So I Just Saw Welcome to Leith

There’s a documentary, Welcome to Leith, currently on Netflix that’s about this little town out in rural North Dakota called Leith.  It’s a tiny locale with less than thirty permanent residents and a footprint of only about three square miles.

It’s also where a prominent white supremacist tried to establish an intentional community of white supremacists back in 2012.

The documentary tells the story of how the town’s residents fought with the white supremacist, Craig Cobb, to try to keep him from legally taking control of Leith.  It’s a fascinating story, mostly because of how it demonstrates this immense tension between two groups that are trying to act within the law.  Cobb comes across as a man who is very keenly aware of where the boundaries of the law are, and he’s seen operating just within them for the majority of the documentary.  It’s a frustrating situation for the residents who strongly dislike Cobb’s open hate speech, but who have no legal recourse because he’s not breaking any laws.  Even more terrifying for the residents is the fact that Cobb quietly bought up multiple tracts of land within the city and deeded them to other prominent members of the white supremacist community.  The fear that hangs over the whole saga is that Cobb’s efforts might serve to legally establish a haven for white supremacists against the wishes of the residents who were already living in Leith.

Welcome to Leith Poster

It’s a documentary, but it feels like a horror movie in a lot of ways. (Image credit: IMDb)

We’ll skip the suspense here, since these are events that have already happened: Cobb was eventually arrested for terrorizing multiple members of the community after he and a supporter walked around Leith with loaded weapons, making aggressive comments towards people who confronted them about their actions (extensive footage of the incident is included in the documentary).  Cobb spent several months in jail before striking a plea deal which saw him released and placed on probation with the conditions that he was banned from owning any firearms for the rest of his life and that he was to have no contact with the victims, effectively barring him from returning to Leith.  Wikipedia notes that at present, Cobb has given up ownership of all the plots he had previously purchased, though several of them are still in the possession of other white supremacists.

Now, this is definitely a chilling story.  The idea that a small community like this might be vulnerable to legal takeover by extremists is a scary one, and I’m relieved that Cobb was never able to carry through on the threat he made by buying up so much land in Leith.  What strikes me as most remarkable about this story though is the sharp divide between the locals and the white supremacists.  It’s made clear from the beginning that no one in the community or the surrounding area trucks with explicit racism.  The nearly all white members of the town (only one resident of Leith seen in the documentary is Black) speak against Cobb and his associates in no uncertain terms; this is highly commendable.  What’s interesting though is that this is a highly rural, largely insulated community.  If we look at the likely political ideology of residents of Leith, they’re probably all very conservative (if you look at polls for this year’s presidential election, Donald Trump has an average margin of support over Hillary Clinton in excess of twenty percent in North Dakota).  Given the political discourse of this year’s presidential election, it’s probable that many of these same residents who are so adamantly opposed to the flagrant white supremacy on display with Cobb and his ilk also find Trump’s racially divisive rhetoric appealing.  It’s no secret that Trump actively courts the alt-right (which is where white supremacists and neo-Nazis reside on America’s political spectrum), or that his voter base is made up of white people with no college education living in more rural communities.

Given all those factors, I’d be curious to see the political climate in Leith this year and whether the people who tried so hard to push white supremacists out of their town four years ago are now backing a presidential candidate who cribs heavily from the same.  I want to believe a close brush with explicit racism might inoculate people from doing such a thing, but I don’t know.  At least one of the people involved in the Leith story readily used the standard “I’m not a racist” line about not caring whether a person is white, black, green, red, etc. without irony in one of the interviews from the documentary (this kind of platitude is fine as far as it goes, but it points towards colorblind ideology, which simply doesn’t take into account the biases that people bring with them into interactions with others who look different).

All these are mostly idle thoughts though.  If you’d like to check out the documentary, it’s available on Netflix.

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