Womyn versus white supremacy: the inside story of a standoff against hate in Murfreesboro
The City of Murfreesboro is a Civil War nexus of sorts. A major battlefield lies within the city limits. Cavalry engagements were fought around the courthouse. Monuments to the Confederacy and her soldiers may be found in the many public places. History for some; a record of treason for others.
But no one expected the ghosts to suddenly come alive.
I had arrived at the secret location just in time to drop my backpack and fall in behind the women rushing for their cars. There were rumours of an impending torch march upon the MTSU campus on that early Friday afternoon before the rain started. We raced south at top speed.
Rivkah, wearing her kippah and late brother’s tallit, could not entirely promise to follow the agreed upon plan. A veteran of prior actions and the Israeli Defense Forces, she was trying hard to embrace the strategy of nonviolent resistance to evil, but she was Jewish and this was personal. Her Christian friends going into action beside her understood the dilemma.
Most of the group were in Charlottesville last summer; none had come home from the encounter the same. Charlottesville had left people dead and America shaken. The nature of this enemy would not be underestimated again.
The Tennessee Women of Faith Collective is a group of women from all parts of the state who are willing to risk physical violence to fight bigotry. The majority of them are ordained ministers from different faith traditions; more than a few are openly LGBTQ+. They came together last spring when right-wing groups announced plans for a summer rally.
The Collective’s main tactic of choice is a nonviolent one. They plan to come together in locked arms between the thugs invading Middle Tennessee and the counter-protesters to act as a buffer if needed. The act would send a message to both sides: G-d opposes right-wing hate. They plan to be in the same vicinity wherever the thugs show up to demonstrate, standing within sight of their groups as a visible witness.
They have been trained in the same pacifist techniques that were taught to activists during the original Civil Rights movements. They also know that their lives are potentially at risk by doing this. Their security is tight because they know the right-wing networks actively monitor those who openly oppose them.
I discovered this group through a mutual friend, and it was soon obvious that I was in way over my head. The culture war had metastasized into something truly awful during my recovery from confirmation surgery. I was now embedded with activists who would trust me to keep their secrets for the next 48 hours.
I was not ready for any of this.
Unofficial representatives of a large pacifist group soon meet with us at the jump point near MTSU. A friendly church has made their back lot available to us as long as we can keep our visible presence to a minimum. Local pastors are amongst our visitors. They are concerned about our pending action and the potential for violence this may engender; they have come to offer guarded support and prayer.
Both groups agree that the police and most locals are more worried about the potential for violence amongst the counter-protesters than from the thugs coming to our area. The right-wing groups have better monitoring of their activities, they rationalize, while our people do not. The representatives meeting with us have been trying convince the authorities that we are not a threat, but ask us to promise that we will not become violent in our resistance. This the women readily do.
Upon their leaving, one of the women tells me that this has been a common request of groups such as the collective for many weeks now. Her own return from Charlottesville was greeted with silence and avoidance by fellow church staffers for days afterward...many of the same who regularly praise the actions of Dr. King and his companions decades before, not realizing that they were considered anti-social rebels in their day too.
Time passes without a visit from torch bearing goons. The group stands down their alarm and begins a planned circle of prayer. We are asked individually what this means to us and why we chose to come here.
“We are nonviolent social change makers” says one.
“We do this as people of privilege and see this as a way of taking action for people who cannot” says another.
An out-of-town Christian pastor explains that she is here because she has Jewish grandparents and feels the need to stand up to bigots.
Another tells of witnessing the Nashville sit-ins during her childhood. “I’ve waited my whole life for this moment,” she explains. She is hoping their action will change hearts on the other side just as nonviolent resistance did during the days of Dr. King.
Alaina, a pastor and transgender woman, tells a moving story of embracing her true self after being raised as a fundamentalist Christian with a supremacist background. She desires to atone for what she did in her pre-transition life and attempt to bring the true Christian gospel to perhaps some of them. “I understand them and the brokenness that comes along with it,” she says through tears. “But I cannot leave them unchallenged.”
Rivkah tells her story of being attacked by Nazis as a teenager. She tends to let her rage lead as a result of that. But now, while allowing her rage and love to be the fuel of her resistance inside, she desires to lead with love.
We then come closer together in our protective circle as Rivkah leads us in meditative prayer. She guides us through the story of an African-American child who was playing with a toy gun outside his house when he was confronted by police officers assuming that the toy was a real weapon. The child died when the officers fired on him. This was a true story, Rivkah explained. She asks us to imagine living in a world where we can undo the evil that led to the death of this child.
The prayer circle ends. It is the late afternoon, and we head over to the second jump point near the public square; another friendly church has offered the use of its back lot for our group. We transfer the flag and meet up with our allies. A volunteer medic arrives to ask each of us for our medical histories in case we need to be treated for wounds. Two volunteers with legal training also come to help us interact with the police. They hand us markers to write down their phone numbers upon our arms in case we are arrested. Night is falling and we still have no word if Murfreesboro is to be invaded by thugs.
I befriend a middle aged Caucasian woman who is somewhat overdressed for this type of experience, or perhaps my idea how to dress for this type of action is way too outdated. She hails from Williamson County and has recently met up with the group. Her son from an interracial marriage is currently in prison for robbery. While not disputing the fact that he committed a crime, she does take issue with the length of the sentence and feels that his skin color and the part of the country he committed the crime in is partially to blame for his long stay in prison.
This is her first action and she is here to show support for those fighting bigotry. Her friends in Williamson County who know of what she is doing have tried to persuade her not to come. She tells me she is doing this for her son and all African-Americans. The fight is personal for her too, and she never expected to see White Supremacists active again in her lifetime. She is no longer complacent. She loves her friends, but feels they do not have the same perspective on this issue as she does.
We circle up as a group with our allies to discuss the situation. The feeling is that the bad guys will either move in soon or save their strength for tomorrow. The choices of attack are upon an African-American church vigil near the square or a quick show of force near Forrest Hall. Our lifeguard is attempting to pin down the action through her sources, but as the minutes go by and the temperature drops...we begin to wonder if we will see any action tonight at all. Perhaps the weather will be able to accomplish the mission we have set out to perform.
We walk down East Main Street for about a mile headed to the square. It is now quite dark and we walk in pairs trying not to lose group cohesion. We are nervous. There are very few people on the streets near the public square this night. The few we run into are headed in the same direction, probably for the same purpose. Bigotry will not be allowed to descend upon this town without resistance.
We arrive to a square that has more people than we expected. The church vigil has let out and more than a few have stayed behind to read the pro-diversity messages scrawled upon the boarded up windows. African-American couples are looking at the messages too; so are the police. It is quiet and cold. Drops of rain are beginning to come down.
A quick discussion and a call to the lifeguard leads to the final outing of this evening. The rain will not come in buckets for at least another hour and there will be an opportunity for the thugs to march upon Forrest Hall should they choose. The square is clear with police patrolling; MTSU would be worth a visit before calling it for the night. We walk back to the church lot and take our vehicles over to the campus, arriving just in time to see allied groups doing the same thing. A quick walk to the hall tells us there is nothing to worry about. The buckets of rain that proceed to fall upon us confirm this.
I suspect someone upstairs thought we were in a little over our heads; it’s time for pizza somewhere. We take our cold, tired and wet selves to the Mellow Mushroom to celebrate the outcome of a battle yet to be fought. No Nazis today is a good thing. Perhaps they will stay away.
We sit by ourselves at a large table. Half the group is telling jokes, the other half telling activist stories. What tension we felt is being relieved by food and beer. All feel certain that there will be a confrontation in Shelbyville in the morning. We discuss taking the first opportunity to make a stand there the next day. There is a discussion about ways the women can help the counter-protesters as clergy and how not to be drawn in by the thugs.
Rivkah continues to warn that she is Jewish and may not be able to hold back. Alaina says she will not be baited by being openly transgender; she plans to keep her cool and reserve her anger for later.
The discussion moves to the realization that the women may be arrested by the police the next day if they are able to carry out their original plan of coming in-between the thugs and the counter-protesters. Lifeguard asks who amongst the group cannot be arrested the next day; a couple of hands go up with explanations why. There begins talk of how to make sure the people who cannot be arrested can take part and when they would need to leave the action.
We depart after our meal. The majority of the women are staying at the secret location and I arrange to meet them in Shelbyville the next morning. I have a press pass and will have to be discreet in my activities the next day. I drive home and arrive exhausted. It dawns upon me that I have never felt more alive and female as I did today. Scared and vulnerable too...
I am becoming a woman.
The last time I had thought of Shelbyville was during my childhood. We had received word that a Klan rally was taking place nearby and my father was chosen by the African-American members of his Army unit to procure robes and t-shirts for their possession.
He did so, and after the obligatory photographs showing off the war trophies...they slipped them over target mannequins and proceeded to fill them full of holes. The remains were then soaked in petroleum and set on fire in the dumpster. It was a unit bonding exercise I was privileged to witness. I always think of this night when I pump gas into my car.
I had taken the precaution before entering town of dressing as my male self before presenting my credentials to the heavily armed police manning the roadblock. We had been informed by all parties that it would not be safe for us to look openly LGBTQ+ in Middle Tennessee that day. I was trying to set a example as a responsible LGBTQ+ journalist and I felt like a traitor.
The collective had gone radio silent per the plan. I would meet up with them when they would enter the protest zone near the media lot. I had been given the go-ahead by our lifeguard to broadcast for my website as per normal. The plan was moving forward and there was nothing I could conceivably do to mess it up.
The police staging area was in front of the media parking lot. Emerging from a set of vehicles were a group of bearded types in brown-coloured work duds wearing disguised wristbands and headed to the project areas behind me. The undercover feds were on their way...their targets must soon be behind.
The protest area was a major road intersection outside the town square. Shelbyville Police had published a helpful guide a few days before giving details of which side could enter from which street in the different ends of town along with a list of what not to bring to the protest (basically everything, save clothes…)
One look at the scene told the story before the my group had even arrived: high metal barriers on both sides with lines of armed police in-between on the road and a double set of security checkpoints before you got inside.
The authorities were ready this time; there would not be a repeat of Charlottesville. The collective would never have a real opportunity to come between the counter-protesters and the thugs in Shelbyville at least.
Frankly, I did not mind. I had become close to the group and did not want to see anyone hurt. My prayers the night before were being answered in quick fashion. Let this be an anti-bigotry party instead...and extend it to Murfreesboro.
About two dozen counter-protesters had arrived before the media came on site. A quick look to my right inside the media zone showed a steady line of cars parking and dispersing their occupants, signs and banners in tow, up the hill toward the first security checkpoint. To my left in the goon zone...nothing. Well, almost nothing: a high-flying police drone over the intersection had moved over toward the centre of town. Pretty strong guess why the drone was now over there.
Then I see my crew...as per plan moving in pairs steadily up the hill to the first checkpoint. Time to move in. I hightail it out of the media zone toward the counter-protester security line just in time to fall in behind the women. We go through security together twice (the police were courteous and professional…) and arrive to a swiftly filling counter-protest zone with the funniest DJ playing protest standards over his loudspeakers.
Yes, it was a party.
The police drone was beginning to move back into our direction and more police in riot gear were beginning to arrive on the road. A quick discussion amongst the women confirmed my original analysis...absolutely no chance of making it to the road today without swift arrest for no practical purpose. Time to be clergy and stand as witnesses - the collective dons their clergy stoles as Rivkah dons her brother’s tallit.
We soon see the thugs beginning to gather a few hundred feet in the distance before their first security checkpoint. From what we understood, they wait to go through security together so they can make a show of force whenever they enter a protest area. We later find out that they were being slowed down in the town center by a combined movement of close police “protection” and mainstream media broadcasters who are emboldened by the police presence to stick large cameras and microphones into their faces every ten feet.
They make very slow progress to the first checkpoint. Finally they line up to go through the first one...slowly. Then they wait until all of them make it through to go through the second checkpoint...even more slowly. I gain the impression that there is a police strategy in place but don’t tell my crew. This just may work out well for the good guys today.
“Hey Nazis! You are thirty minutes late to your own damn rally!” the funny DJ calls out to roars of laughter on our side. One more hour later...the last of the thugs clears customs and they finally make it as a group to the opposite side. Their demonstration permit time in Shelbyville and Murfreesboro is swiftly ticking away and they are not a happy looking group of hate mongers.
Our party had been going on for around ninety minutes before the rather poor Hitler imitator began to intone his bigoted s*** on the other side. I really could not hear him, nor was I really trying to be honest. Funny DJ was cracking too many good jokes about the brown-shirted mess opposite of us interspaced with great music and classic sermons from Dr. King. Whatever bigot guy was saying was being effectively drowned out by the spirit of hope and love on our side.
My crew was at the front of the barricades wearing their stoles. Alaina was the tallest of our group - she kept her cool. Rivkah was the smallest - she only yelled obscenities in Hebrew a few times before catching the eye of Hitler-weenie across the road. And then the collective had an idea. The women took the tallit Rivkah was wearing and jointly held it over the barricade in full view of Hitler-weenie and his thugs. They held it there the entire duration of his speech.
The message was inescapable: We live...all of us. The forces of darkness will not be allowed to return. As long as there are people in this world who are willing to stand up for others and stand up to hate...hate cannot win.
The rest of the day was an anti-climax really. We rushed back to Murfreesboro in anticipation of bad guys attempting to make the same stand in the public square as they advertised. There were two problems with that promise on their part: their legal permit time was running out fast (thanks to the slow security checks) and the square was already occupied by a couple hundred counter-protesters awaiting their arrival.
Nazi wannabees are usually dumb as rocks...but occasionally they do come up with one or two good ideas. Cancelling their Murfreesboro rally in the face of overwhelmingly hostile opposition from all quarters was perhaps the brightest thing they did all weekend. My crew had just made it past the security checkpoint into the square when we got word of their cancellation.
The church bells soon rang out across parts of Murfreesboro and people were hugging each other in the streets. As part of a larger story of a community-wide resistance to evil, a small group of Christians, Jews and more had come together to apply a hard-learned lesson: We are all in this fight together...and today, we had won.
We return to the secret location to celebrate and debrief. The group chooses someone to lead the debriefing and everyone take turns answering her questions. There will likely be further actions down the road; those who come after us will need the lessons we learned.
How do we feel after our adventure? The first responses are tired, strong and hopeful. The next three reply that they are anxious. Our leader asks why?
“Because chasing and confronting thugs is very scary work,” says one of the respondents. Another sums it up: “I cannot believe we have to fight these people again. This fight is never ever finished!” The room goes quiet with the latter statement...
How do we feel about our action? A chorus of “we bonded!” comes from both sides of the room...out of turn, of course.
“Our effort was important for spiritual and social work,” says one. “Our lives were in each others hands and we fell in love with new friends.”
“This was a dangerous and radical effort,” chimes in another. “We came together with allies to pull it off. We had our problems but our values showed and we functioned as a team - sorta like herding cats at times, but…” she trails off as we laugh heartily.
“It was powerful that the group was ready to put themselves in harms way without question if it was necessary to protect the counter-protesters,” adds the third. “No one even blinked when we discussed this possibility at the scene…no one.”
“I will never forget displaying the tallit to the Nazis while standing against them, ” Rivkah says to a hushed room. “I felt protected and respected...a Jew surrounded by Gentiles willing to die for me.”
The discussion returns to the group’s origins and why they came here. The group agrees on the need to be a more faithful and silent presence as active witnesses for their faiths, but agree that sometimes people of faith cannot be silent...
The thugs we have gone up against have taken off their hoods and swastikas and replaced them with polo shirts. The people we fight are trying to look and act mainstream, but they are not the mainstream. They grew up with this hate for the most part. We see them across the barricades and wonder how we can reach them...but we also remember that they are very dangerous. Perhaps it is not for us to change hearts, but we can attempt to show them a better path. Our actions may inspire the courage for some to leave the cult of hate.
I thank the group for their trust, and take my leave. The warriors for peace deserve time to celebrate without a journalist in the room.
The house is dark when I return home late on Saturday, and Soulmate is asleep when I slip into the bed beside her. It has been six months since my surgery and I am still adjusting to the fact that I now living in the gender I have always known myself to be. Six months later, I am still scared.
I lay awake caressing my wife in the dark. My thoughts go over the experiences of the past two days…
I had heard those words once before from lesbian friends of mine who were lucky to be born cisgender. They went to Michigan as my friends and then came back to see me as the stranger in their midst. We were never as close again. I could never understand why...until now.
I may again have found some of my kind. My politics are different, but I would rather live amongst women who care than be a success with people who do not. I have had to make a decision such as this once before. At least this time I know what I am getting into.
I closed my eyes as I snuggled close with my breasts upon my wife’s back.
And then I cried.
Julie Chase is the pen name for a local 40-something trans woman.