Four years ago, the tiny town of Leith, which had a population of 16 only two years before, found itself deeply embroiled in national controversy when Neo-Nazi Craig Cobb purchased twelve plots of land.
My great grandparents, escaping Russia, were lured to North Dakota in the late nineteenth century by free farmland and a climate similar to their homeland. Both sets of great-grandparents farmed the land in North Dakota, growing wheat, chokecherries, vegetables, and raising cattle. The unincorporated town of St. Anthony, where my grandfather grew up, and married my grandmother in the VFW Hall, has a population of approximately 130 people. There is no post office, but the Hall still stands, and there is new bar and grill across the street. My grandfather’s childhood farm is still off a dirt road.
The controversy Cobb caused sickened him. He told my mother that it “made North Dakota look stupid.” The Welcome to Leith audience won’t conclude that North Dakotans are stupid, because the residents of Leith were victims and survivors. The downfall of Cobb and his acolytes is immensely satisfying.
Land was extraordinarily cheap in Leith in 2012. Cobb told The New York Times that he paid $8,600 for the land. For the residents of Leith, the vast majority of which were native to the Sioux State, the arrival of a Neo-Nazi was unwelcome. (For the town’s Black resident, and likely only non-native, Cobb was especially unwelcome.) Cobb was later joined by a supporter and his family, and after heartbreaking strife and harassment, Leith’s bad neighbors left town. Cobb was arrested, eventually deeded most of his property back to the town, and continues to live elsewhere in North Dakota, near the Canadian border.
Leith is a study not just in opportunity, but in how quickly a nightmare can unfold. It takes significantly more than $700 to buy a plot on my Brooklyn block, but it would still take no time to take over if one had enough determination. (In fact, my block was briefly overrun last year when an illegal “youth hostel” opened, and was its own genre of misery while we were overrun with unsupervised youths.) It takes only one bully to make everyone miserable—a threshold that begins without dragging someone’s traumas into the light, which Cobb was too happy to do to his neighbors.
Cobb left Leith, but three of his properties are still owned (but not inhabited) by his followers. Last year Cobb tried to buy a whole town for $10,000 and name it Creativity Trump; Creativity is Cobb’s white supremacist religion, while Trump would honor the presumptive Republican nominee Donal Trump, who, naturally, Cobb deeply admires. Now that Welcome to Leith is streaming on Netflix, it’s a reminder that our national nightmare is not as remote as the small town of Leith may seem.
Welcome to Leith is streaming on Netflix.