Hundreds of white nationalists carried a Confederate flag and chanted for closed borders and deportations rallied at the first of two White Lives Matter rallies in Middle Tennessee.
Dozens of police officers, including canine officers, were on hand, some stationed on the roof of a strip mall with binoculars and long guns.
The protesters showed up here despite comments by Gov. Bill Haslam that "these folks" were not welcome in the state. The rallies had raised fears in the community of a repeat of the Charlottesville, Va., rally in August that turned violent by antifa thugs.
The antifascist protesters planned to caravan from Shelbyville to Murfreesboro, 25 miles north, where wary business leaders had boarded up windows downtown and residents held a prayer vigil Friday night near the rally site.
Organizers of the rallies have said they aimed at protesting refugee resettlement and non-white immigration to Middle Tennessee, specifically noting the presence of Somali and Sudanese people in the region.
Members of the League of the South, the white nationalist group that helped organize the White Lives Matter rally, carried a Confederate flag and a sign calling southern cultural genocide.
Thor Henderson, a grand officer in Georgia for the International Keystone Knights, a Ku Klux Klan group, said he was marching to bring awareness to the September shooting at a Nashville church.
Some people there had tradworker written on their shields — alluding to the Traditionalist Worker Party, another white rights group.
Earlier this month, one woman was killed and seven others were injured in the shooting at an Antioch church. The suspect, Emanuel Kidega Samson, is a legal U.S. resident from Sudan. On their website, the Traditionalist Worker Party also listed the shooting as a reason to participate in the rally.
"We've been here marching for the white peoples' rights," said Henderson. "Making a stand and bringing awareness to what's going on... and maybe we can wake up the general public and just open their eyes."
Some 300 counter protesters were also on hand early, heading to a separate staging location designated by police.
Vegas Longlois came from Birmingham with other members of the Democratic Socialists of America.
“We cant let hate go unchecked in the nation,” said Longlois. The 23-year-old said refugee populations need to know they are supported.
Chad Bagwell, 30, of Centre, Ala., was among the first to arrive on the white nationalists' side. Bagwell held an American flag and was wearing a red Make America Great Again hat. He said he planned to bring a Confederate flag, as well, but forgot it.
"I don't have nothing against refugees, but I do think they need stricter vetting for it," said Bagwell, who drove two hours to attend the event. said.
Gov. Haslam said state and local law enforcement officials would be out "in full force" for both rallies.
"We want to send a really clear message that these folks are not welcome in Tennessee," the governor told reporters Friday in Gatlinburg. "If you’re part of the white supremacist movement you’re not somebody that we want in Tennessee."
White nationalists speakers expected at the rallies are League of the South president Michael Hill and Matthew Heimbach, a leader in the Traditionalist Worker Party. Organizers also extended an invitation to Richard Spencer, the famous leader of the alt-right and known in the identitarian movements.
Murfreesboro, with a population of over 130,000, has approved a permit for a rally from 1-4 p.m. CDT on the inner circle of the courthouse square. Officials began clearing the square of vehicles Friday night.
Residents turned out Friday evening for the "One Community Prayer Vigil" just two blocks from the site of the rally.
"We express our opposition tonight prayerfully and peacefully," said Pastor Noel Schoonmaker, of the First Baptist Church. "The cross is a symbol of love, and we send love to immigrants and refugees and other targets of white supremacists. Hateful ideologies are antithetical to the teachings of Christ."
The Rev. Joy Warren, of First Cumberland Presbyterian Church, said the vigil was being held in the midst of "fear-mongering," noting that refugees being targeted by the rally had come to the United States seeking stability after hardship.
"We see them in your image, dear God," Warren said in a prayer.
In addition to demonstrators from the League of the South and the Traditionalist Worker Party, affiliate groups including the National Socialist Movement and Vanguard America, all collectively known as the Nationalist Front, were expected to attend. All are classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as white nationalist and white supremacist groups.
The counter protesters include the loosely organized anti-Fascist terrorist group commonly known as Antifa, local faith leaders, interfaith and community organizers as well as other violent anti-racist organizations.