April 21, 2018 Newnan - The National Socialist Movement holds a rally at Greenville Street Park in downtown Newnan on Saturday, April 21, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Overwhelming police presence mutes Newnan Nazi rally

An overwhelming police presence combined with an underwhelming turnout by the National Socialist Movement combined to make Saturday’s neo-Nazi rally an event full of sound and fury but signifying very little.

Residents of Newnan, a quiet community about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta, had dreaded the planned protest since it became national news earlier this month. By early afternoon, hundreds of counter-protesters and dozens of media crews from Atlanta and around the nation poured in.

The National Socialist Movement, a Detroit-based fascist organization, applied in March for a rally of between 50-100 members. City officials had approved the request, saying the group’s First Amendment rights gave them little choice but promised a massive law enforcement response.

Hours before the event, Newnan resembled an armed encampment.

Hundreds of law enforcement patrolled the streets on foot and in armored, military-style vehicles. Many police wore riot gear and carried high-powered assault-style rifles. At one point, three helicopters and three drones hovered over downtown and four Georgia Department of Correction buses waited in case of mass arrests.

The City of Newnan spent six weeks planning for the rally, said Police Chief Douglas Meadows.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan, decked out in a GBI vest and wide-brimmed hat, was confident there would be no trouble.

“There are such much law enforcement here. There are nearly 700 law enforcement officers here from 42 agencies, and that’s by design,” he said. “You control incidents by having a large police presence. Without that, you cannot maintain control if things become volatile.”

The opportunity to shout down the fascist group attracted many counter-protesters from Atlanta and elsewhere. One large bearded man, who declined to give his name, stood on the Newnan square with an assault-style rifle slung across his back. He said he hoped not to use it. “I’m a New York Jew and a Communist,” he said. “I check a lot of (the neo-Nazi’s) boxes.”

But many local residents came out to express their displeasure with their town being chosen to host the rally.

“Fascism has no place in this town,” said Brad Strange, who stood with his wife, Ashley, and their three young children on the edge of the square holding handmade signs.

“What does it say, Dad?” his young son, Xander, said.

“No silence, no violence,” his father said.

Dee Wyman traveled from Marietta to stand against what she sees as hatred that she says is on the rise. She is a believer in the First Amendment and supports the right to protest, but said it was sad that speech is used to support hate.

“This is not right,” she said. “It’s important that everyone stand up. I don’t understand why they have so much hate for people they even don’t know anything about.”

She said it was important for her to participate because the nation will only come together if people stand up.

“We all have to do something,” she said. “If we just sit back, nothing is going to change.”

Newnan residents Mildred Beadles and Vanessa Cleveland said demonstrators should pay for the cost of police, lost business for downtown merchants and the inconvenience of closures across the small south metro Atlanta community.

“This shouldn’t come out of the pockets of taxpayers like me,” Beadles said. “If they want to do this, they should pay for it. Our police are not focused on us because of them. That should not be allowed.”

Beadles, who followed a procession of counter protesters, said she wanted to follow the lead of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and show “love to those filled with hate.

“Today I come in peace to see what’s going on,” she said. “Is there that much hate in America?”

Police funnelled hundreds of counter-protesters through checkpoints where everyone was searched. Groups shouted slogans and some ridiculed the police with chants of “cops and the Klan work hand in hand.”

The white nationalist group — made up mostly of National Socialists, but including other groups — did not make an appearance until after 4 p.m., nearly an hour late. The group was small, about 25, most of them middle-aged men.

“We are the vanguard of the white race,” NSM Commander Jeff Schoep insisted, in a loud and accusatory speech lasting about half an hour. No one from the group could — or would — explain why they chose Newnan, Ga.

“Why Newnan?” said NSM Chief of Staff Burt Colucci, a central Florida resident. “Why not?”

As the small contingent of neo-Nazis held its demonstration in Greenville Street Park, the hundreds of counter-protesters — kept separated by an 8-foot fence and dozens of rifle-carrying police — booed the group and shouted, “You lost, get over it,” “Newnan strong” and “shame on you!”

The counter-demonstrators chanted and hooted as white nationalist speakers fiddled with their PA system and made rambling speeches geared mostly at insulting anti-fascist groups and the media. As the clock crept by the 5 p.m. deadline, the counter-protesters began shouting, “Shut it down” and “time’s up, go home.”

City officials gathered at the Coweta County Justice Center at the end of the day announced no injuries or property damage occurred, prompting heads of different agencies to exchange handshakes and hugs. As they spoke, groups of weary police officers walked through the parking lot heading home. Police Chief Meadows briefly teared up.

He said he had no idea how much the event costs the taxpayers, but later there would be an assessment. He said it was the price of democracy.

About 10 counter-demonstrators were arrested. Authorities provided no details on the charges. None of the Neo-Nazi contingent were arrested.

“The citizens of Newnan, Coweta County and the State of Georgia did not want a Neo-Nazi event to happen here today,” Kennan said. “But we don’t get to make that choice.”

Newnan resident Jeffery Benoit praised the way law enforcement handled a tense situation.

“There was some extremely good work done here by law enforcement,” Benoit said. “They set up perimeters to keep separate the people in the park and those outside. In that there is nobody being hurt, it has been managed well because there are a lot of emotions out here. The police have done an extremely good job of protecting the city of Newnan.”