Organizers say they have postponed a counter-rally organized by local youth due to “previously unforeseen credible threats to the safety of our attendees and our community,” according to organizer Ariana Velasquez.
The “Rally for Equality and American Values” had previously been moved from a centrally located city park to the local college campus, which is further from downtown and is a weapon-free zone.
Earlier this week, the city issued a ban on masks and hoods, which Pikeville City Manager Donovan Blackburn described as stemming from online rumors that counter-protest groups could be coming into town with the intention of inciting riots.
Velasquez announced that event had been postponed on the counter-rally’s Facebook event page. A new date has not yet been announced.
What do you do when neo-Nazis choose your town as the site for their rally? That’s the question currently facing Pikeville, Kentucky. Local organizers have chosen to focus on pulling attention away from the hate.
Last February, an organization of neo-Nazis and white nationalists announced plans to hold a rally in Pikeville — one of the biggest towns in the Appalachian coalfields, with a population just under 7,000.
Ariana Velasquez, a student at Pikeville High School, decided that if neo-Nazis were going to march in her hometown, she was going to organize a counter-rally. The morning after the event was announced, she launched a Facebook event for The Rally for Equality and American Values. Velazquez said it took off right away with thousands of responses and attention from national and international media.
Velasquez and other volunteers have lined up speakers and bands to perform on the campus of the University of Pikeville, away from where the neo-Nazis plan to march. Keeping crowds away from potential conflict is a key ingredient for how Velasquez envisions the event.
“It’s non-partisan, it’s non-violent, it’s a very peaceful event,” she said.
The Next County Over
Originally, the Nationalist Front planned to hold a retreat at Jenny Wiley State Park in neighboring Floyd County. After public outcry, the park told the group that they needed to remake their reservation, and would need to pay extra for security costs. The retreat has now been moved to private property. But that hasn’t stopped residents of Floyd County from continuing to organize in opposition.
Patrick Davis started a Facebook page for Floyd County events called “Unity for a Diverse Appalachia”. Much like the rally in Pikeville, the plans for Floyd County are designed to draw people and attention away from the neo-Nazis.
“Groups like this, they gain momentum by getting themselves in the press,” Davis explained. “So what we’re trying to do is fill the news with positive messages that hopefully will eat up their news coverage.”
Davis and other volunteers are organizing a tree-planting the day before the neo-Nazi rally, which Davis hopes will “clear the air” in more than one sense.
In Floyd County April has also been declared Diversity Month by the Mayor of the county seat. Davis is working to tie that to a social media campaign, encouraging people to post stories of diversity in their family and community using the hashtag #diversityappalachia.
“We want to fill Facebook with family history, what groups came into the area. And we want to break this idea that Appalachia is just this homogeneous, one-ethnicity group," he said. "We want to show that there’s a diverse culture here.”
Few Signs of New Recruits
The neo-Nazi event is backed by the Nationalist Front, which is a partnership of neo-nazi and white nationalist groups. Their organizers are based across the Midwest. In statements, the groups said they say they chose eastern Kentucky because it’s a high-poverty area that’s predominantly white and voted heavily for President Trump.
Davis said he hasn’t heard anyone openly support the groups coming into town. And Velasquez said what she’s read from the groups doesn’t line up what she’s heard from local Trump supporters.
Instead, she’s heard mainly from people who are disturbed that these groups think they could represent the area. Velasquez emphasized that Pikeville has a lot of veterans, and that means many people have family members who fought against the Nazis in World War II.
Velazquez said the groups have “fed into the stereotype that we’re a bunch of racist hicks around here, and clearly that’s not the case.”
Velasquez says she expects a diverse turnout for the counter rally on April 29, including veterans, Muslim and Jewish communities and other religious groups, the medical immigrant community, scouting troops, elected officials, and even a former Miss Kentucky.
As Velasquez described the event, it’s meant to be a place “for people to stand up for peace, diversity, and love, and to stand up against neo-Nazis and everything they represent.”
Interviews for this story were conducted by Elizabeth Sanders of WMMT. You can find the extended interviews here.