By Bryan Woolston
SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. (Reuters) – About 300 white nationalists and neo-Nazis took to the streets of the small Tennessee city of Shelbyville on Saturday to protest refugee resettlement in the state, which sued the federal government over the issue earlier this year.
The “White Lives Matter” rally, organized by some of the same groups involved in a Virginia march in August that turned violent, drew an equal number of counter-demonstrators and a heavy police presence.
After Shelbyville, the protesters were due to travel about 35 miles north to Murfreesboro for a second rally.
The two cities are just southeast of Nashville, whose metropolitan area has become home to refugees from Somalia, Iraq and elsewhere.
The day’s protests were organized by the Nationalist Front, a coalition including the League of the South and Vanguard America, considered neo-Nazi or neo-Confederate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
“We don’t want the federal government to keep dumping all these refugees into middle Tennessee,” said Brad Griffin, a League of the South member who has written about his desire to create a white “ethnostate.”
To help keep the peace, Shelbyville police used temporary fencing to separate the white nationalists from counter-demonstrators in a central protest area. Anyone seeking to enter the area was searched. Guns, sticks, backpacks and items that might double as weapons were banned.
The white nationalist demonstrators gathered behind a half dozen white shields emblazoned with red crosses. Counter-protesters carried signs with slogans including “Don’t Hate” and “Veterans for Peace.”
Local officials and faith leaders have denounced the gatherings.
Over the last 15 years, about 18,000 refugees have been resettled in Tennessee, less than 1 percent of the state’s population, according to the Tennessean newspaper.
A lawsuit filed against the government in March by Tennessee said the state had been unduly forced to pay for refugee resettlements. It was the first state to bring such a case on the basis of the 10th Amendment, which limits U.S. government powers to those provided by the Constitution, though other states have filed similar suits on different legal grounds.
“When they say refugees, what they really mean is Muslims,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, referring to Saturday’s protesters.
He noted that a Murfreesboro mosque has been a source of controversy and vandalism for years.
“Tennessee is one of the states that has seen a rise in anti-Muslim bigotry in recent years, particularly since the election,” Hooper said.
President Donald Trump has sought to ban travel from six Muslim-majority countries since he took office and called during his 2016 election campaign for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
(Additional reporting by Chris Kenning; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Richard Chang and Tom Brown)