BISMARCK, North Dakota (Reuters) - Grant County Sheriff Steve Bay is ready for fireworks if clashes break out between a band of neo-Nazi white supremacists and protesters determined to keep them from taking over the tiny North Dakota town of Leith.
With a population of just two dozen in a mostly white county, Leith is an attractive destination for members of the U.S. National Socialist Movement, who recently revealed that they are joining plans to turn the disintegrating town into an all-white enclave.
Group members plan to be in town on Sunday and Monday to introduce themselves to the community in what their organization’s leader, Jeff Schoep, calls an “act of good will and faith.”
“We have every intention of legally assuming control of the local government,” Schoep said in a statement.
The group is America’s largest neo-Nazi organization, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
According to the center, for more than a year, white supremacist activist Craig Cobb has been buying up properties in Leith and inviting his fellow supremacists to move in and set up a “Pioneer Little Europe,” as some supporters have called it.
In an interview with WXMB-TV in Bismarck, Cobb said he had gotten a lot of offers to buy up land from what he termed like-minded people who believe white people should not be punished for wanting to live near each other.
“It’s fine for all these other minorities, but not us,” he said in the televised interview. “If you merely speak about it, you’re going to be defamed in this country.”
Schoep said that the visitors would inspect the new property, raise ceremonial flag poles, and hold a town meeting and a news conference.
“We know that opinion is divided in the town and in the media,” Schoep said in the statement, adding that the trip was “a symbolic gesture of good will and faith.”
Schoep will be met by a grassroots group organized through social media to protest the National Socialists’ presence in the time. Organizers are hoping several hundred will attend.
“We are planning a true grassroots peaceful protest to demonstrate that we are united in a stance against hatred, violence and prejudice,” reads a statement by UnityND, an anti-racism group organizing the protest, on its website. “Join us as we take to main street rural America to fight against racism.”
Sheriff Bay said does not expect any trouble to break out among the 350 people expected at the event and protest, but he is prepared.
He has his officers, members of the North Dakota Highway Patrol and others coming to Leith on Sunday to help in crowd control.
“Both sides say they plan on having their demonstrations,” Bay said. “They have both indicated to me that they will be peaceful demonstrations. They may be a little loud, but peaceful.”
Cobb’s plans were revealed in August after the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center published a report detailing his land purchases in Leith, which is located in a county that is 97 percent white.
The center’s report also cited county tax and property records showing that other leading supremacists, in addition to the National Socialists, had followed his lead, including Tom Metzger, leader of the White Aryan Resistance, and Alex Linder, who runs the Vanguard News Network, an online forum for the neo-Nazis.
Writing by Karen Brooks; Editing by Karen Brooks and David Brunnstrom