Every year, the neo-Nazi group “The National Socialist Movement” (NSM) meets in Georgia to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday. The fringe group is something of a political freakshow, able to attract merely dozens of supporters for their annual event.
They’ve remained mostly ignored since their inception in 1974, but this year was different. After paying a $50 permit fee to use a park for two hours on April 21st in the small town of Newnan, Georgia, a total of 700 police officers descended on the city from various jurisdictions.
Nobody was seriously injured, and no property was damaged, but with around a dozen arrests and a city occupied by heavily armed police forces for an afternoon, it is worth reflecting on the cost.
The Charlottesville Effect
Eight months ago, I covered the NSM on the streets of a city much closer to home: Charlottesville, VA. Three fatalities occurred that day amidst numerous injuries, often attributed to a combination of total inaction from the police that responded and actions that exacerbated the violence. Instead of standing between August’s “Unite the Right” rally-goers and their left-wing rivals, officers stood aside until they determined the event was too violent to continue, and then they pushed one group into the other.
(It’s worth noting that the NSM was one of two Nazi groups who had a presence in Charlottesville. They allied with dozens of other loose-knit far-right groups, not all of which promote National Socialism.)
After seeing the intense scrutiny placed on police for their decision to mostly stand down in August, it stands to reason that the authorities in Newnan decided to respond the opposite way.
The Streets of Newnan
Upon arriving in Newnan a couple hours before the event was slated to begin, it was obvious that this was unlike any police response I’d ever seen before. Streets were blocked off for nearly a mile radius around the area where the protest would occur. Military-style vehicles lined the street, and police wielded weapons and outfits more seemingly suitable for Fallujah than a small Georgia city.
I roamed around for a while, getting a feel for the area. Locals were gathering outside to protest the neo-Nazi group, many of them from a conservative background. One NRA member wielding a long rifle and a pistol on his side said he was prepared to fight back against the nazis, if he had to.
Across the street, about a dozen officers in military-type uniforms got a call and began running in the opposite direction of the rally point, apparently in a hurry. I began my first livestream of the day.
About a mile from the protest point (and an hour before it was set to begin), I found a couple dozen SWAT officers arresting about six antifa activists. I attempted to film the situation, and officers pushed the crowd back, placing vehicles between the action and the cameras.
When I spoke to activists about what happened, it turned out they were arrested simply for wearing masks. The remaining activists appeared jarred by what they saw as a police over-response.
As the situation winded down, I returned to the rally point.
The police sectioned off a wide area near the park for any counter-protesters and media to yell at (and photograph) the NSM.
To even get into the area, you would first be subject to a bodily patdown. No bags were allowed, and anyone entering had to remove everything from their pockets, so police would be able to see everything on your person. A two-page list had been released detailing all the items that would be barred. Among them: tripods, water bottles (yes, on an 80 degree day, water was banned), selfie sticks, helmets, or anything else an officer deems could be used as a weapon, entirely at their discretion.
As a member of the press, being searched to enter an area to photograph and take video was new for me. My video visibly suffered from leaving behind my tripod, which I was told could be confiscated.
In this designated media / counter-protester area, everyone was restricted to stand behind a barricade, with riot cops shoulder to shoulder behind it. A less structured line of police stood behind them, and a second structure with a fence behind that.
I still haven’t seen a figure explaining the costs associated with the event, but it looked expensive.
Perhaps the dullest element of the day was the Nazi rally itself. 100 yards behind the fence barrier, a few dozen NSM members entered the park, rallied out of earshot, and left a couple hours later. Surrounded by police at all moments, they were never within even yelling distance of their rivals.
Outside the zone
As the event took place, police became very confrontational with antifa. After seeing some movement outside the checkpoint area, I left to film what was going on. At least three antifa members were arrested, I’m told without any kind of violence or property damage. I cannot personally confirm what led to the arrests, and police haven’t added any details.
Jackson Landers reported that earlier in the day, police had attempted to make arrests for as little as not liking “the look” an activist gave him.
After the NSM left, at least one more protester was arrested for standing on a blocked off road. With dozens of officers responding to the apparent J-walking incident, I found myself asking, “why?”
When a deadly August rally in Charlottesville took place, police were berated for standing down and letting the violence happen. This weekend, heavily armed police stationed themselves at every street corner and arrested anyone who so much as crossed the street incorrectly or wore a mask.
With no property damage, no deaths, and no severe injuries, one could proclaim the police department to have succeeded. The police themselves certainly thought so. A formation of riot officers chanted together in a military formation after their captain proclaimed, “Great job today guys."
The free speech rights of Nazis were protected, and from a casualty and property damage perspective, the situation was handled successfully, but at what cost?
Journalists being searched, tripods being banned, heavy-handed arrests of demonstrators, tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and the military-style occupation of an American town may represent a forceful defense of the free speech of Nazis, or it may symbolize an erosion of civil liberties.
Either way, the duty to document the occasion couldn’t be more obvious.