groups to come back.

Instead, Potok argued, city leaders should organize a "counter event" at the same time, in a different part of town. The event should be advertised as an opportunity for city residents to discuss race relations. If more people attend that than the National Socialist Movement gathering, the neo-Nazis will feel like they lost.

"It's a way of sucking the air from the NSM," Potok said.

Wednesday, Berke said he had not consulted with any outsiders about how to handle the rally. He also said he is not yet sure whether Chattanooga should have a "counter event," and whether that event should be backed by the government or privately organized.

Permission for the group to assemble did not come from Berke's administration or any city official. It came from the Hamilton County Commission, which approves such permits.

Commissioner Fred Skillern said he approved the application in his role as chairman after consulting with County Attorney Rheubin Taylor.

"As long as they meet all the standards -- unless a majority of the commission votes against it -- we have to let them come," Skillern said. "I don't like it. To be honest, I haven't liked a lot of the folks who've come out there. I didn't like those Occupy [Chattanooga protesters], but that's why we have rules."

District 5 Commissioner Greg Beck, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also said the group has a right to rally, even if the message isn't well-received.

"That's the beauty of America," Beck said.

James Mapp, president of the local NAACP chapter, said the civil rights organization has not met about the National Socialist Movement. On Wednesday, he thought back to when George Wallace spoke at Memorial Auditorium in 1967.

Mapp said the group ignored Wallace then, and they will ignore the neo-Nazis now.

"If they're coming, they're coming," he said. "We haven't concerned ourselves with it."

Staff writer Louie Brogdon contributed to this report.

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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