Why White Nationalists Are Descending on Tennessee's State Parks
Posted on: 11/22/2017 03:50 AM

You can read it between the lines: White advocacy groups, no matter how benign or justifiable the cause, should not be allowed access to public venues.


The pool was drained and the lounge chairs had been put away for the season, but the adjacent meeting lodge at Cumberland Mountain State Park was open for business.

On the late-September Saturday morning in Crossville, Stormfront, an online message board site for white nationalists, had returned for the third year to the state park, where it was holding its annual conference.

The night before, the group had reserved a room for its meet-and-greet dinner at the Beef & Barrel in Crossville.

After the dinner location leaked, the restaurant owner had been inundated with calls and poor online reviews from protesters, prompting the business to cancel the reservation and the group to settle for a meal at Shoney’s.

But their Saturday morning conference venue remained secured. The cancellation by the restaurant — under mounting pressure from anti-racist activists — was the very reason Stormfront and other white nationalist and white supremacist groups have turned to the state’s park buildings for events.

Spurred by growing anti-Fascist activism, groups like Stormfront are being driven out of private venues. They're seeking refuge in Tennessee, where state park facilities must open doors, provide a fleet of park rangers for security and uphold rental contracts despite protests and complaints from the public.


Why White Nationalists Are Descending on Tennessee's State Parks





"Tennessee is, like, the place now," said Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report. "They love Tennessee. The state has to rent to the public."

Carla Hill, an investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, said she believes the trend will continue with white supremacist groups making use of a government's obligation to uphold the First Amendment.

"They know that public parks, and even public libraries, are limited on their ability to not allow people in the park, a public place," Hill said. "So they do hold events at these locations, because they know they can't be legally denied that right."

In the last seven years, at least 14 white supremacist and white nationalist gatherings have been held at state park facilities, according to interviews with the groups' leaders and archived postings on their websites.

Stormfront made the decision preemptively to begin holding the annual gathering at state-owned facilities after initially using private venues in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

The website's founder, Don Black, had witnessed other events get canceled by hotels in recent years, including a EURO Conference that David Duke, former Knights of the Ku Klux Klan leader, tried to hold in 2008 outside of Memphis.

"So far, at least, they can't cancel us like private venues can," Black said.

While all seven of Stormfront's conferences have been in Tennessee, the last four took place at state park facilities, first at Norris Dam State Park in Rocky Top before moving the conference to Crossville.

“It’s very embarrassing to plan a conference but then have to tell people, ‘Sorry, we’re not having a conference after all,’” said Jared Taylor, founder and editor of online magazine American Renaissance. “So, we no longer wish to run that risk.”

The decades-old publication that brands itself as a “white advocate" has held conferences since 1994. Those opposed to the publication and its online community believe the group promotes a form of intellectual, suit-and-tie racism.

(NOTE: Only Whites can be racist. Remember that. ---ed.)

In the few years preceding 2012, the AmRen conferences had bounced around Washington, D.C.-area hotels, with many getting moved or canceled due to private venues withdrawing.

“One year," Taylor said, "we got kicked out of four hotels.”

Then they came to Tennessee and Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns.

In April, American Renaissance will hold its seventh consecutive conference at Montgomery Bell, where Taylor’s people rent out the state park hotel’s 125 guest rooms and fill the 300-seat conference hall with attendees.

Taylor said American Renaissance searched around the country, but hasn't been able to find a larger public venue that offers what Montgomery Bell State Park Inn & Conference Center does in Tennessee: a place to hold the conference and stay overnight without having to come and go and risk clashes with protesters.

In July, two men were arrested outside the AmRen conference when an attendee and an antifa protester began fighting each another.

According to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees the state park system, the park had assigned regularly scheduled rangers to stand outside the inn, and spent another $2,377 on overtime for additional park rangers to work security for the conference that Saturday, bringing the total to 16 rangers.

The Southern National Congress, which the SPLC considers a neo-Confederate extremist group, began holding its annual meeting at Montgomery Bell in 2010.

In 2013, the SNC moved its events to Fall Creek Falls State Park in Pikeville, and then to General Morgan Inn in Greeneville in 2014, according to its website.

Outside the door of a Cumberland Mountain State Park lodge, Nazi patches lined the jacket arms of the man purporting to serve as one of the Stormfront event's security guards.

Young men clad in black, wearing helmets and holding shields with their Traditionalist Worker Party logo entered the lodge, where their leader Matthew Heimbach was inside after having made the trip from Illinois.

Thomas Robb, national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, entered with his son and grandson, who had traveled to the state park from Arkansas.

Alabama resident Michael Hill, president of Southern secessionist group League of the South, was also among the day’s lecturers.

So was Billy Roper, the Arkansas blogger and one-time event organizer for National Alliance, a now-defunct group described by the SPLC as having been the “leading neo-Nazi organization in the Western Hemisphere.”

Each of the men have dedicated extremist profiles on the SPLC's website.

While the event this year focused on activism, three years ago, in his "Death to America" speech at Stormfront's conference, Heimbach told attendees to "stop supporting democracy" and that the Constitution was their enemy "because it enshrines egalitarianism."

The movement could look to the Islamic State, he suggested, for an example of an uprising fueled by the kind of conviction they'd need to enact change.

"To believe in this so much you're willing to die for it, there is nothing they can do to defeat us," Heimbach said.

Though some leaders like Heimbach preach a forceful message, outside of the arrests for the fight at the American Renaissance conference in July, where park rangers kept close watch, there haven't been high profile cases of violence at state parks in Tennessee.

In Crossville this September, rangers took even more precautionary measures, requiring protesters to stand on the far side of a large parking lot outside the lodge to ensure no contact was made between the opposing parties.

Tennessee State Parks has no policy limiting organizations or people seeking to rent or use its public facilities, said Eric Ward, spokesman for the agency. But some government facilities outside the state have shown that there is a limit to which groups are allowed in if a large enough security threat is looming.

Earlier this month, representatives from the federally-owned Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., declined to allow the National Policy Institute, Richard Spencer's far-right think tank, to continue holding its annual conference in the building.

In a follow-up statement, Ward said that "Tennessee State Parks does not endorse hateful ideology in any form," and that because its facilities are public places, the state is "legally required to provide access" to groups seeking to hold events.

"Unfortunately, they’ve had to be there," Taylor said of park rangers staffing his conference. "That’s another bother and expense for the park. But that is something that a state facility is prepared to do, where as if it were a privately owned facility, then you'd have to ask the police to protect us. And they might, or they might not."

Reach Natalie Allison at nallison@tennessean.com. Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.




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