The protest against the Nazis in Toledo on October 15, 2005 was an appropriate response to the violent racism that the Nazi party represents. Wherever racist groups like the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan go, they need to be exposed for what they are, not ignored. Sure, they may be (willing) pawns in a bigger game and their numbers are small, and the likelihood of a group calling itself the American Nazi party gaining any political power is minimal, but their presence should be contested. It is extremist groups like the Nazis that make racism, antisemitism, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hatred acceptable when it is vocalized by politicians and commentators closer to the mainstream. The growing acceptance of the anti-immigrant group the Minutemen (who are now attempting to establish themselves on the border between Canada and the United States and were met with protests in Vermont on Friday, October 14) is but one example of what I mean.
Another recent example was William Bennett’s so-called hypothesis: “if you wanted to reduce crime, you could — if that were your sole purpose — you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” Is it mere coincidence that less than two weeks later the American Nazi Party marched through the streets of a primarily African-American district of Toledo protesting crime?
When I first moved to Oakland, California in 1978, one of the demonstrations my friend and I went to that May was opposing the presence of the Nazis on the other side of the Berkeley Hills in a town called Walnut Creek. Now, this part of the Bay Area is very different from San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland. It’s a land covered with postwar subdivisions, and a predominantly right-wing political climate, much like those California counties south of Los Angeles. It was a perfect spot for a demonstration by the American Nazi party. The whole affair was to take place on a baseball field located in a city park. As we approached the site on foot (after taking the subway to the area), we were stopped by several fully armed police who were herding all of the anti-Nazi demonstrators through a metal detector and choosing certain of us for a more thorough pat-down search. Most of the anti-fascists were either Jewish, black, Latino, pacifist, communist, or some combination thereof. They included members of the Weather Underground successor group, the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, and the head rabbis of a few local synagogues. Men and women from Oakland churches were present along with Democratic Party members and gay and lesbian groups. Student groups from area colleges were represented and so was the YWCA. Any signs we carried were taken from us, as were pocketknives. Once released from the police, we headed down the path which, with police lining both sides, took on the appearance of a gauntlet. Two more metal detectors later, we made it to the baseball field. The field itself was surrounded by a fifteen-foot-high temporary chain-link fence. As the field filled up with demonstrators, we spent the time chanting and talking among ourselves.
The Nazis were scheduled to appear around 1:15 PM. At approximately 1:00 PM, the police sealed off the entrance to our so-called rally site, which by now was eerily reminiscent of pens used to hold anti-government types in Chile after the coup by Pinochet and the CIA. Once we were sealed in, several dozen more fully armed police marched down the road in formation and proceeded to completely surround the fenced-in baseball field. Some of the anti-fascists continued to shout slogans and throw dirt at the police while others of us talked with the officers in an attempt to convince them that protecting Nazis was not in their best interest — especially if they were black or Jewish. Of course, the police officers did not speak.
Finally, around 1:30 PM, seven squad cars drove up to the site, their sirens wailing. The police, who were in the front seats of the cars, got out, opened the rear doors, and escorted ten men dressed in brown Nazi uniforms to the bleachers behind the backstop. As their leader harangued us, the rest stood at attention while 500 police protected them from our pent-up wrath. Once the speech was over, the Nazis were hustled back into the police cars and driven away. The rest of us were left to make our way back to more tolerant places via the BART train or the highway.
Until October 15th, it had been a while since the Nazis marched openly in a North American city. Since that day, they have marched in Austin, Texas, as well. They were met with large crowds opposed to their message there, too. If we want to keep our streets safe from them, it is important that they (and other racist groups) be met with opposition every time they do try to march. This was a common practice during the 1970s and 1980s, when racist organizations took to the streets around the nation, only to be met by protests wherever they showed their faces. It’s not that they don’t have the right to publicly express their poison — it’s that the rest of us also have the right to express our opposition to their presence in our cities and towns. The police will always protect them, so it is up to those who oppose them to protest them. When a protest does occur, it exposes these folks for what they really are by opening up the discussion.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.