Heavily armed police began arresting some anti-fascist demonstrators who were wearing masks as they gathered in Newnan, Ga., Saturday to protest a rally by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, according to media reports.
Members of Antifa had gathered along the sidewalks on streets leading to Greenville Street Park where the rally by the National Socialist Movement was set to begin at 3 p.m.
It appeared to be the largest face-off between the groups since clashes at Charlottesville last year that left one person dead.
City workers had blocked off several key streets with barriers and surrounded the park with barricades topped with chain-link fencing.
Christopher Mathias, a reporter for HuffPost, tweeted video showing police in riot gearing tackling and arresting several protesters apparently for wearing masks. The demonstrators were placed face down in the street.
A number of supporters of Antifa, a loose coalition of activists, have donned masks in past demonstrations in their confrontation with white nationalist groups.
The lead-up to the face-off rattled this town of some 33,000 people south of Atlanta.
“Praying for Newnan,” Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle tweeted Saturday. “We must condemn the bigotry spread by hate groups. Our thoughts are with Sheriff Yeager, city officials, and all law enforcement officers who are working to protect residents and we hope the protests remains nonviolent.”
The NSM secured a permit to rally at a park pavillion while the protesters have been given a specific gathering park along nearby Greenville Street, said Hasco Craver, assistant city manager of Newnan, a town of 30,000 people in the Metropolitan Atlanta area, The Newnan Times-Herald reports. The NSM, in obtaining a permit, said they expected from 50 to 100 supporters at the rally.
“We will be hitting on all of the hot-button issues,” said Burt Colucci, the “chief of staff” for the National Socialist Movement, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. “If it is controversial in America, we gonna talk about it.”
He called for a crackdown on “illegal immigration” as one hot topic.
“We need to round them up and put them in camps if need be,” he said. “Like we did the Italians, Germans and Japanese. We are at war with the illegals.”
Colucci told the newspaperthat his group picks towns for its rallies largely at random, although noting they tend to be largely white.
Public works crew on Thursday began erecting plastic barricades topped with chain-link fence around the park and along the key streets that will be blocked off. They also set up 100-gallon water barriers to keep the two groups apart, WXIA-TV reports.
Local authorities said as many as 400 local, state and federal officers would be on hand to supervise the rally and help protect demonstrators First Amendment right.
“Our No. 1 priority is the safety of our people and their property,” said Newnan Police Chief Douglas ‘Buster’ Meadows.
Police encouraged business owners to take away things like decorations, chairs or tables that could possibly be thrown or cause damage if a skirmish broke out.
Townspeople and local politicians were wary of a repeat of clashes between hundreds of white nationalists, and their supporters, and counter-demonstrators at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last August. In addition to hand-to-hand clashes, a vehicle drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring more than dozen.
“Every citizen has the constitutional right to express their First Amendment freedoms to free speech and protest, but the racist views of neo-Nazis are completely abhorrent,” said Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-Ga. “I commend Mayor (Keith) Brady for his work to ensure a peaceful event and urge the entire Newnan community to stand together to show that there is no place for hate or intolerance in Georgia’s third district.”
Members of Antifa, along with Democratic Socialists of America and the anarchist group Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, planned to gather from 1:30 p.m. until 3 p.m., although they had no official permit to march, while the permit for the white nationalist rally was from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
One of the goals of the Antifa, a loose coalition of anonymous activists, was to photograph and identify members of the neo-Nazi groups and inform their employers. The website for Atlanta Antifa said Saturday that a number of neo-Nazis were purportedly staying at a hotel in nearby Bremen and urged supporters to call the hotel to complain.
“Ask them why they are endangering locals, other hotel guests, and Georgia residents by accepting multiple bookings from notorious neo-Nazis this weekend,” the website said, while providing the phone number for the inn. “Request that they eject the Nazis from their space.”
The Antifa group called on its supporters to “be courteous to hotel workers. This is not their fault. They are some of the people most exposed to danger from Nazis staying at the location.”
As in Charlottesville, the Antifa forces pledged to confront the neo-Nazis and called on supporters to carry Sharpies to write on their arms the phone number for “jail support” if they should be arrested.
Dozens of businesses in Newnan banded together to protest the gathering and offer #NewnanStrong T-shirts for sale. Those planning to close on Saturday stayed open late on Friday to help make up for lost revenue and to offer the town an alternative spirit, with music, dancing, face painting and community service sign ups, according to the newnanstrong.com website.
“This Saturday we want to be respectful of our local law enforcement and city officials by following their request to stay away from downtown and the conflict that is taking place,” organizers said.
They called on townspeople to “celebrate the diversity in our community.”
“Celebrate your neighbors, co-workers, the people that you interact with every week that bring value to your life,” they said. “There will be plenty of hate happening in the park on Saturday. Let us overpower that with a flood of community and love on Insta and FB.”
Contributing: Michael King, WXIA-TV in Newnan, Ga.
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