WASHINGTON — It was Saturday night, and the Corner Pub in Brentwood, Tennessee, was bustling. Sports fans and families dug into a menu of chili cheese fries and hot chicken chunks. Servers offered Guinness and Caramel Apple bushwackers. Some people were wearing Halloween costumes. Then, sometime before 7:45 p.m., several dozen men and women dressed in black filed into the restaurant and took over a long table.
In an adjoining room of the restaurant, Annelise Werme, a business owner from Murfreesboro, 30 miles away, noticed the group’s attire. The hair on her neck stood up. “Our mayor and police chief advised we needed to prepare as if for a hurricane, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” she told HuffPost in a Facebook message. “All of us who own businesses in our historic downtown closed, boarded up.”
Near the large group, a 30-year-old white woman and a 37-year-old black man were sitting at a table. Several men from the large group started talking to them, another restaurant patron told HuffPost in a phone interview. (He declined to be named, citing safety and privacy concerns.) “They were talking about what was good on the menu,” the patron recalled, noting that a guy in the group “wanted anything that was fried.” Then, his wife added, “some words were exchanged. I don’t know what was said, but the black man ... he was visibly upset.”
One member of the black-clad group asked the 30-year-old woman to “guess,” the woman said later, possibly about who they were. “White lives matter,” she responded. “That’s right,” another member said, then he allegedly urged her to join their table and leave her male friend.
“They immediately started taunting her for being with a black man,” Werme said. “Understandably, she was extremely upset.”
The argument escalated even after the woman went outside. The big group got up to leave. “They didn’t place an order or anything, they were looking for a place to cause some trouble,” the first patron said, noting that one person with the group quickly took out a professional camera complete with a shotgun mic.
“We thought it was all over at that point,” his wife said. But about a minute later, they noticed a fight starting outside.
Jerry Grim, manager of the Corner Pub, told HuffPost that his business called the police right away. “I didn’t know who they were. They were just a group of men in black puffy jackets. They had no tags, no markers, nothing on them. It could have been anybody.”
In fact, white supremacists, including neo-Nazis and Klan members, had rallied earlier Saturday in Shelbyville, about an hour away. But they skipped a planned rally in Murfreesboro after being delayed by security in Shelbyville and hearing that nearly 1,000 counter-protesters awaited them. They tried to gather in a nearby park — managing to form a human swastika — but ran when they heard that antifascists might show up, and they had to bail on a planned tiki-torch march. Now a contingent of the white supremacist group had made its way to the restaurant.
“One of our guys was getting his jacket, and words were exchanged,” Matthew Heimbach, a prominent neo-Nazi, told Mic reporter Jack Smith IV. He blamed “the black gentleman” for starting the confrontation. But video from the incident shows a large group of white men brawling and a woman, with blood dripping down her face, pushed against the window of the sports bar.
Inside, some people started to record the fight on their phones, and the environment grew tense as bystanders argued about whether to intervene. “Do you want me to go out there and get beat up? Would that be better?” A man asked.
“Oh, my God ... she’s bleeding,” a man said.
“We were afraid someone was going to be thrown through the window,” the unnamed patron’s wife told HuffPost. “It was terrifying.... We didn’t know if anyone had weapons [or] how far this was going to escalate.”
“Do you speak up? Do you step in and get involved?” her husband said. “It was kind of difficult to judge what was best to do, because it was a quickly escalating situation. My thought was not to go and make it worse.”
By the time police arrived, everyone had dispersed. The 30-year-old woman later came back to make a report. Authorities are looking for the man accused of punching her, described as a white man in his 30s wearing a black jacket and black jeans, according to an Oct. 29 statement from the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department that includes the woman’s account of the incident. (The names of the victims have not been publicly released.)
Heimbach said, “The confrontation wasn’t any of us.”
The woman who made the report said she is still shaken. “We as Americans need to open our eyes and come together to stop this injustice and hate,” the victim told Fox 17 in a statement. “I was terrified, and still am.”
Luke O’Brien contributed reporting.