LEITH, N.D. — Hundreds of people from three states converged Sunday on the tiny southwestern North Dakota town of Leith to support the community of 16 people as the leader of a white supremacist group paid a visit.
The event drew a heavy law enforcement presence that included a dozen officers in riot gear, but the protests and a community meeting remained for the most part peaceful.
Jeff Schoep, leader of the National Socialist Movement, traveled from Detroit to hold a town hall meeting Sunday afternoon in support of Craig Cobb, a white supremacist who has been buying up property in Leith with the hope of developing an all-white enclave.
Schoep said in an interview before the town hall meeting that his group doesn’t want to force its agenda on anyone, but he also said Leith could be a “test ground” for the takeover of a community by white supremacists.
“You have to start somewhere,” he said.
Cobb, 61, who is wanted in Canada for allegedly promoting hatred in Vancouver in 2010, was drawn to Leith by jobs in the western North Dakota oil fields. He has been living for the past year and a half in a house with no water or sewer service, and says local officials are trying to condemn his property to run him out of town.
“We’re here to support him, make sure his civil rights aren’t violated,” Schoep said.
Cobb on Sunday decorated his property with dozens of white power flags and signs, and said he was glad for all the attention because it would help his goal of drawing people with like-minded views to help him take over the town.
“How come we go all over the world with B-52s and B-1s (bombers) in the name of democracy and call it world-building?” he said while giving a reporter a tour of his home, where he keeps a couple of guns and a bulletproof vest in one corner for protection.. “I’m doing village-building, except I’m not using violence.”
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Schoep’s visit drew protesters from around North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. A group of 150 American Indians from several reservations in the Dakotas marched down Leith’s main street along with a couple hundred people with the group UnityND — some of whom arrived in a school bus.
“We won’t condone outsiders coming in to spread bigotry in our homeland,” said Chase Iron Eyes, 35, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux and leader of the protest group.
Leith’s lone black resident, Bobby Harper, who lives across an alleyway from Cobb, was out Sunday thanking the protesters. Harper said he was overwhelmed by the turnout.
“I never dreamed so many people would come out against hate,” he said.
After the march, the protesters — many of them carrying signs with messages such as “No hate in our state” and “You are not welcome here” — stood across the gravel road from Cobb’s home and shouted at him and the handful of his supporters. Scott Garman, a leader of the protest group, told Cobb that the group planned to monitor him and that the protest was “not a one-day thing.”
Darrell Cook, 29, who is black, and his wife, Heather, 30, who is white, came from Bismarck to be part the protest group.
“You’ve got to stand for something,” Darrell Cook said. “You can’t complain about how bad the world is and not stand up and say something.”
Schoep said during the town hall meeting that his group aims to protect white civil rights and is not a white supremacist organization, but he had a hard time convincing the crowd. An older man and woman who became so upset they began shouting at him were escorted from the building by sheriff’s deputies.
Grant County Sheriff Steve Bay would not say how many law officers were in the town, but he acknowledged it was more than two dozen and said some officers were hidden. Others waited outside the town hall in riot gear. Police used metal gates to block off all of the roads leading into the town to keep vehicles outside. But Bay said Cobb and his supporters were doing nothing wrong.
“There’s certain rights that they have, and as long as they stay within the law, we’re not going to get involved,” he said.
Many people in the rural, farming area say they just want Cobb gone.
“These communities are peaceful, quiet, everybody’s family,” said John Parker, 36, an oilfield worker who lives in nearby Elgin. “All people want is a peaceful, quiet place to raise their family.”