CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As many as 250 counter-protesters flocked to Old City Hall in Uptown Charlotte today to demonstrate against a neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan rally meant to protest undocumented immigration. Organizers of the counter-protest say they wanted to take a stand against hate.
The rally was planned by the Detroit, Mich.-based National Socialist Movement. The Southern Poverty Law Center has long tracked the group, which it says is the largest neo-Nazi organization in the country. Members of the Eden, N.C., Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan joined the neo-Nazi event.
Some counter-protesters were organized by the Latin American Coalition. They wore clown costumes in an attempt to ridicule the hate group members’ messages.
“The hate-based views of the [National Socialist Movement] and KKK have no place in our multicultural society or in our nation’s civilized discourse,” a press release from the Latin American Coalition read. “While we acknowledge their First Amendment right to speak freely, we believe that hate and hate-speech should never go unchallenged. We choose not to be silent and to battle their hatred with humor. And clown noses.”
Coalition Organizer and Youth Coordinator Lacey Williams said it was important for her to stand up.
“If hate comes to our community, it should never go unchallenged,” she said. “It’s important to come out here and show that their message is not one that is going to be tolerated in our community.”
She disagreed with some perspectives that said protesting the rally simply gave the neo-Nazi and KKK groups a bigger voice.
“If we take them seriously and we meet hate speech with hate speech and anger with anger, then I think we elevate their platform,” Williams said, “but right now what we’re doing is we’re just drowning out everything that they have to say. Passers-by can’t even hear what the neo-Nazis want to express to the community. They can only hear us and our noisemakers.”
Phyllis Jones also attended the counter-protest. A 72-year-old African-American woman, she is originally from Virginia but now lives in Charlotte. She said she remembers a time when beliefs expressed by the hate groups on Saturday were more commonplace and racial prejudice and hate were written into the law.
“It is important for people my age to be out here because we’re not going to have it again,” she said. “I don’t know how they came here or why they came here, but the Klan is dead, really. I counted how many people are out there and it’s less than 50 people out there, so they have no power. We’re going to drown them out.”
Jones said she also felt like police officers at the event were upset by the hate groups’ messages. “Look at the police,” she said. “I watched the expressions on their face. I hate that they have to stand up here like this, but I can tell they are against this group, too.”
The rally and the counter-protest were both peaceful, though some independent counter-protesters who didn’t come with the Latin American Coalition did get heated and hurled expletives, slurs and threats at members of the hate groups. Other media outlets have reported that Occupy Charlotte and other protest groups were responsible for the additional counter-protesters. When asked by qnotes, none of the independent counter-protesters identified themselves as being a part of an organized group.
Several of those counter-protesters also threw small sticks and other items at National Socialist Movement leader Jeff Schoep as media attempted to interview him.
“We’re not concerned about violence,” Schoep told media. “We’ll defend ourselves pure and simple. If the police weren’t here, I don’t think the anarchists would be so brave and emboldened.”
Schoep said his group is a “white civil rights organization,” despite its classification as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“We’re here in defense of white America today and standing up against illegal immigration on behalf of white civil rights,” he said. “We stand in defense of white people all over the country.”
He said he wanted his group to be a “third-party alternative” and said neither Republicans nor Democrats were helping the country.
“We want to give them another option. National Socialism is that option,” Schoep said. “Obama or Romney, it doesn’t matter,” Schoep said. “It’s the same puppet masters pulling the strings.”
Several counter-protesters attempted to block police and members of the hate groups as they were being escorted away from the rally. Some chose to lie down on the street. Others linked arms. Sections of S. Davidson St., E. 4th St. and S. McDowell St. were closed to vehicular traffic as the hate group members, police and counter-protesters spilled over the sidewalk. Despite the attempted disruptions, police say they issued no citations or arrests.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Socialist Movement has its historic roots in the original American Nazi Party, founded in 1959. Leadership changed hands in 1967 after its founder was murdered by a follower. In 1994, current leader Schoep took the reins and renamed the group. The group’s carefully-planned protests and rallies have caused riots. The group once protested in full Nazi Brownshirt uniforms but now uses black “Battle Dress Uniforms.”
The National Socialist Movement is the largest neo-Nazi hate group in the U.S. It has 57 chapters in 39 states, including a statewide chapter in North Carolina. A local leader of the group told qnotes that the Charlotte rally is one of two national gatherings the group holds each year, one in the spring and one in the fall.
The neo-Nazi and KKK rally comes nearly one month after Louis Farrakhan, also documented as a hate group leader by the Southern Poverty Law Center, visited Charlotte for a speech at Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church and a Bojangles’ Coliseum rally which attracted 6,000. Several elected officials and other leaders, including Charlotte City Councilmember LaWana Mayfield, came under scrutiny after attending those events. The city’s first and only openly LGBT elected official, Mayfield attended the Little Rock speech where she tweeted Farrakhan was “doing God’s will.” She’s since declined repeated requests by this newspaper to go on-record with a statement condemning anti-Semitism and anti-LGBT hatred.