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Free Speech in Whitesburg

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September 1, 1939 was the start of World War 2. Adolf Hitler invaded Poland from the West. He had a group of followers called Nazis. They were a Socialist Party who had a hatred for Jews. Once WWII ended, Nazis went into hiding.  In the news and in our country, people with the same ideologies seem to be coming out of the woodwork. They were re-named. These new followers are called Neo-Nazis. The prefix ‘neo’ means ‘new’.   The socialist group was first heard of again five months ago. New members of the Neo-Nazis keep popping up everywhere and the numbers are still rising. When men in black walked into a Kentucky restaurant, waitress Brittany Porter knew exactly who they were. She describes them as pale, skittish, aggressively tattooed, and armed. On Facebook the night before, Porter read about the group of racists who were coming to eastern Kentucky to hold a rally. They had chosen an economically struggling stretch of coal country with a population that was 98% white and that had voted 80% for Trump.  In their videos, the Neo-Nazi leaders had talked about the scourge of drug addiction in Pike County. Brittany Porter herself was a recovered drug addict as was her friend, Chrissy Wooten, another waitress at the same restaurant.

Together, they discussed whether they should start the day by “accidentally” pouring coffee into the Neo-Nazis’ laps. They decided not to as the men were armed. The Neo-Nazis were on their way to Whitesburg, Kentucky to hold a weekend summit with a coalition of other white nationalist groups on a secured, private piece of land. Porter and Wooton watched from distance, swooping in now and then to refill their coffee cups. But they were too curious to stay quiet. Porter said people on Facebook “we’re talking a bunch of “stuff””. They were saying that the group was the Ku Klux Klan. According to www.thegaurdian.com , Wooten asked the men at the table bluntly , “ Are you guys the KKK?”

The event the men were to attend did include some members of the Ku Klux Klan that were expected to go.  Matthew Heimbach, 26-year-old leader of the group, grinded at Wooten and laughed. He explained gently, “Our motto is faith, family and folk,”  Heimbach is being sued for shoving and shouting at a young black protester at a Donald Trump campaign rally last March, and who had recently filed legal papers saying that Trump, who had reacted to the protesters by shouting “Get ‘em outta here!”, should be held responsible for his behavior. Heimbach explained, they’re not the KKK. They’re focused on family and faith and local control, on fighting the international corporations who came into Appalachia and took all the profits from Kentucky’s coal. Heimbach did not try to sell the waitresses on his plan for a white ethno-state, his belief that the Holocaust did not happen, his belief in thousands of years of Jewish conspiracy. He just talked about family struggles and immigrants taking jobs and hurting workers and how white Americans needed more representation. Wooton, who had voted for Trump, was enthusiastic. Her husband, a coal miner, had lost his job under Obama and had been hired again three days after Trump’s inauguration. Wooton had come back to the table repeatedly to press Heimbach for more answers, explaining that her manager was still calling him a racist. She asked Heimbach is he was willing to work with other races. He said of course he was. He talked about the importance of black communities making decisions for themselves, about how black policemen might be better at policing in black neighborhoods.

Talking to Wooton, Heimbach acted like a local politician: polite, a little loquacious, but genuinely passionate. He was not Richard Spencer, the clean-cut, rich-boy racist who got punched in the face at Trump’s  inauguration. He was not a ranting internet troll. He was a small-town kid who put himself through college selling custom wardrobe tidying systems, and now he was using those skills trying to sell fascism to the American people. Though we may think that the Neo-Nazis are the original Nazis or the new KKK, they’re not. They are people. People who are more valued in family than they are in ridding the world of “imperfect” or “unworthy” people. America is founded on the principle of free speech, but America is really going to have to think about how to address voices like these in our free country.

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Free Speech in Whitesburg