In Sherwood, Arkansas, fewer than two dozen men, some bearing swastika tattoos, gathered in the parking lot of a Kohl’s department store to prepare for a trip into Little Rock, where they planned to make a public display of their banners and their sidearms, and to inveigh against what they said was a “white genocide” being conducted against South African landowners of European descent, not to mention white people nearly everywhere.
Before departing the parking lot, NSM members, wearing their black neo-Nazi getups, darted into the store for a last-chance bathroom stop before they convoyed through the town.
Amid the gaggle of black-clad men, most of them middle-aged or older, one in particular stood out: the 27-year-old Matthew Heimbach, the recently appointed director of community outreach for the National Socialist Movement (NSM), one of America’s oldest and largest neo-Nazi groups, currently based in Detroit, Michigan. The foundation of NSM was formed in the 1960s by two chief lieutenants of the American Nazi Party (ANP) after ANP leader George Rockwell was murdered by one of his followers. In 1994, leadership of NSM was handed to Jeff Schoep, who has served as the group’s “commander” for the last 24 years.
NSM members openly fetishize Adolf Hitler and, until relatively recently, wore Nazi symbols on their outfits. Heimbach, it seems, was brought on to help make the Third Reich ideology more palatable to young white nationalists and even radical socialists. He apparently hopes to do for neo-Nazis what the briefly famous Richard Spencer failed to do for white separatists: smooth out the rough edges of NSM’s public profile in order to grow the movement.
But if you were looking for an image-fixer for your authoritarian movement, Heimbach might seem an odd choice. The founder of the now-defunct Traditionalist Worker Party, Heimbach first splashed into mainstream media for a second when he assaulted an African American woman who was protesting at a Trump rally. He was scheduled to speak at the 2017 Unite the Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was disbanded by police before it got started, leading to an unleashing of violence by far-right demonstrators in the streets of the historic town. Heimbach has since referred to James Fields–who drove his car into a march of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more–as a “prisoner of war.” (After the Charlottesville melee, he had a star turn before the cameras of the PBS NewsHour, where he declined to express remorse for Heyer’s death.)
In March, Heimbach was shown in news photos attacking anti-fascist protesters outside a Michigan State University venue where Spencer, the white nationalist, was speaking. Days later, Heimbach was arrested on domestic violence and other assault charges stemming from a rather complicated love-triangle situation involving his father-in-law, David Parrott, and Parrott’s wife, which led to the dissolution of the Traditionalist Worker Party.
Since Heimbach’s arrival at NSM, the group has undergone another public rebranding in hopes of appealing to radical-left activists, as well as the white nationalists more typically viewed as being part of the right. Heimbach, who is adamant that he is a socialist, briefly attempted to infiltrate Democratic political circles in Southeastern Tennessee.
Right Wing Watch asked Heimbach how he expected to garner the favor of the American left while at the same time attaching himself to a group whose members are notorious for covering themselves in swastikas and Nazi icons. His answer was vague, citing the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, an alliance in the 1960s and 70s that unified social justice groups of different ethnicities in a push for social justice efforts.
However, when the press is not around and Heimbach is speaking candidly with other members of the white nationalist movement, his agenda is much clearer. On a podcast hosted by fellow movement members, Heimbach argued that killing Jews is was “the only way to do it,” and he has professed contempt for blacks, Muslims and LGBTQ people. In chat logs, Heimbach has been chummy with a neo-Nazi in Atomwaffen Division, three of whose members have been charged with five murders done in the name of their cause.
‘We’ve Got Enough Racists Here. F*ck Off!’
Upon arrival on the capitol grounds, the NSM members were greeted by Little Rock and State Capitol Police officers, who conducted weapons checks of NSM members, many of whom were carrying firearms, knives, pepper spray and clubs. A police helicopter circled overhead, snipers were visible on a nearby rooftop, and the capitol grounds held hundred of police officers in SWAT gear. On either side of the rally sat MRAT vehicles.
Before taking to the capitol steps, Heimbach instructed NSM members to refrain from using racial slurs and to avoid giving “random salutes.” NSM chief of staff Burt Colucci and other members loaded flags, a public address system, and shields onto a dolly that they rolled around the capitol building up to the capitol steps.
Many NSM members had traded in their old neo-Nazi shirts for one bearing a new NSM logo–a fasces symbol inside a cog, reminiscent of the branding used by Heimbach’s disbanded Traditionalist Worker Party. Heimbach said the new logo was meant to represent a socialist cause and a tribute to working-class white people. In 2016, under Heimbach’s advice, the group ditched displays of the swastika at public events in favor of the rune figure they would build of wood and set aflame later that night. This is NSM’s third distinct branding since 2015.
Meanwhile, Schoep told reporters before the rally that they should not write about the group as a hate group or a neo-Nazi group, but rather a “white nationalist” group. As Schoep spoke, members stood behind him, bearing evidence of the group’s past iconography, including swastika tattoos, t-shirts emblazoned with the name of an Aryan youth group, and items adorned with Nazi symbols such as the SS bolts and “1488”–a number meant to represent both the “14 Words” white supremacist slogan and “HH” for “Heil Hitler.” There’s also the obvious fact that the group members call themselves “national socialists,” which is the very definition of a “Nazi.”
“We have enough racists here! Fuck off!” one counter-protester screamed at NSM members as they unloaded their gear.
Local news media in the area announced prior to the rally that they would not cover the event. During the rally, Colucci singled out an article published by local station KARK explaining the lack of coverage, seemingly frustrated.
Austin Kellerman, the news director of the NBC and Fox affiliates in Little Rock who authored the article Colucci took issue with, spoke with Right Wing Watch before Saturday’s rally about the decision not to cover the rally, citing the fact that few of the neo-Nazis who came to Little Rock were locals.
“It’s not our community, and we don’t want to give the appearance to people who flip on the news that night that this is a local issue and how local people feel when it’s just people coming into town to look for attention,” Kellerman said. “If you don’t want this to be a story in Arkansas, don’t let it be a story in Arkansas.”
KARK did have camera operators on the ground in the situation that they may be “forced” to cover the event if people were injured.
Counter-protesters at the event told me that they wished local news had covered the rally because they believed ignoring it was enabling the group to recruit new members, uncontested.
“Ignoring them is not an option,” one counter-protester said.
Another chimed in, “Silence breeds solidarity and we don’t want to be associated with that.”
At one point during the rally, apparent NSM supporters caused a stir in the crowd of counter-protesters. Members of the John Brown Gun Club in Springfield, Missouri, created a barrier between groups to defend counter-protesters. Police eventually escorted the men from the crowd.
From Stormfront to the Oval Office
Saturday was NSM’s first appearance in the Natural State’s capitol, where in 1957 nine young black students enrolled at the nearby Little Rock Central High School despite Gov. Orval Faubus’ efforts at the time to prevent its desegregation. Because of this, Little Rock stands as a landmark of the civil rights era. The approximately 20 NSM members gathered on the steps described land reform efforts in South Africa as its own kind of civil rights crisis.
“White genocide,” as NSM speakers called it, is a popular conspiracy theory in the white nationalist movement, promoted by the white supremacist website, Stormfront, among others. Believers in the white genocide myth assert that governments, through immigration policy and promotion of racial and ethnic diversity, are secretly plotting to erase white people from their nations.
Ever since the first calls to end apartheid in the 1960s, South Africa has been a fascination of white nationalists. In recent years, as politicians in South Africa debate land reform measures that would redistribute farm land seized by white colonizers from black people back to those communities, the country has received attention from the online far-right–and, most recently, by President Donald Trump. A 2017 audit by the South African government showed that 72 percent of South Africa’s farmland remains in white hands.
YouTube celebrity Lauren Southern and Rebel Media’s Katie Hopkins both traveled to South Africa this year to produce separate documentaries about land reform efforts; their films emphasized violence taking place against white landowners, which lifted the topic from fringe white nationalist forum boards like Stormfront into mainstream right-wing discussion online. Southern, in particular, even went so far as to visit a whites-only town in South Africa and to present that town as a potential solution to the image of racial violence she painted for her viewers in the rest of her film, which has been viewed on YouTube almost two million times.
Eventually, the topic made its way to viewers of the Fox News channel via Tucker Carlson, one of the network’s primetime hosts. After one segment on Carlson’s show, Trump took to Twitter to order that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo investigate the issue. Department of State spokesperson Heather Nauert was particularly cagey when reporters asked about Trump’s tweet the day after, saying that Pompeo would “take a look at it.”
Heimbach told Right Wing Watch that he interpreted Trump’s acknowledgement of the situation in South Africa as an affirmation of their cause, but was skeptical it would lead to a consequential shift on the issue.
“I think it is a validation that people are identifying what’s happening in South Africa, what’s happening in Europe, but one of the big problems is that Republicans have a mad tweet game but that doesn’t lead to substantive legislation,” Heimbach said.
Heimbach added that he had been in contact with activists on the ground in South Africa, including members of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), a South African neo-Nazi separatist political and paramilitary organisation. Heimbach said that he had donated to Suidlanders and had read literature published by the organization, but that no formal political affiliation existed between NSM and Suidlanders, one among a small handful of organizations, also including AfriForum, that have courted the international far-right in efforts to make their agenda in South Africa an international cause. Members of such groups have specifically targeted U.S. white nationalist groups for their advocacy, but have also sought relations with more establishment figures and organizations on America’s right wing. Earlier this year, two members of AfriForum met with officials at USAID and the Heritage Foundation, as well as with members of the staff of Sen. Ted Cruz. They also had their picture taken with National Security Adviser John Bolton (though it remains unclear whether Bolton knew who they are).
Whatever Heimbach’s misgivings about Republicans’ commitment to stemming the tide of what he and his comrades call “white genocide,” NSM Commander Schoep took heart from the president’s tweet. Speaking on the steps of the Arkansas state capitol building, Schoep declared, “Even President Trump pointed out that there’s a genocide going on. … Our people are being wiped out on a daily basis by communist criminals.”
“If you think for one second we will surrender without a fight in this nation, you are sadly mistaken,” Schoep said.
Burn, Baby, Burn
National Socialist Movement members burn a wooden depiction of an Odal rune worn by SS soldiers in Nazi Germany. (Video capture / VK.com)
Growing up in Arkansas, I heard about the white supremacist groups that made their home here, particularly in the northern region of the state. The town of Harrison is notorious among the state’s residents for the active racist groups who have staked their claim there. Bill Roper’s Shield Wall Network maintains an active presence in the state, and Arkansas hosts active chapters of the Klu Klux Klan.
After their rally, members of NSM drove to the property of Scott Goodwin, two hours south of Harrison, for dinner, and to burn a large, wooden structure in the shape of the Odal rune symbol worn by SS soldiers in Nazi Germany, which the NSM employed as a logo displayed on their flags and shields at the rally earlier in the day. (The Odal is said to represent “heritage.”)
Goodwin’s son, Jacob Scott Goodwin, was found guilty of beating DeAndre Harris, a black man, in a parking garage during last year’s Unite the Right gathering in Charlottesville. Harris suffered a spinal injury and head lacerations that required eight staples, according to the Washington Post. Jacob Goodwin’s attorney is a relative of KKK leader Thomas Robb, who lives in Harrison.
Many white nationalist groups and figures, including the NSM, are still facing lawsuits resulting from their participation in the Charlottesville melee. Their accusers, Schoep said, are represented by “some of the best lawyers that the left has.” Those attorneys, Schoep asserted, aim to “use lawfare to bankrupt the white nationalist movement in the United States.”
When I first heard of the scheduled rune burning, I asked Heimbach if NSM also planned to burn a swastika that night. He told me that without the expertise of a carpenter, the swastika was too logistically complicated to erect and burn.
“The arms fall off and it’s just a mess,” Heimbach said, laughing.
But video shot that night indicates a swastika was at the ready alongside the burning Odal rune. Video posted to Russian social media platform VK by Colucci showed a that wooden structure in the form of a swastika leaned against Goodwin’s trailer home.
According to Heimbach, Goodwin has been testy with members of the media since the release of an NBC documentary about his son’s incarceration and the relationship of Goodwin and his wife to the white supremacist cause. (The film was produced with the assistance of photographer David Holloway, whose own relationship with the movement has been questioned by anti-racist group One People’s Project.)
While the post-rally events on the Goodwin property were closed to press, News2Share journalist Ford Fischer was invited by Heimbach to the gathering, where he expected to be allowed to film the ritual burning. But when Fischer arrived, he said, an NSM member drew a knife, asking Fischer whether he thought the blade would penetrate the tactical vest the journalist wore.
“All things considered, I’m ok with skipping it,” Fischer tweeted.
One guy actually took his knife out and asked whether I thought it could go through my bulletproof vest. I said something like “no, but I appreciate you not stabbing me” and he holstered it and said “you ain’t done nothing to me.”
All things considered, I’m ok with skipping it.
— Ford Fischer (@FordFischer) November 11, 2018
Struggling to Reinvent the Swastika
Heimbach has attempted to cultivate unity among neo-Nazi groups for years and shift their rhetoric away from that of white supremacy toward a flavor of white nationalism he hopes will resonate more with American people, in the prospect earning him cheers of “Hail Heimbach” at white supremacist gatherings. While pushing for this re-imagining of the white supremacist movement, Heimbach fell in love with Trump for speaking about what he believed to be “white interests.”
Vegas Tenold, a journalist who has been researching and reporting on NSM since 2010, told Right Wing Watch that Heimbach’s apparent effort to rework the public image of NSM seemed puzzling unless Heimbach is hoping to establish himself, via NSM–which has been irrelevant in American politics for decades–as a leader in the broader movement.
“The NSM is essentially just Matthew trying to take it over now,” Tenold said of the group’s rebranding attempt. “They won’t abandon the swastika. I mean, look at them. Like you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, a lot of these guys have been doing this forever. You can’t teach an NSM member not to ‘Sieg heil’ a swastika.”
When Richard Spencer and his colleagues ushered in the era of the “alt-right,” older white supremacist groups like NSM found themselves “feeling left behind,” Tenold said. As Heimbach tries to shape their message with language that is reminiscent of Spencer’s posturing, he may face resistance.
“Being LARP-ing Nazis is the bread and butter of who they are,” Tenold said.
Ultimately, Heimbach is attempting to repurpose a group that, from its inception, was hellbent on expressing its Nazi ideology. NSM, however miniscule in the modern white supremacist movement, is a group of Jew-hating, swastika-brandishing Nazi wannabes and probably will always be. Given NSM’s dismal showing in Little Rock, those efforts don’t appear to be paying publicly visible dividends.
In the video shared by Colucci from the burning after the rally, NSM members throw up straight-arm salutes and, in the English-language version of “Sieg heil,” cry, “Hail victory!”