Code Switch
2:34 pm
Fri September 20, 2013

This Tiny Town Is Trying To Stop Neo-Nazis From Taking Over

Originally published on Fri September 20, 2013 2:52 pm

A white supremacist has plans to take over a tiny town in North Dakota and turn it into one for whites only. This weekend, members of one of the nation's largest neo-Nazi organizations will descend upon the town in a step toward making that vision a reality — and several residents are trying to stop them.

Leith, N.D., which sits 3 miles off the nearest paved road, has been in decline for decades. The railroad, schools and most of the town's businesses and residents are gone. Many buildings are held together by rotting boards and slabs of concrete. At the urging of residents, the county health department has condemned several of the structures.

It's part of an effort to stop Craig Cobb, a white supremacist, from easily moving in others like him to take over the town and its small local government.

Bobby Harper, who lives right across an alleyway from Cobb, is the only black resident in the town of 24 people. He says he was prepared to tolerate Cobb as long as he kept to himself, but he's angry now that Cobb has invited other white separatists to join him.

"He knows that those people that he's inviting to this town are full of hate," Harper says. "He's bringing his people in that doesn't like me just because of my race, and that's not the way it should be."

When Cobb moved to Leith last year, he had already purchased 12 properties. He's given most of them away to people who are notorious in the white separatist movement. He gave one to a former Ku Klux Klan leader and another to Jeff Schoep, leader of one of the nation's largest neo-Nazi organizations, the National Socialist Movement.

Cobb invited Schoep and NSM members to visit Leith for two days, starting this Sunday, to showcase his vision of an all-white community. He says he wants to install flags of the "formerly white nations of Europe."

"It would be extraordinarily beautiful when people enter the town, particularly at night," Cobb says. "We will probably have the National Socialist hunting flag with stag horns and a very small swastika in the center — very discreet."

Cobb's plans don't end in Leith. He also wants to take over other towns roughly adjacent to the state's oil fields, like one near the Canadian border called Alkabo. "A little bit like 'al-Qaida' but 'Alkabo,' " he says with a laugh.

Gregory Gordon, a law professor at the University of North Dakota, says he doesn't think Cobb is necessarily dangerous but that he should not be underestimated.

"I don't think we should take him lightly, because he is very much into glorifying and promoting violence against racial minorities," Gordon says.

But, he says, laws like the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 that prohibit discrimination in housing opportunities will very likely put a brake on Cobb's all-white vision.

Still, the residents of Leith aren't feeling hopeful. Several say their best chance of saving their town may be to legislate it out of existence. They are considering dissolving the town's council and transferring control to the county.

It's a painful choice, says longtime resident Bethany Haberstroh.

"It's sad seeing a town die off, but what's heartbreaking is to see a town struggling with the decision of dissolving its government because an extreme hate group is wanting to take over," she says.

Meanwhile, Harper, Cobb's across-the-alley neighbor, says he won't be driven out. "They gotta do something very drastic to make it very unsafe and uncomfortable for me. Right now, I don't see it happening," he says.

A protest against Cobb and the National Socialist Movement is also being planned for this weekend. The town's mayor says his fervent hope is for peace on both sides.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Residents in the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota are on edge. That's because a white supremacist is planning to turn the town into a place for whites only. And this weekend, he's invited members of one of the nation's largest neo-Nazi organizations to visit Leith with an eye toward turning that vision into reality. Meg Luther-Lindholm has this report.

MEG LUTHER-LINDHOLM, BYLINE: When you stand in the center of Leith, North Dakota at high noon you don't hear cars or people. What you hear are crickets. The town sits three miles off the nearest paved road. Many buildings are held together by rotting boards and slabs of concrete. At the urging of residents, the county health department has condemned several of them. It's part of an effort to stop Craig Cobb, a white supremacist, from easily moving others like him in to take over the town and its government.

BOBBY HARPER: He knows that those people that he's inviting to this town are full of hate.

LUTHER-LINDHOLM: Bobby Harper lives right across an alleyway from Cobb. He's the only black resident in the town of 24 people. Harper was prepared to tolerate Cobb as long as he kept to himself, but he's angry now that Cobb has invited other white separatists to join his effort.

HARPER: He's bringing his people in that doesn't like me just because of my race, and that's not the way it should be.

LUTHER-LINDHOLM: Leith has been in decline for decades. The railroad, schools and most of the town's businesses and residents are gone. When Craig Cobb moved to Leith last year, he had already purchased 12 properties. He's given most of them away to people who are notorious in the white separatist movement. He gave one to a former Ku Klux Klan leader and another to Jeff Schoep, who leads the National Socialist Movement.

It's one of the nation's largest neo-Nazi organizations. Cobb invited Schoep and NSM members to visit Leith for two days, starting this Sunday, to showcase his vision of an all-white community.

CRAIG COBB: It would be extraordinarily beautiful when people enter the town, particularly at night because we will have floodlit flags from both the bottom and the top of all the formerly white nations of the earth. We will probably have the National Socialist hunting flag with stag horns and a very small swastika in the center, very discreet.

LUTHER-LINDHOLM: Cobb's plans don't end in Leith. He's planning to take over other towns roughly adjacent to the state's oil fields, like one near the Canadian border called Alkabo.

COBB: A little bit like al-Qaida but Alkabo, a town up in Dwight County.

LUTHER-LINDHOLM: Gregory Gordon, a law professor at the University of North Dakota, says Cobb should not be underestimated.

GREGORY GORDON: While I don't know that he's quote/unquote "dangerous," because I still think he's pretty marginalized, I don't think we should take him lightly, because he is very much into glorifying and promoting violence against racial minorities.

LUTHER-LINDHOLM: But human and civil rights laws will more than likely put a break on Cobb's all-white vision.

GORDON: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, possibly even 1965, dealing respectively with access to public accommodations, voting, housing, those, I think, would all apply.

LUTHER-LINDHOLM: Still, the residents of Leith aren't feeling hopeful. Several say their best chance of saving their town may be to legislate it out of existence. They are considering dissolving the town's council and transferring control to the county. Longtime resident Bethany Haberstroh says it's a painful choice.

BETHANY HABERSTROH: It's sad seeing a town die off, but what's heartbreaking is to see a town struggling with the decision of dissolving its government because an extreme hate group is wanting to take over.

HARPER: I'm not leaving.

LUTHER-LINDHOLM: Bobby Harper says he won't be driven out.

HARPER: They gotta do something very, very drastic to me to make it unsafe and uncomfortable for me. Right now, I don't see it happening.

LUTHER-LINDHOLM: A protest against Cobb and the NSM is also being planned for this weekend. The town's mayor says his fervent hope is for peace on both sides. For NPR News, I'm Meg Luther-Lindholm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.