With heavily armed riot police looking on from behind barricades, dozens of anti-fascist demonstrators held signs and chanted Saturday as neo-Nazis held a rally in the small town of Newnan, Ga., leading to about 10 arrests but no injuries.
Several dozen neo-Nazis wearing black and carrying flags and shields gathered for the rally, which was led by the National Socialist Movement, in Greenville Street Park, about 38 miles southwest of Atlanta. They were greeted by loud boos and a park covered by messages of peace and love written in chalk.
It appeared to be the largest face-off between the groups since clashes in Charlottesville, Va., last year that left one person dead.
Speakers, who talked about white power and taking the country back from illegal immigrants, stood on a brick stage covered by a large, chalk-drawn rainbow. "Newnan strong" was written below.
Members of Antifa, the loose-knit anti-fascist movement, gathered along the sidewalks on streets leading to the park, many holding up signs. Large barricades and a row of officers wearing riot gear formed a human shield to prevent the groups from clashing, but it didn't keep the anti-protesters from penetrating the rally with loud, disruptive chants of "Go home!"
At the outset of the gathering, police said they arrested about 10 anti-fascist demonstrators, some reportedly for for wearing masks. About 700 law enforcement officers were on hand to help keep the rally peaceful.
City workers had blocked off several key streets with barriers and surrounded the park with barricades topped with chain-link fencing.
Newnan police chief Douglas "Buster" Meadows said the region has been planning for five to six weeks and he was "very relieved" to see the event didn't include any violence and only about 10 arrests. No property damage was reported, he said.
"I'm so proud of the community," Meadows said, adding that without the planning and support of local, regional and federal partners, the event could have spiraled out of control.
Police allowed protesters onto the sidewalks of the barricaded streets after frisking them at entry points.
Inside the designated area, police with batons and wearing shields and riot gear stood 5-feet apart, forming a barrier between the protesters, who were behind by barricades along the roadway, and the makeshift fence sealing off the park behind them.
At the outset of the protest, Christopher Mathias, a reporter for HuffPost, tweeted video showing police in riot gear tackling and arresting several protesters apparently for wearing masks. The demonstrators were placed face down in the street. The police moved members of the media away from the area and blocked the view with vans, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Some footage and images of the confrontations showed officers pointing their guns at protesters. Meadows, asked about complaints of excessive force by officers, said he was unaware of the circumstances in which protesters were arrested.
He said the 10 people arrested were all anti-fascist protesters. It's unclear whether they were local or traveled to the rally.
A number of supporters of Antifa have donned masks in past confrontations with white nationalist groups.
But masks were listed as one of the items protesters could not bring to the rally.
Shortly after 4 p.m., about 60 neo-Nazis were allowed into the park through a passageway opened by police in the fence.
About 30 people, most of them dressed in black, took the stage at the pavilion, displaying flags. Two men held a banner reading "Fighting for a Better Tomorrow."
They carried flags and shields with red, white and blue markings and swastika-like symbols. One sign disparaged Jews and African-Americans and claimed Jews were behind the refugee movement.
To an audience of about a dozen, along with members of the media, NSM leader Jeff Schoep — who called his group the "vanguard of the white race" — railed against the anti-fascist groups, blaming them for violence in Charlottesville. The members of the NSM, he said, are the "true patriots."
"We will not back down," Schoep said. "We will stand against the tyranny of the far left."
He rejected the label of a hate group and repeatedly said their group "will not be silenced." Schoep took aim at illegal immigrants and the removal of Confederate monuments, calling it "evil."
"It's U.S. history being erased. Period," he said. "When you're trying to erase U.S. history, that is evil."
Meanwhile, protesters behind barricades held up signs, including one that read, "You can shoot us, you can run over us, but your side always loses."
Many chanted, "All power to the people."
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."
It's unclear exactly why the group chose Newnan as the place for their gathering, but Burt Colucci, the “chief of staff” for the National Socialist Movement, told the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it was completely random.
He told the newspaper their group targets "hot-button isssues" that are controversial and pointed to illigal immigration as something that needs to change.
“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.”
Ahead of the rally, 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 a 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.”
One of the goals of the Antifa 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.