LEITH, N.D. | Two angry protesters were hauled out and others walked out of the Leith City Hall, where hundreds more gathered outside the old wooden building in a stand against a white supremacist commander holding a meeting inside.
The atmosphere was tense and confrontational in Leith on Sunday afternoon, when some 350 people traveled by car and bus, mostly to show support for the town of 24, which has been in shock mode since last month when Craig Cobb, an extremist with neo-Nazi views, said he planned to take over the town with others like him.
Cobb has lived in town since last year and quietly bought up 12 other lots he plans to populate with enough people to take over town government.
In the hour before the town hall meeting called by Jeff Schoep of Detroit, commander of the white supremacist group National Socialist Movement, the racially diverse and colorful crowd of protesters staged a rally in a small park across from Cobb’s house.
Chants of “No hate in our state!” and “Go home!” were background to emotional speeches from protest organizers, a veteran, Plains Indians and others.
Someone held a kettle of smoking fragrant sage, which wafted over the scene, peopled by a supremacist bagpiper from Oregon and 14 black-suited state Highway Patrol troopers, with a flutter of racial flags flying in front of Cobb’s house.
A plane circled overhead, uniformed cops were at every entrance and the town was cordoned off to keep people confined to the town’s main street.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Rosella Neher, a white-haired elderly woman who grew up on a farm nearby and came to support her childhood town. “I can’t believe it.”
Scott Garman of Fargo,took a megaphone to holler, “This is not a one-time, one-day thing.
"We will be here again and again until you are gone. This is where we stop them. This is where it ends, in that crappy white house across the street,” Garman said, pointing to Cobb’s house where he lives without running water or a flush toilet.
A veteran took the megaphone to call out, “Creepy Nazis, Ku Kluxers, get the hell out of here!”
Chase Iron Horse, of Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, yelled to Cobb, “If you think you can come 30 miles from our border and threaten our children, you’ve got another thing coming. We’re just the mouthpieces. The warriors are not even here.” During the protest, Schoep stood in front of Cobb’s house, surrounded by a few burly, shaved-headed men dressed in black, and one woman with multiple nose piercings.
Schoep said the people across the street were of no account to him: “These are outside agitators, some Reds from Minneapolis, and you’ll never see them again.” He said he was proud of Cobb’s work in Leith and said with enough followers, “then we’re in charge of city government. We have to start somewhere and then we can spread out from here.”
A takeover of Grant County government and seats in the Legislature are possible next steps, he said.
Schoep said he’s not a white supremacist, but is a believer in white civil rights and that he was in North Dakota to protect Cobb’s civil rights. He wouldn’t say how long he would be in North Dakota, where he was staying, or what he planned to do besides hold the town meeting.
He did say he now has the deed to the dilapidated building adjacent to Cobb’s lot.
During the meeting, many had questions about his movement and the swastika flag displayed in front of the city hall, a historic building where people used to hold weddings and go rollerskating.
One man in the audience came up to the front and confronted Schoep before being hauled to the back of the room by Grant County Sheriff Steve Bay and deputies.
“The people of Leith do not want your ...... here,” said James Testemary, a Lakota from Rapid City, S.D.
Schoep suggested Testemary should sober up.
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“You’re stumbling, and obviously drunk. Have you been drinking?” he asked.
“Zero,” Testemary replied.
Schoep said he was surprised to see Native Americans at the protest and said it was the first time he’d seen them at a rally anywhere in the country.
“You have your sovereign land and your own nation. Why is it wrong for us to have our sovereign land?” he asked.
“People don’t want you here. How can you be so cruel, so hateful, that I don’t understand,” Testemary said before he was moved out of the room by police.
Melissa Nicole Hite, now of Elgin, asked Schoep, “What happens to us if we’re not pure white? Will I be exiled from Grant County if I’m not pure white?”
Schoep replied, “We’re not talking about exiling anybody. We do not advocate genocide. If anything, whites are being genocided.”
Afterward, the crowd reassembled in front of Cobb’s, with some loudly asking him to leave peacefully.
“You’ve made a mistake, but you can leave. We forgive you,” one woman called out.
Sheriff Bay said he believed the event was handled well and that the 300-350 people in town were about the size crowd he expected. He handled the situation quietly but purposefully and Schoep’s black-clothed men were told that police — not them — would handle any agitators.
Leith Mayor Ryan Schock didn’t attend Schoep’s town hall meeting though he was out on the street.
“They’re going to have their meeting and I hope that no one supports them,” he said.
The mayor said he was grateful for the strong police presence and the people who came to stand with Leith against the white supremacists.
“The message is that they are behind us. No one will put up with them,” Schock said.
The mayor said Sunday he doesn’t support a proposal to disband the local government and turn control over to the county.
“Not for this,” he said, suggesting maybe for something else.
Cobb was escorted to his house across from city hall after the meeting and said the protesters were there to impede his freedom.
“They’re loud, so what? They’re literally not human to me,” he said. “I feel good.”
One Leith resident, Bobby Harper, the town’s only black resident, didn’t go inside the town hall. He stood on the street observing and said he appreciated the support.
“Hate is not good for nobody,” he said. “This is not going to spread.”