LEITH, N.D. — In a tree-fringed grassy lot with a lone picnic bench in the tiny North Dakota farming town of Leith, Craig Cobb sees the perfect venue for a white power music festival.
Across a gravel intersection between two abandoned buildings, he envisions a park — perhaps with a swimming pool — dedicated to a neo-Nazi and white supremacist activist. He pictures the town decorated with fluttering flags and banners bearing the swastika — the symbol of Nazism.
“They would have to be approved by the town council, of course,” Cobb said, gazing out over Leith’s sparse downtown from his overgrown, weed-infested front yard.
Cobb, 61, a self-described white supremacist, has purchased about a dozen lots in the community about 60 miles southwest of Bismarck. Over the past year he’s invited fellow white supremacists to move there and help him to transform the town of 16 people into a white enclave. No one has come.
Still, the community is mobilizing to fight out of fear that Cobb could succeed, and the mayor has vowed to do whatever it takes to ensure Cobb’s dream remains just that.
Last week, while news of Cobb’s plan was being splashed across the front pages of The Bismarck Tribune and The Forum, about two dozen people — mostly residents of Leith and concerned friends from neighboring towns — showed up for an impromptu meeting in nearby Carson.
“We all share kind of the same concerns that people living in the community of Leith have — just the unknown,” said Kathy Hoff, who lives just south of the town and attended the meeting.
Cobb spends his days in his ramshackle two-story home with no running water, posting online comments advocating for white supremacists to join his settlement.
“I only need 17 people,” he said with a chuckle. “You have to have a majority to win an election. If we get 22 we’ve got a landslide.”
Cobb’s neighbors across a back alley are Sherrill Harper, who is white, and her husband Bobby, who is black. Bobby Harper, a 52-year-old welder, said he has spoken to Cobb only once, and that Cobb’s plans don’t bother him much.
“The most extreme thing you can do is hate another man because of the color of his skin, (but) I don’t think we should get too excited,” he said. “I believe right will prevail.”
Officials are considering enforcing health codes and ordinances relating to the upkeep of Cobb’s run-down property. A proposal to disband Leith’s government and turn over control to the county is even on the table.
“He would still own his property,” said Mayor Ryan Schock, a 38-year-old farmer and lifelong Leith resident. “But … he can’t control the city if there’s no city government.”
No decisions have been made, but the six-member town council that usually convenes once a month might call a special meeting to discuss the matter soon, Schock said.
Ryan Lenz, a writer with the Alabama-based civil rights nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, said his organization has long tracked Cobb, who is wanted in Canada for willfully promoting hatred in Vancouver in 2010 via a blog.
“It’s a pipe dream for white nationalists to have an entire area in which their neighbors are Aryan,” Lenz said.
That’s hard to achieve, Lenz said, but Cobb has made strides because he has gobbled up land — even transferring some to Tom Metzger, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and founder of the White Aryan Resistance.
That doesn’t mean he’s any closer to enacting his plan. Metzger said he likes Cobb but that declared plans for white enclaves never work and that he will not be joining Cobb in Leith.
“I think it’s better just to have people move in quietly, have a job, operate a regular daily life and get along with their neighbors,” he said. “I wouldn’t go into a town pushing my weight around.”
Cobb, a native of Missouri, fled prosecution in Canada and chased the promise of high-paying jobs in the booming western North Dakota oil fields. He said he was fired from a job because of a dispute with a co-worker and that he lost a job with a Fargo-based paving company after media coverage of his settlement plans.
Canadian authorities have not approached the U.S. to extradite Cobb. Cpl. Normandie Levas of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the white supremacist can’t be extradited because the charge against him in Canada doesn’t exist under U.S. law.
Deputy North Dakota Attorney General Tom Trenbeath said authorities are aware of Cobb, and the Grant County Sheriff’s Office has increased patrols in the area. But Cobb hasn’t broken any laws there, and Schock acknowledges that he has a right to live in Leith, no matter his views.
Cobb’s comments and writings indicate he believes in a superior white race, distrusts both Jews and Christians, and questions the intelligence of women. He declines to talk about his upbringing and gives no indication as to why he adopted his supremacist platform.
In an interview outside his house, he was calm, cheerful and even jovial, making comments that raised questions about whether he believes his plan could succeed — or if he’s just seeking publicity.
“If I’m the only one in Leith forever, white consciousness has already been raised,” he said.