Friday, October 21, 2005

Toledo: The other side

[All photos by Isis]

More than half a continent away, I was, like much of the rest of the nation, appalled and disturbed by the images coming from Toledo, Ohio, last weekend, after riots broke out in a mixed-race neighborhood where a group of neo-Nazis had come to hold a rally.

Not having been there, I found it difficult to offer any kind of insight into what was occurring there -- though the obvious thought did occur to me: Neo-Nazis bring out the worst in everyone, don't they?

Moreover, I've come to distrust the kind of reportage on racial issues that we've come to expect from the mainstream broadcast media, especially the likes of Fox News. If you click on the video links on that page and watch their reportage, you'll see what I mean: Lots of images of black people destroying property and even some looting, but not a lot of context in terms of how this came to happen. Sound familiar?

However, there were some images in these reports that helped, perhaps, to explain some of what happened. Images like these:

Now, this I know something about. I've been dealing, in one fashion or another, with the presence of neo-Nazi activists in my neighborhood, so to speak, for the past 30 years or so.

In fact, the city of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, has had the unfortunate experience of hosting an Aryan Nations parade and rally on its streets nearly every summer for the past 20 or more years.

But there's a big difference: Coeur d'Alene is more than 90 percent white, and has no African-American or even mixed-race neighborhoods to speak of. The city isn't a target of the neo-Nazis, as Toledo was; it's considered friendly territory.

Even then, the Aryan Nations folks are not permitted to rally and parade just anywhere. The city carefully administers the parade route and rally locations. That's true of nearly every neo-Nazi rally I've covered, including those that were targeting communities: city officials made sure that their protests were confined to areas typically in the vicinity of the local courthouse, which enabled police to effectively cordon them off and separate them from protesters, so as to minimize the likelihood of violence.

And that, really, is the most important difference in Toledo. Because there, city officials inexplicably allowed the neo-Nazis to invade the mixed-race neighborhood that was the object of their protest -- a neighborhood where racial tensions already were rising, in part due to the behavior of a family of whites who essentially called the neo-Nazis in.

Shortly after the violence settled down, I was contacted by a freelance photographer who goes by the pseudonym Isis. She had traveled to Toledo to photograph the rally and wound up being in the middle of the ensuing riot. She sent me all the images you see on this post.

Isis was working with a Toledo freelance journalist named Michael Brooks, who has complete and riveting accounts of what happened in Toledo on his Web site. Brooks was writing about the incident before it happened, and his accounts are fair and credible.

What's clear is that the onus for the riots lies directly at the feet of the neo-Nazis -- led by Bill White, a former "libertarian" who now leads the Washington, D.C.-based National Socialist Movement. Here's a shot of White at the rally:

The incident's origins begin with a family of whites by the name of Szych living in the mixed-race North Toledo neighborhood in question. Attracted by news accounts of Thomas Szych's ongoing disputes with his black neighbors -- which began over a fence, but grew to include some confrontations with gangs -- the NSM decided to hold a white-power rally in Szych's neighborhood. NSM leaders contacted the Szyches. Initially, Szych wanted nothing to do with the neo-Nazis, but the relationship became more hazy as time went on.

News of the rally drew plans for a peaceful counter-rally. And city officials at first tried to limit the permit issued to the NSM.

However, things broke down as the rally approached. Rather than submit to any city permits, the NSM announced it would decide the route of the march. The morning of the rally itself, when the NSM arrived, its members chose to simply arrive by car at the high school where it planned to hold its rally, in the heart of the mixed-race neighborhood in which the dispute was occurring.

The police created a barrier around the Nazis, while local protesters marched nearby:

What happened next is best described in this first-person account by Brooks in the Toledo Free Press:
The organized protesters were almost immediately joined by residents from the neighborhood, some of whom were dressed in gang colors. By 10:30 a.m., the combined protesters numbered about 100 people.

From the large number of people chatting on cell phones in the crowd, it appeared that the growth of the crowd could be attributed, in part, to people being attracted by text messages and video images.

The attention of the crowd began to focus on the unexpected presence of a half-dozen neo-Nazis near Stickney and Woodward Avenue. This did not seem to fit the original plan, in which the Nazis were to stage a short rally within Wilson Park before beginning their march on East Streicher Street.

The first wave of eight NSM members merely stood at attention approximately 50 yards from the crowd. NSM leader Bill White was dressed in civilian clothes at this time, chatting into a cell phone.

Soon, three carloads of Nazis pulled into Wilson Park in full uniform. The crowd, which by now had grown to an estimated 250, became more vocal in its opposition to the group.

White reappeared in full Nazi regalia, joined by Ohio NSM operative Mark Martin. Both began to address the crowd, taunting them with racial epithets.

"Hey! The Toledo Zoo called, and they want their monkeys back," shouted Martin, as the NSM members began making chimpanzee sounds. "Why don't you go cry to your daddy? Oh wait, you're a n*****; you don't know who your daddy is!"

White suggested the protesters "ought to go back to cooking French fries at McDonalds, since that's all you can do," and led the Nazis in a series of chants.

By 11:20 a.m., the situation on Mulberry began to deteriorate, as bottles and rocks were launched from the back of the crowd. Mounted police and police in riot gear made a few arrests, and many in the crowd interpreted these arrests as evidence the police were more interested in protecting the Nazis.

"Why did you take that young man?" demanded an older protester. "He didn't do anything!"

Bill White and his supporters moved back about 20 yards and attempted to continue their taunting.

"Hey Shaniqua, how many ‘baby's daddies' you got?" shouted Martin, creating an African-sounding name for effect. "How many welfare checks do you get every month?"

At 11:40 a.m., the police began to move the Nazis to a planned press conference in a secure area in Woodrow Wilson Park. The crowd, which was prevented from entering the park, ran down Central Avenue, where they hoped to confront the Nazis on their planned march through North Toledo. I was listening to Bill White's opening remarks when police radios nearby began to crackle. Overwhelmed police units on Mulberry were calling for backup. I and a visiting photographer from Washington, D.C., ran with the police to Mulberry and Central, where things were starting to get ugly.

According to Isis, most of the residents of the neighborhood were simply stunned that anything this ugly could be happening in their homes -- even as police moved in and started making arrests.

But the sudden shift of the action to Mulberry and Central did indeed turn ugly. The crowd not only was infuriated by the provocations of the Nazis, it was further incensed that the police were arresting black people but not any Nazis, who easily could have been charged with inciting a riot, based on the incendiary remarks made at their brief appearance at the high school, and whose members, after all, were planning to march through their streets without virtue of a city permit.

In short order, the target of the crowd's ire shifted from anti-Nazi to anti-police -- especially since this was a crowd whose ranks had been filled by gang members from other neighborhoods. The resulting ugliness was simply a breakdown in the ability of the police to keep a lid on the criminal element in this kind of situation.

It's important to keep in mind that none of this would have happened if Bill White had stayed home in Virginia -- or, perhaps next best, had been told to rally at the courthouse only and to stay out of the neighborhoods.

Because White's free-speech rights do not extend to harassment and inciting riots. Holding a rally in the midst of a mixed-race neighborhood is not just an open provocation, it is a form of harassment; and lobbing incendiary racial insults at the people in that neighborhood is simple incitement. The police had every reason to arrest White and his followers -- for marching without a permit, and for incitement.

Perhaps more to the point, city officials had every right to keep a real lid on this march -- cities' powers to regulate such demonstrations is well established. But the city of Toledo took an abnormally relaxed approach that would have folks in Coeur d'Alene shaking their heads in wonder.

This point was made adeptly, I thought, in a Toledo Blade editorial:
As that process of introspection continues, the City should consider what we regard as one basic and serious mistake: allowing the members of the National Socialist Movement to congregate in the same north Toledo neighborhoods already on edge over a long-simmering feud between neighbors, one white and one black, and intensified by gang anger.

Despite pleas from city leaders -- plus an editorial and column on these pages urging citizens to simply ignore the neo-Nazis -- it became clear on Saturday that such a provocation was not going to go unanswered. Even though the growing tension prompted police to call off the group's planned march, the confrontation had already occurred, and the violence escalated.

The City really had no choice but to let the NSM group come to town and march, because as repugnant as their message of hate is, they have the right in a free country to express it.

But couldn't the group have been told "you march downtown or you don't march at all"? It's certainly possible, and perhaps likely, that the event would still have turned violent, but at least residential neighborhoods would have been spared the terrifying events of Saturday afternoon.

... Instead, the National Socialist Movement got everything it wanted Saturday -- especially the opportunity to provoke and antagonize Toledoans where they live.

That's what neo-Nazis specialize in: invading communities and wreaking havoc. That is, after all, their entire agenda.

Because, while everyone has focused on the terrible damage wrought by the rampaging crowd -- and there is no point in minimizing that horror -- it has to be understood what inspired it.

Neo-Nazis are not just radical racists. The very heart of their agenda is the eradication and subjugation of other races, including African Americans, though most particularly Jews; as well as the elimination of white "race traitors".

They intend to achieve that goal by creating as much havoc as they possibly can -- not by inspiring whites, but by provoking minorities into violence. They believe that other whites will join up with them soon enough.

And eventually, they believe they will grow powerful enough to enjoy free rein in establishing white man's rule in America. Free rein to murder other races at will.

This agenda was symbolized, I thought, by a sign that the one of the NSM followers carried:

These are the infamous "14 Words" adopted as the credo of neo-Nazis everywhere since 1985, when they first appeared. They were written by a fellow named David Lane, who continues to spend the rest of his life in federal prison as a result of his activities with a group called The Order.

I had some brushes with The Order while I lived in Sandpoint in the late 1970s, mostly in the form of letters to the editor from Robert Matthews. He later went on to quite a career as a racist terrorist:
The Order was founded by Bob Matthews, a former member of the John Birch Society and a leading member of National Alliance, a white supremacist group founded by William Pierce. Pierce, a physics professor and former publicist for the American Nazi Party, is best known as the author of The Turner Diaries. The Turner Diaries is a fantasy about right-wing white supremacist revolution spearheaded by a group called "The Order." The book is extremely popular among the extremist right: Timothy McVeigh had a copy with him when he was arrested. Bob Matthews found The Turner Diaries inspiring. In 1982 Matthews suggested to his friend Bruce Pierce, whom he met through the Christian Identity group Aryan Nations, that they form a group modeled on "The Order." Bruce Pierce later testified that Matthews "hoped for a natural disaster, economic failure of the U.S. government, a major race war, or anything that would disrupt society in America so that he would be able to gather up his army of men and strike against the system, that being the U.S. government. Bob Matthews's intent was to destroy those instruments standing in the way of Aryans having a homeland for the white race." (Ridgeway 109-111)

The Order tried at first to fund the revolution legally. The group bid on and won a trail-clearing contract, but found the work frustrating and difficult, and soon turned to robbery. Their first crime was the April 1983 robbery of a Spokane porn shop, from which they netted $369. The Order began to print counterfeit money at the Aryan Nations compound, but Pierce was arrested when he tried to use the bills. Their counterfeiting operation soon, however, grew more sophisticated and profitable, as did their robberies. In December of 1983 Matthews robbed a Seattle Citibank with a note, and walked out with $29,500. The group began attacking armored cars in March of 1984. Their most successful operation was the robbery of a Brinks armored car carrying $3.6 million. A Brinks employee sympathetic to The Order gave the group information about the car's route, and twelve Order members ambushed the car in a California redwood forest on July 19, 1984. The group spent some of the money (on weapons, military training, and a ski condo, among other things) and distributed the rest of it to other militant white groups.

The Order's crimes were not limited to larceny. Bruce Pierce bombed a Boise synagogue, although he did little damage. Order member Walter West was murdered when Bob Matthews began to suspect him of talking about the group to outsiders. In June of 1984, David Lane and Bruce Pierce gunned down Jewish radio host Alan Berg outside his home in Denver. Berg had argued with Order members who phoned in to his talk show, and by all accounts (including, apparently, the vengeful Order members themselves) had gotten the better of them.

People like Bill White deliberately marched into the heart of a mixed-race neighborhood and incited a riot, which to no one's great surprise got out of control (I think Michael Brooks' predictions were uncannily accurate.)

Their entire purpose was to spark a race war -- and unfortunately, Toledo officials gave them the opportunity to do just that.

But is there any discussion of that? Uh, no. What we mostly seem to hear are lectures about the innate violence of black people.

As if a long fuse won't get lit when someone holds a blowtorch to it.

UPDATE: In the original version of this post, I referred to the Szyches as racists; this is not the case, as the subsequent text suggests. (That graf was redrafted heavily and I somehow failed to edit that word out.) I owe a sincere apology to the Szyches.

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