In May 2019, a group of white supremacists and neo-fascists under the umbrella of American Renaissance (AmRen) held its annual conference at the lodge at Montgomery Bell State Park near Burns, Tennessee. As with every meeting AmRen had held at park since 2012, protesters were on hand to express their outrage at AmRen's ideology, but more so that AmRen was allowed to discuss and plan its ideological and political strategies in publicly owned facilities.
While the conference attendees appeared to be free to come and go without restriction and enjoyed the comforts of the lodge, the protesters were herded single file through a metal detector and contained in an enclosed “protest pen” about an acre in size with no restroom facilities or running water and very little shelter from the sweltering late-spring heat and humidity. The protesters weren't allowed in or near the lodge building.
The law enforcement presence was astounding and included officers from the Tennessee Highway Patrol, sheriff's deputies and park and local police. They had K-9 officers. Some were on horseback, and a bus from the Tennessee Department of Corrections had been brought out in the event of mass arrests. In retrospect, it's clear that if the law enforcement-to-protester ratio in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 of this year had been anything close to what it was on that hot day in Tennessee in 2019, nobody would have gotten anywhere close to the doors and windows of the Capitol Building. But unlike the police in D.C. who should have been there to protect against the racists and fascists outside the building, the police in Tennessee for the AmRen conference were there to protect the ones inside.
AmRen is the forum for the New Century Foundation, designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist hate group. The group uses dubious credentials and pseudo-pedantic language to promote the centuries-old mythology that people of color are mentally, morally and genetically inferior to whites. Members of the group have argued that blacks have a higher incidence of psychopathy than whites and have advocated “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and the creation of a white ethno-state. Many, if not most, of the participants in the January 6 uprising in Washington espouse the same philosophy, and it's entirely plausible that AmRen subscribers helped to plan and execute this shocking anarchist insurrection.
The protesters represented a coalition of community groups including the Tennessee Anti-Racist Network, Statewide Organization for Community eMpowerment, National Peace and Justice Center, NAACP, Women's March Tennessee and various clergy. Several were arrested, including one young woman who was stealthily followed by a law enforcement officer when she slipped away from the crowd and out of sight into the woods to answer nature's call in private (see above comment regarding the lack of restroom facilities). At least one protester collapsed from heat exhaustion.
In the wake of the event, the State of Tennessee lost a lawsuit that had been filed by AmRen, who argued that the tab for the additional police presence for the previous year's conference was unconstitutional, forcing the State to fork over more than $46,000. The 2018 event was attended by an even greater number of protesters. The 2020 conference was canceled due to the COVID pandemic, but AmRen has booked the Montgomery Bell lodge once again for its 2021 gathering.
On Jan. 12, 2021, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) held a public hearing to discuss revisions to its rules governing demonstrations in state parks. The proposed new rule places onerous restrictions on permits to demonstrate in state parks through deliberately vague criteria for permit approval as well as other new constraints. It openly states that some park areas “are not intended to be open places for free expression by or between citizens” and gives broad discretion to the park manager and others in the TDEC hierarchy regarding the issuance and revocation of permits. The upshot is that TDEC simply doesn't want these protests in state parks.
Many people thought that the current administration would crater at some point, but few suspected that the fall would materialize as anything so spectacular and terrifying as the January 6 coup attempt, a violent invasion of the Capitol that left at least five dead, threatened the well-being of lawmakers and resulted in damage, desecration and defilement of national holy ground. Two weeks later, we are still reeling from this incursion, and it will be years, maybe decades before all of the questions generated by this incident are answered, if ever. But one thing became immediately clear, which is that the perpetrators of this rebellion, who are cut from the same bolt as the Amren crowd—white supremacists, nationalists, conspiracy theorists, alt-right propaganda junkies and maybe even a few sitting politicians—are a threat to the survival of the nation.
So in summary, the State of Tennessee, whether through legal risk aversion, anticipation of the financial benefits of renting blocks of hotel and conference rooms or sympathy toward the attendees, is perfectly OK with hosting an event where the racist enemies of democracy and equality can review and refine their plans and pat each other on the back for the progress they've made so far. American Renaissance, the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Boys, Ku Klux Klan et al., after all, are free to enjoy their First Amendment rights on public land. On the other hand, the State seeks to place a chokehold on those who would peacefully take a stand in lawful protest of that event.
More to follow.