published Sunday, April 27th, 2014

Nazis hardly heard in Chattanooga as crowd drowns out hate message with laughter, jeers (with video)

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    Protesters chant from the sidewalk.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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No one could hear the Nazis.

Even with a public address system and bright red swastika flags, the message of the National Socialist Movement was largely drowned out Saturday afternoon.

That's exactly what the hundreds who lined Georgia Avenue wanted. Regardless of advice from local leaders to stay away -- even a personal plea from the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- people from all walks of life couldn't keep away from the drama surrounding the Hamilton County Courthouse.

At times, the scene was farcical.

A woman in white make-up and a polka-dot dress held a sign reading, "Who is the real clown here?"

Another woman in clown gear played the accordion and danced on the sidewalk, pointing and laughing at the Nazi group.

"Your kids are going to be listening to hip hop and Ricky Martin tonight," said one man heckling the small group of neo-Nazis on the courthouse plaza.

Several runners and a Jimmy Johns delivery man were befuddled when they encountered all the police presence, roadblocks and bright orange barricades.

There were tense moments.

Although the leaders' shouting into a microphone about Jews, illegal immigrants and white supremacy were largely inaudible, tensions boiled over in the crowd.

Four Nazi sympathizers wearing black leather vests with swastikas waded into the protester crowd after they had been unable to get into the main rally. They had arrived on motorcycles with vests that said "Soul Survivor Brotherhood."

The crowd swarmed the four burly men as police stepped in.

Officers begged the protesters: Don't get violent. Don't lose control.

"That's what they want," said one officer.

The Detroit-based National Socialist Movement, which brought about two dozen people to the courthouse lawn -- compared with several hundred protesters across the street -- is notorious for inciting violence. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that it is the largest neo-Nazi group in the country and is known for its violent anti-Semitic rhetoric and racist viewpoints.

Because members have incited riots and violence in other cities, police here took special caution to isolate them from the waves of protesters. Explosive-sniffing dogs were on scene Saturday morning, and hundreds of local police officers staked out the courthouse and surrounding areas on foot, on bikes, in squad cars and even on horseback.

Protesters started surrounding the courthouse shortly after noon.

There were chants of "Go home, Nazis," and "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Nazi scum has got to go!"

Many pinned paper Stars of David to their shirts with messages about their ethnicity or religion. They read "Catholic," "Atheist," "Jesus" and "Mexican."

On the west side of the courthouse, a group waited for the neo-Nazis to come out of the county parking garage near the jail. After they arrived in a few cars, chants echoed out of the concrete structure.

The neo-Nazis came out dressed in black leather boots, Hitler T-shirts and black cargo jackets with swastikas. The men and women had to take off their shoes and stick their swastika-emblazoned flags and shields through an X-ray scanner as they walked through metal detectors outside the courthouse. While they waited to get through security, protesters mocked their beliefs and their small numbers.

Knoxville attorney Chris Irwin held a sign that read, "Follow your leader." It was stenciled with a photo of Adolf Hitler shooting himself in the head.

"My gosh, I would be embarrassed to have that number at a spaghetti dinner benefit," he hollered at the group as they emerged. "That's so sad. ... You're looking sad, master race."

He and others hit a nerve. The neo-Nazis yelled back at the protesters, calling them homosexuals.

"We have followers everywhere we go," responded one neo-Nazi.

"Why don't you come over here?" taunted another man as he gestured with black-leather-gloved hands.

The crowd of locals was alive with passion and spectacle. There were college students, elderly women and middle-aged couples. There were whites, Hispanics, blacks and Jews -- nearly all of them detested in neo-Nazi dogma.

Men who looked like bikers wearing AC/DC patches on their jackets stood alongside hipsters in skinny jeans and black-framed glasses.

One woman unraveled a white banner that said "NAZIS GO HOME."

"No one will accept them to go home," responded a man. "There is no home for them."

Among the protesters were Richard Morris, a black man with dreadlocks, who had his arms draped over the shoulders of his white girlfriend, Kimberly Barton, and a friend, Juanita Chappell, who is also white.

"You should be able to date who you want to date," Barton said.

Some came out just for the show.

"This stuff, it just makes me laugh," said Andrew Johnson, a man in his 20s who was on weekend leave from Fort Campbell.

"If no one would show up, they would never come," he said.

As the Nazi-sympathizing bikers departed, a group of preppy college boys was deflated.

"Oh, man, I wanted to take a selfie with them in the background," one said.

The neo-Nazi group was itching to provoke and basked in the attention. And at one point they addressed the raucous crowd across the street.

"There are people trying to listen," a man's voice boomed over the speaker system.

And a few in the crowd were listening.

Daniel Coffelt said he wasn't ashamed to be there in support of the neo-Nazis.

He said he was recently fired from Amazon by a black man. And he's tired of discrimination against whites and thinks interracial dating is wrong.

"They're having sex with white women to mock white men," he said. "We're standing in the breadlines while blacks and Hispanics get grants and government assistance."

•••

A different atmosphere was apparent under the stained glass shadows of Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church, five miles away from the courthouse.

It was cool and calm in the sanctuary, where neighbors and clergy stretched out hands to one another rather than clenched fists.

They said Saturday was a step back. And we all need to look toward to the future, a better future for whites and blacks alike.

Then everyone joined hands and prayed.

Minister Dale Troupe sang the old song "Someday" from page 225 of his hymnal.

"There is a world where pleasure reigns," his deep voice sung. "No mourning soul shall roam its plains."

His eyes looked to the ceiling of the church, then to the unbroken chain of 50 or so who stood in solidarity against everything the neo-Nazis stand for.

"And to that land of peace and glory I want to go someday."

But the city isn't there yet. Jazzanooga presented a reminder of that.

Citing safety concerns, organizers earlier in the day called off the jazz festival's first-ever march down M.L. King Boulevard.

"Personally, I struggled with the decision," said Shane Morrow, co-founder of the event.

But aside from that hiccup, the music went on. Mostly black dance teams dueled on the front lawn of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. A mix of the Jackson 5, Beyonce and songs from "The Lion King" blared from box speakers.

The silver sequins worn by the Ladies of Excellence twinkled under the hot sun. The group teaches community values. And dancing.

Brittany Grayson, founder and director of the girls group, said she wasn't afraid of the Nazis. Still, some of her dancers were nervous about coming out Saturday because of their proximity to the rally.

But celebrating Chattanooga's rich musical tradition and its jazz history, Grayson said, sends a message of its own. A message that an outside hate group couldn't have this day.

And what better reason to dance?

Staff writers Joan Garrett McClane and Tim Omarzu contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Alex Green...

Alex Green joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 after completing the paper's six-month, general assignment reporter internship. Alex grew up in Dayton, Tenn., which is also where he studied journalism at Bryan College. He graduated from Rhea County High School in 2008. During college, Alex covered the city of Graysville and the town of Spring City for The Herald-News. As editor-in-chief of Bryan College's student news group, Triangle, Alex reported on ...

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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