Last week’s neo-Nazi rally in Newnan, Georgia drew more than 700 police officers from 20 law enforcement agencies. They policed an event that drew around 20 openly demonstrating neo-Nazis and several thousand counter-protesters. No violence between those groups was reported.
The police’s show of force was based at least in part on reviews of social media postings that included little legitimate sourcing and lots of internet irony.
With the events of August 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia, looming large, Newnan city officials planned for the worst. Newnan police had to plan for was exactly how big the event was going to be. How many neo-Nazis would show up? How many protesters?
According to responses to a FOIA request, Newnan’s police began casting about on social media for some peculiar sources of intelligence. They came to the conclusion that they needed to expect between 10,000 and 12,000 people converging on Newnan.
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One of the cited sources of “intelligence” was a Facebook post from a user named “Valdosta Antifa.” The post claims to be answering questions about antifa and Newnan and includes such comments as, “We are there to tear down statues. False. We will be erecting statues of Pauly Shore.”
The same post includes an estimate of 10,000 members of Valdosta Antifa (a group run by a former white supremacist with a small number of members, according to Atlanta Antifa).
An email from Newnan’s open records officer states that the copy of the post was being provided as “Electronic copy of the numbers of 8,000—12,000 counter protesters allegedly released by the ideology ‘ANTIFA’ apparently observed by [Newnan Police] Chief [Douglas] Meadows.”
The cited post ends with a line, “You know, Valdosta Antifa is really just three kids in a trench coat and fake mustache right?” Yet this was cited publicly and apparently incorporated into plans for mobilizing 700 law enforcement officers in Newnan.
The other social media post cited by Newnan police was a Facebook post by an anonymous person identified as “III% Security Force Intel.” The anonymous user claimed to have joined anti-fascist groups online and projected 300 to 1,000 neo-Nazis and 4,000 to 12,000 counter-protesters. The post charged that those protesting the neo-Nazi presence would target anyone wearing clothing indicating they support President Trump, the United States, or “anything that leans to the right.”
“III% Security Force Intel” claimed that “the only businesses I saw from Charlottesville to Boston to Berkeley that weren’t damaged in the area of these rampages were protected by armed business owners standing watch.”
No businesses in Charlottesville were attacked or damaged during the August 12 riot.
The drama in Newnan began March 5 when Jeff Schoep, leader of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), filled out a pavilion rental agreement by hand and submitted it to the city. The agreement included a list of items that Schoep said he planned to take to Greenville Street Park for a “political rally,” including a PA system, flags on poles, banners, shields, signs, a microphone and cords for the PA system.
The National Socialist Movement is a neo-Nazi organization with roots dating back to 1959, whose members wore brown shirts and swastika armbands until 2007. Schoep’s $50 security deposit was accepted and a city representative signed the agreement ten days later. The agreement estimated attendance at 50 to 100 people and established a time period from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. when the white supremacist group would rent a pavilion in the park.
Police set up barricades around three sides of the park in Newnan. The third side faced a steep, brush-covered slope toward railroad tracks. A designated protest area was set on Greenville Street in front of the park, with a wide buffer area where law enforcement lined up in both soft uniforms and riot gear. Protesters were allowed in through a single security checkpoint.
A list of prohibited items was published by Newnan the day before the rally and many counter-protesters arrived without advance notice that common items such as water, lighters, and in one case, a key chain shaped like a black widow spider, would not be permitted. There was no source of water available to counter-protesters on a hot, sunny day in which they stood on asphalt.
Shields and poles were forbidden to counter-protesters. When the NSM and their allies from the League of the South appeared in the park, many observers were infuriated that the neo-Nazis were permitted to carry shields and flag poles. The pavilion rental agreement filled out by Schoep and signed by the city cited those items as included in the rally.
The rental agreement established that the neo-Nazis would only have the use of the pavilion area rather than the entire park. They remained in that area without approaching the barricades closely. Neo-Nazi numbers in the park appeared to be around 20, though an official statement from the City of Newnan estimated 40.
Before the rally, counter-protesters had planned a gathering on a busy street corner about half a mile from the park at 1:30 pm. But at around 1 p.m., police cars began patrolling the intersection and ordering the small but growing crowd to disperse. The narrow sidewalks at that intersection offered no obvious place for hundreds of people to gather without spilling into the street.
Instead of one main meeting point for counter-protesters, small bands of half a dozen or so gradually coalesced into larger masses around the downtown area. An estimated 2,000 made their way into the protest area while several hundred others moved around outside of the protest area.
An elderly man in the secure protest area made loud comments in support of white supremacist positions. He was quickly surrounded by angry counter-protesters, but was not assaulted. Police officers responded within seconds and escorted the man safely out of the area.
Outside of the secure area, flash points appeared as the roving bands of counter-protesters occasionally encountered people who appeared to them to be neo-Nazis and chased them away from the area. No assaults were reported in those instances. Police responded to at least one of these flash points as one of several police helicopters hovered overhead with a camera apparatus mounted on the belly of the aircraft.
According to “Hank” (full name withheld at his request), a multiracial local man, Newnan tends to be socially inclusive to racial minorities until law enforcement is involved. “For the most part, a person of color would feel perfectly comfortable socializing with someone from another race, regardless of if the two know each other,” Hank told Rewire.News.
Hank grew up in Newnan and detailed what he sees as systematic racism among regional law enforcement that contrasts with the way he sees ordinary citizens treating each other.
“As far as the government is concerned, there is a long history of corruption and a systemic caste system in place,” Hank said. “Most members of my family have been arrested, and many other Coweta County families are in similar situations. I can also attest that people of color receive an even more unfair treatment under this system.”
While violence was limited, violent arrests still took place. A Rewire.News reporter witnessed a shirtless Black man with dreadlocks being tackled by a group of primarily white officers for “giving a look.” The man was arrested and taken to jail.
Other arrests included a group of counter-protesters who were wearing masks. Wearing masks in public is generally illegal in Georgia. The officers, who appeared to be Coweta County sheriff’s deputies, warned the activists that wearing masks was illegal and ordered them to remove the disguises. When they refused, at least one of the deputies pointed a rifle at the group—whose members appeared to be unarmed—as five arrests were made.
Another protester was arrested for standing on a sidewalk and asking officers why they were arresting someone else.
“We’re trying to make a lawful arrest!” said the officer, wearing a military-style uniform and carrying an assault rifle. “You’re under arrest if you don’t walk away right now!”
The officer then grabbed the protester by her clothing and jerked her forward to be arrested.
“What am I being arrested for?” she asked as several officers in military gear wrestled her to the ground and handcuffed her.
According to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which raises money to defend activists facing legal charges, all 12 of the counter-protesters arrested on April 21 have now been released from jail pending trial.