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Nearly two hours southeast of Dallas, halfway to Houston, Centerville sits on the side of Interstate 45. It’s a small town, home to fewer than 1,000 people.
So, when a handful of out-of-town neo-Nazis showed up on a street corner on June 5, waving their flags and holding up “White Lives Matter” placards, word spread quickly and a commotion followed.
When local resident Spencer Culton spotted the masked white nationalists, he whipped out his phone and started recording. “I don’t know where these motherfuckers are from,” he narrated, approaching the group, “but they need to go home.”
A neo-Nazi wearing a white shirt and a black bandana replied, “We’re getting out of y’all’s town.”
“Hurry up with it,” Culton shot back.
Another local, a man in a National Rifle Association T-shirt and a ball cap, stepped up and shook the neo-Nazi’s hand. While he respected their right to protest, he said, they should do it elsewhere. “Most of us here have kids,” the man said, “and we don’t need that shit here in our town.”
Maybe the White Lives Matter crew, a small group of far-right demonstrators who have tried and mostly failed to organize a spate of rallies in Texas in recent months, thought a town like Centerville would welcome them. If so, they were mistaken.
A similar scenario played out in Fort Worth on April 11, when a much-touted White Lives Matter demonstration only managed to attract three or four supporters. Like in Centerville, Fort Worth didn’t have much interest in their message. In fact, counter-protesters and anti-racists in North Texas outnumbered the neo-Nazis.
That same day, the neo-Nazis had decided to nix a White Lives Matter rally in Houston after local anti-racists and anti-fascists announced plans to push back in force.
Since 2016, White Lives Matter demonstrations have come as a direct backlash to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based watchdog.
Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, where he oversees domestic extremism research, has been monitoring the far right for years.
Crying White Lives Matter, Holt said, is a propaganda tactic. “By inoculating a phrase that is on its face pretty mundane … they frame any sort of response as anti-white sentiment,” he explained.
That’s because most of the people rallying under the White Lives Matter banner are admitted white nationalists. The SPLC says the Texas-based Aryan Renaissance Society, a neo-Nazi group, gave birth to the slogan. “It started in reaction to Black Lives Matter,” Holt explained. “They were trying to capitalize on the popularity of the Black Lives Matter protests.”
Linked to neo-Nazism or not, the slogan has a surprisingly far reach. In 2016, the Ku Klux Klan adopted the phrase. That same year, Rudy Giuliani likened White Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter on Fox News. “If I had an organization called ‘White Lives Matter,’ you would say that it is a racist organization,” said Giuliani, a confidante of former president Donald Trump and onetime mayor of New York City.
That was the same year Texas saw its first White Lives Matter rallies. During a handful of rallies, the neo-Nazis gathered outside the offices of the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League in Houston. Some carried rifles, and others were armed with knives. Later that year, in August, around two dozen White Lives Matter protesters assembled outside the Texas Capitol. Anti-racist counter-demonstrators outnumbered them, but they carried on with their protest.
Ken Reed, reportedly a member of the Aryan Renaissance Society, led the chants. Screaming through a bullhorn, he claimed the movement was only concerned with “white people’s preservation.”
If you were at the protest in Austin that day, you may not have known it at the time, but Reed was not so subtly hinting at the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, a linchpin of neo-Nazi ideology.
In short, the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory claims an elite cabal wants to replace the country’s white population with non-white immigrants. The way the neo-Nazis see it, the influx of immigrants is part of a plot to destroy white Christian culture.
With tensions flaring that day in Austin, clashes broke out, guns were raised and police carted off a number of people.
In August 2017, neo-Nazis and white nationalists from around the country swarmed Charlottesville, Virginia, and held the “Unite the Right” rally. They said they wanted to protest against the city’s plans to remove a Confederate statue, but they spent most of the day attacking locals and counter demonstrators.
By the time it was over, a white nationalist had rammed his car into an anti-racist march, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens. Less than a month later, on Sept. 11, a White Lives Matter event was slated to take place on the campus of Texas A&M University.
“Today Charlottesville, Tomorrow Texas A&M,” a press release threatened. The message was clear, and to make matters worse, the keynote speaker was Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader who had helped plan the Charlottesville demonstration.
When A&M students announced plans to rally against the event, university administrators called the whole thing off.
In October 2017, around 100 White Lives Matter supporters gathered in Shelbyville and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Some of the white nationalists had traveled there from Texas. It was the second largest gathering in recent history, but as elsewhere, counter-demonstrators outnumbered the neo-Nazis in both towns.
It wasn’t until this year that White Lives Matter protests started cropping up again in Texas. They organize the demonstrations on Telegram, a messaging app where they also share propaganda and conspiracy theories.
All around the Dallas area, white nationalists have been putting up flyers, stickers and posters. But they don’t stay up for long. Almost as soon as the stickers start popping up around town, anti-fascists swoop in and deface them.
Meanwhile, most of those in the neo-Nazi movement avoid the embarrassing public demonstrations like the ones in Fort Worth and Centerville. But wherever they go, anti-fascists and locals unwilling to stomach their message aren’t far behind.
“However they may posture, [anti-fascists] scare the shit out of them pretty bad,” Holt said.
Even as their failures mount, the White Lives Matter crowd appears dead set on keeping it up. In their channels on Telegram and other platforms, Holt explained, the white nationalists seem to be organizing yet more rallies in the future. And although turnout is small in Texas, it’s one of the few states where they’ve managed to get anyone at all to show up this year.
More worrisome still, their ideas have a way of creeping into the mainstream right-wing media. Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently pushed a line of argument not that different from the Great Replacement theory, claiming that Democrats wanted open borders because immigrants would vote for them.
But it’s difficult to gauge just how widespread these views are. When asked, few openly admit to supporting white supremacist positions, but the more these ideas muscle their way into mainstream conversations, the better their chance of being seen as legitimate.
“When you have somebody like Tucker Carlson on Fox News talking about anti-white racism, that’s putting an idea in front of potentially millions of people who would have maybe never been exposed to that kind of rhetoric,” Holt said.
Average Texans may not have much hope for changing the tune that someone like Carlson sings. But if there’s any lesson to be taken away from what happened in Centerville earlier this month, it’s that very few people want neo-Nazis standing on their street corners waving flags.
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