An organization labeled as a hate group conducted a practice march in downtown Columbus over the weekend, espousing beliefs that have been condemned by city officials.

About 12 or 15 members of the Traditionalist Worker Party, labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist group that advocates racially pure nations and communities, conducted a practice march down both sides of Washington Street on Saturday night, handing out fliers that sought to end admission of refugees into the United States, an organizer said.

The group, which organizer Jeremy Bowman of Columbus said included about five local residents, wore black armbands and black garments and carried the organization’s flag during the march. It went past several restaurants where people were dining outdoors.

The Columbus Police Department reviewed surveillance video of about a dozen people walking on the sidewalk in the 400 block of Washington St. about 8:15 p.m. Saturday.

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From a law-enforcement standpoint, a review of the video showed no illegal activity, said Lt. Matt Harris, spokesman for the department.

People can hold rallies on public sidewalks in Columbus as long as they don’t impede others — foot or car traffic, Harris said. They need permits if planned activities require roads to be closed, however, he said.

Columbus police received no complaints about this activity from the public, he said.

Bowman said the practice march was not in response to a Sept. 5 rally in downtown Columbus where about 450 people protested President Donald Trump’s plans to rescind President Obama’s 2012 executive order for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Instead, Saturday’s march in downtown Columbus was designed as a training opportunity as the group waited for more members to arrive for a weekend meeting, he said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and other extremists, describes the Traditionalist Worker Party as an organization that claims to oppose racism, but blames Jews for most of the world’s problems and believes that every race deserves its own land and culture.

“The group is intimately allied with neo-Nazi and other hardline racist organizations that espouse unvarnished white supremacist views,” the center states on its website.

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying the Traditionalist Worker Party is a small, political white supremacist group founded outside the state.

“While it is no doubt upsetting to know this event took place, it is important to understand that this group has the right to peacefully assemble to exercise its right to free speech,” the mayor’s statement said. “It is equally important to denounce this group: The City of Columbus does not support the racist ideology upon which this group was founded.”

Lienhoop said Columbus welcomes everyone and is proud to be home to people of all faiths, races, ancestry and backgrounds, from different nations, who bring a rich culture and diversity that benefits everyone.

“Those contributions have not only enriched our community, but have allowed our community to flourish economically, enabling us to continue to bring in a dynamic workforce to support local, regional, national and international companies,” the statement said. “Columbus celebrates this diversity.”

No confrontation

Several local residents contacted The Republic to express their disappointment that a white nationalist group would march in Columbus.

Nick Slabaugh of Columbus was eating dinner at a restaurant on Washington Street when he saw the group walking from Columbus City Hall down the sidewalk toward the restaurant, handing out fliers.

Slabaugh said people in the group were wearing all black and had black armbands, and were handing out pamphlets that indicated they wanted immigration in the United States to end. There were no confrontations and Slabaugh said he did not see any police presence as the group then walked back to City Hall.

“You never think it could happen here,” Slabaugh wrote in a letter to the editor submitted to The Republic. “I wasn’t prepared to believe it, even when I saw the column of men, sporting armbands and a black flag, marching down the sidewalk toward me… Believe it or not, the Nazis have come to Columbus.”

Slabaugh said that while the group claims to be nationalists, there is no place for an ideology of racial supremacy in Columbus or elsewhere in America.

“We reject your demand to elevate yourselves and people who share your skin color over the rest of America,” Slabaugh wrote.

Marchers’ intentions

Bowman, a self-employed construction worker, leads the Traditionalist Worker Party Group in Columbus, which he said is under the broader leadership of Matthew Heimbach, of Paoli. Heimbach has been identified as a leader in white supremacist groups who helped promote the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, according to media accounts of the Charlottesville violence.

In an interview, Bowman repeatedly denied that he is a white supremacist, saying he is a white nationalist, fighting for the white race and other races to have their own separate societies based on shared blood, shared history and shared beliefs.

Saturday night’s march was a practice training session for future larger events, Bowman said. The group was practicing marching side by side and in step with the flag, he said. The larger event in the future may or may not be in Columbus, he said.

The group did hand out leaflets, which they call a “flier drop,” to spread their message without talking individually with people, he said.

The fliers distributed Saturday said “No refugees welcome” and included the organization’s website to obtain further information.

Bowman said a tenet of the Traditionalist Worker Party is that the U.S. should not have to take care of individuals coming from any other countries.

The Traditional Worker Party also believes that whites should be given their own nationalist homeland, and people should separate and have their own communities, Bowman said.

“It’s a proven fact that races can’t live together,” Bowman said.

A weekend gathering in Columbus was an organizational meeting for the Appalachian region, with the end goal of having a chapter of the group in every city in the country, he said.

‘So scary’

Debra Nyberg Haza of Columbus said she has been following Heimbach’s activities in the media, saying her blood boils and makes her ill hearing the hateful message being spread by the white supremacy groups who were unmasked in Charlottesville.

“Indiana does not deserve this kind of hatred,” Haza said. “Columbus does not deserve this kind of hatred.”

Haza said she suspects Heimbach’s group is planning another big rally similar to Charlottesville.

“It’s so scary what these people do when no one is looking at them. I wish I had been downtown Saturday night. I would have confronted them.”

Haza said she has asked leaders in groups such as the NAACP what to do when these groups show up in a community.

“You have to shame them,” she said of what she was advised to do by legal professionals and human rights activists.

“You have to make it known it’s not respectable in your town to participate in this type of group,” Haza said. “We need to call them out.”

About the Traditionalist Worker Party

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1971 to ensure that the promise of the civil rights movement became a reality for all, provides the following description of the Traditionalist Worker Party:

“The Traditionalist Worker Party is a white nationalist group that advocates for racially pure nations and communities and blames Jews for many of the world’s problems. Even as it claims to oppose racism, saying every race deserves its own lands and culture, the group is intimately allied with neo-Nazi and other hardline racist organizations that espouse unvarnished white supremacist views.”

For more on the center’s work and about hate groups in America, visit splcenter.org.

City statement on the march

This is the statement from Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop about a march by the Traditionalist Worker Party in downtown Columbus on Saturday night.

Over the weekend, the Traditionalist Worker Party held a meeting in Bartholomew County, Indiana. This is a small, political, white supremacist group founded outside the state. While it is no doubt upsetting to know this event took place, it is important to understand that this group has the right to peacefully assemble to exercise its right to free speech.

It is equally important to denounce this group: the City of Columbus does not support the racist ideology upon which this group was founded.

Our city welcomes everyone and is proud to be home to persons of all faiths, races, ancestry, and backgrounds, some from different nations, who bring with them a rich culture and diversity that benefits us all. These contributions have not only enriched our community, but have allowed our community to flourish economically, enabling us to continue to bring in a dynamic workforce to support local, regional, national, and international companies. Columbus celebrates this diversity, and this is what makes it the “Unexpected and Unforgettable” community we are proud to call home.

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.