State and local law enforcement are preparing for a gathering in downtown Dahlonega on Sept. 14 organized by white supremacists who have advertised it as a rally in support of President Trump.
The organizer is Chester Doles, a north Georgia resident with decades of experience as a white power activist. Doles is a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and was an organizer for the National Alliance, a mostly defunct white supremacist group with deeply anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant beliefs.
Fliers for the event shared on social media prominently feature smiling pictures of Trump, but Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., who represents the region, is not fooled. Collins is listed as an “invited” speaker at the event, but the Republican congressman made his feelings clear in a statement this week.
“White supremacy and white nationalism have no place in our country, and I will continue to denounce any and all forms of hate,” he said. “For that reason, I will not be attending the event in Dahlonega on September 14, which has been organized by known associates of hate organizations.”
Atlanta Antifascists and a number of left-wing activist groups have signaled their intention to counter-protest and disrupt the rally. Doles said it is a chance to confront antifascist groups in what he described as a crucial period.
“As we get closer to the 2020 election, you are going to see the parties (move to) the left and the right, the center will shrink and the fringes will get bigger,” he said. Trump, he said, is “our savior, the last chance to save Western civilization.”
Doles’s long history of activism includes two prison sentences. In 1993, Doles, then a member of the Klan in Maryland, pleaded guilty to beating a black man. Police said he beat the man because he was in the company of a white woman. He went back to prison in 2004, serving nearly six years on a federal weapons charge.
Because of his felony convictions, Doles does not have the right to vote, but he said he campaigned for Trump regardless.
Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said Doles’s plan to tie the rally to Trump is a common strategy among white supremacists to move their rhetoric into the political mainstream.
“Instead of talking about some kind of white supremacy or Doles mentioning his connections to neo-Nazi groups, he is trying to present this as a patriotic event,” she said. “They are not going to attract people by talking about their white supremacist ties.”
Doles made it clear that he believes the views he expressed years ago demonstrating with the National Alliance are mainstream now. “I just had to wait for everybody to catch up,” he said.
While Doles claims the event is a patriotic rally to support the president, he takes a different approach when promoting it to fellow white supremacists. In an appearance on a far right podcast last week, Doles echoed the trope common among white supremacists that white people are in danger of extinction.
“Patriots are stepping up from all over,” he said. “This is our time. I believe we are at our 11th hour 59th minute of our people’s survival.”
The rally is disturbing to local residents and business owners as it comes as Dahlonega prepares for an annual influx of tourists seeking a quaint, leaf-peeking day trip. The city’s official statement, issued last week, makes it clear Doles has a right to hold his rally, but peace will be enforced.
“Do not assume that because we are a small town that we won’t be prepared,” Mayor Sam Norton said. “Law enforcement officers from multiple agencies will be present and significant, whether you see it or not. They will be prepared to appropriately enforce federal, state and local laws.”
City Marshall Jeff Branyon said plans for controlling the event and the anticipated counter-protesters have yet to be finalized.
“We’re still looking at various options. The problem with these kind of events is we don’t know how many people are coming,” he said. “We have several plans in place depending on what the size of the crowd looks like, what the weather does and these kinds of things.”
Local law enforcement officials are not talking about their specific plans, but how Newnan handled a similar rally last year provides some clues.
In that case, a small group from the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement held a rally in a park near the center of town, drawing hundreds of counter-protesters. To keep the two sides apart, local and state agencies mounted an overwhelming police presence, cordoning off the neo-Nazis and forcing counter-protesters through controlled checkpoints where they were searched for weapons before being led to a staging area more than 100 yards away.
The city is home to the University of North Georgia, which this week issued its own statement advising staff and students to avoid downtown the day of the rally. University spokeswoman Sylvia Carson said the proximity of the rally to campus is concerning and some campus events scheduled for that day have been moved for safety reasons.
“We are concerned about having any spillover, and we are going to try to manage that the best we can with our public safety folks,” she said. But she stressed the university is not taking a position on the rally itself.
“We are content neutral,” she said.