When Brooklyn-based filmmakers Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker first arrived in Leith, North Dakota to shoot their documentary “Leith, N.D.,” “No Trespassing” signs had just popped up all around town.
“There were these ‘No Trespassing’ signs everywhere,” Nichols told Business insider. “Chris and I were really nervous sometimes because we would be shooting B-roll, and we were worried we were inadvertently going to go on someone’s property and not realise it because property there was so vast. Everyone in the town just wanted to be left alone, and they didn’t want people snooping around or getting too close.”
Nichols and Walker flew to South Dakota after reading a New York Times article about the war brewing in Leith between the town residents and a man named Craig Cobb, who was inviting white supremacists from around the country to stay on his swastika flag-adorned properties.
“Cobb got to the town over a year before we arrived, and was undetected for about a year,” Nichols explained. “He seemed like just a sort of peaceful, quite, kind of weird guy.”
Most of the residents in the tiny town of 24 thought Cobb was strange. But since he kept to himself, so did they. The only waves Cobb made were whenever he went around town asking people if they had any land to sell — even properties without any working sewer.
Then in August 2013, town mayor Ryan Schock received a call from the Southern Poverty Law Center alerting him to who Cobb really was — a well-known white supremacist.
“Schock really had no idea what a white supremacist was, he was just kind of confused,” Nichols said. “But once he found out about Cobb on the internet, he started going around and telling people in the town. There is one black resident that lives [in Leith] and Schock wanted everyone to feel safe.”
A “Pioneer Little Europe”
Even after the town was aware of Cobb’s beliefs, a majority of the residents didn’t mind as long as he didn’t stir up trouble.
But stirring up trouble was exactly Cobb’s agenda — on his website, he had Google images of Leith charted off with descriptions of plans to create his personal Aryan settlement.
When the residents of Leith saw the website, they finally understood: Cobb was trying to take over and set up his own “Pioneer Little Europe,” as his supporters dubbed it.
Tensions came to a head on September 22nd, when Cobb held a rally in town with Jeff Schoep, the leader of the National Socialist Movement. “We have to start somewhere,” Schoep told Reuters at the time. “So if we start in small towns and spread out from there, it’s sort of a test ground in that sense, where if we’re able to get off the ground here, then we’re able to get off the ground in other places.” At the time of the protest, Cobb had already purchased 13 lots, some for as little as $US500.
Hundreds of demonstrators (many of them Native Americans from nearby reservations), along with activism group UnityND, descended upon Leith to protest the American Nazi group with signs that read, “No Hate In Our State” and “Don’t let the door KKKick you on the way OUT!”
There were also around a dozen armed state troopers dressed in SWAT team gear, as well as a dozen neo-Nazis on Cobb’s property with a banner that read, “Anti-racist is code for anti-white.”
The sleepy cattle-farming community was completely overrun. That’s when the “No Trespassing” signs starting appearing on every property. Leith residents wanted their town back.
Leith Fights Back
By the time Nichols and Walker arrived in Leith to shoot their documentary, the residents were taking a stand.
Meanwhile, Cobb had invited dozens of white supremacists to squat on his land, with the hope that with their votes he could take over the city council, thus taking over Leith.
Outsiders thought that the town only had two options: let Cobb take over, or dissolve so there would be no city council and the town could be absorbed into the larger Grant County.
But the 24 Leith residents were not going to let that happen. The majority of them had been there all their lives, and did not want to see their town dissolved.
Instead, they created a brilliant legal strategy that would force Cobb and his sympathizers to lose their foothold.
“They hired this legal team that came up with a strategy that would force Cobb or any other people who were likely sympathizers to Cobb to have potable water on each of their properties,” Nichols explained. “A lot of the white supremacists that were coming down were just sitting in Winnebagos on one of Cobb’s properties. The ordinance said that Cobb had 30 days to get everything up to code, knowing that that would be a fairly expensive process. Right after that is when everything sort of fell apart for Cobb.”
On November 16th 2013, Cobb was taken to jail in handcuffs after allegedly “patrolling” around the town with rifles and threatening citizens, according to The Bismarck Tribune.
Cobb pleaded not guilty to the seven counts of felony terrorizing and remains in jail, facing up to 35 years in prison if convicted. “I’ll be so glad to get out of the state. And I’ll never come back to North Dakota,” if prosecutors dropped the charges, Cobb told the Associated Press.
Mayor Ryan Schock told the AP that people in Leith want Cobb to pay for the ordeal he has put the town through. Cobb has been selling off his property in Leith, including his house, though he still owns three other properties.
Nichols and Walker are currently finishing their documentary. They hope to complete it early this spring, and focus on the travails of the town as well as the aftermath.
“[Residents are] just totally fatigued, and they’re upset that all of the press about their town is about neo-Nazis and white supremacy,” Nichols said. “These are people that really don’t want the attention, but they’re happy to get it if it means that people will have an idea of what they’re going through.”
For more information about donating to their “Leith, N.D.” documentary, you can contact the filmmakers at [email protected] with inquiries.
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