(TNS) The annual summit of a white supremacist group got off to a rocky start in Crossville, Tennessee.
A local restaurant, The Beef and Barrel Restaurant & Lounge, cancelled the group's reservation for a meet-and-greet Friday evening, and officers were reportedly on-site to turn the attendees away. The group eventually reconvened at Shoney's.
Confusion continued Saturday morning after the group changed its conference location from a restaurant at the Cumberland Mountain State Park to the park's recreation lodge up the hill.
The leader of the white nationalist Traditionalist Worker's Party was seen leaving the original restaurant - where a baby shower was actually occurring - early in the morning and driving down to the lodge.
Protesters eventually gathered outside the new location, and police had created a designated protest area across the parking lot.
There, Chris Irwin, who organized the protest, harassed attendees over a megaphone as they got out of their cars and walked to the front door of the lodge.
"Hello master race!" he called. Some attending the summit made obscene gestures. Others, like Ku Klux Klan National Director Thomas Robb, bowed and waved.
"You wanted to keep this a secret, Nazis, and then you did something stupid and you put it in a public park so we could come," Irwin shouted over the megaphone.
Irwin said he had been trying to find the location of the conference since he heard it was occurring. He learned of the location the night before and quickly set to organizing a protest.
About 30 people turned out to protest the summit before noon. Seeing that the summit would continue, they began planning a picnic to spend the day there.
"The problem is what they try to plan at these events is hiding the swastikas, hiding the pointy hats, the new KKK is anti-NAFTA and is pro-steelworker and tries to give a populist message," Irwin said.
"They try to do these things in secret because in the marketplace of ideas, these things come apart like tissue in a hurricane," Irwin said. "So we came out to show them they aren't meeting in secret."
The actual summit did continue behind closed doors, however. Park rangers stood in front of the doors to the recreational lodge to keep the groups separate, and escorted protesters to the facility bathrooms so the groups would not come in contact with each other.
At least nine white supremacist gatherings have been held at Tennessee State Parks since around 2011. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation does not ask the reason when a group reserves a venue.
Billy Roper, the event's organizer, said the morning's venue change to the recreational lodge was because his group has expected a greater turnout, not because their location had been discovered by the protesters. From a count of those entering the building, attendees appeared to total just slightly more than the protesters across the parking lot.
Among the attendees was former Knox County Commission candidate and vocal white nationalist Tom Pierce, who said he was there to "emcee" the event and to teach others attending about running for a local office.
Pierce lost his 2016 run for office, receiving just 7 percent of the vote.
"We've been coming to Crossville for three years," Pierce said, when asked about the restaurant incident. "There's been no issues and no one has ever banned us. So what? There's hundreds of other restaurants."
Roper has been billing the event as one designed to influence prospective white supremacists - though he does not refer to the group as supremacists - to become more politically active.
The week prior to the event, he waived the fee to attend, saying he was trying to target more young people. Then, Traditionalist Worker Party flyers started popping up around the University of Tennessee campus.
The idea of a conference oriented around activism alarmed Irwin, who said he thinks the summit might hatch a plan for another protest, such as the one at Charlottesville, Va.
Around noon, three people emerged from the venue in all black, wearing masks and paramilitary style vests, and retrieved black wooden shields and black bags, like those they carried in Charlottesville at the violent "Unite the Right" rally in August
Several people known to have engaged in violence in Charlottesville, including Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Workers Party, came to the conference.
"It tells you exactly what they're planning," Irwin said. "They brought shields. These are the people, the name of (Roper's) blog is Shieldwall network. The only way they could be more clear about what they're doing is to spray paint swastikas."
Despite the prevalence of swastika and Schutzstaffel patches on the garb of younger attendees and the group's black-clad, masked "security," Roper, Robb and other seniors in the group wearing suits and ties insisted they were not Nazis. They kept a tight hand on the younger attendees and those who did not appear to be ranking members.
Roper said that whether or not the event was racist depended on how people "defined racism," and Robb denied the Ku Klux Klan's historic association with lynchings and other hate crimes the group has committed against black Americans, Jews and LGBT people.
"There's an example of anti-white genocide!" exclaimed Robb, who has been affiliated with the Klan and other white nationalist groups for more than 50 years. "White genocide" is an idea he helped pioneer.
"We don't have a history of violence or hate crimes. That's an embellishment created by the media." There are no clear numbers on how many lynchings and other murders the Klan is responsible for, most historians estimate thousands.
Like the suited organizers juxtaposed with their swastika-sporting followers though, the perception supremacist leaders seemed to want for the organizations and the reality of what they've been known to be is just not something Robb could reconcile.
"I'm not a racist, I believe all people have a right to love their racial identity," said Robb.Protests continue
Stormfront podcast host Frank "Father Francis" Collin said he felt that the protesters' presence reinforced the group's idea that white people were becoming a minority and were not allowed to defend their rights, though the vast majority of the protesters were also white. He also blamed counter-protesters for the violence in Charlottesville.
Crossville Police and Park Rangers said the protesters didn't actually have the protest permit required by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, but they allowed them to stay anyway.
"After all, it's National Public Lands Day," one park ranger said. "This is what that's all about."
The protesters eventually began playing Frisbee and eating, periodically picking the megaphone back up to remind the conference inside they weren't planning to go home.
"Hope you got a good white supremacist baby-sitter, Nazi, because your kids are at home listening to hip-hop!" Irwin yelled.
Later in the afternoon, the park rangers did ask the protesters to stop using the megaphone because people at the nearby golf-course were starting to complain. They complied with the request but made a clear effort to yell louder, especially when they saw Tom Pierce and a black-clad, masked "security" man climb into a truck to retrieve pizzas for the group.
Few others from the summit emerged from the recreational lodge. Many of those who did were also followed close in-tow with the black-clad men, who made a show of photographing people's license plates.
Others, like Rachel Pendergraft, covered their faces with pamphlets as they walked to their cars.©2017 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.