Monday, December 12, 2005

Civil rights in Toledo

[Jeffrey Willis of the Toledo Journal being arrested. Photo by Isis.]

Dealing with neo-Nazis who hold a rally in your community, as I explained last time out, requires a combination of common sense -- keeping the Nazis confined to a single rally area that can be readily secured by police is fundamental -- and finely tuned sensitivities: as important as it may be to secure the free-speech rights of those neo-Nazis, it's equally important to let the larger community exercise its free-speech rights as well.

After bolloxing up the first step last time, Toledo officials appeared this last weekend to have that part figured out, finally: Toledo made it through the weekend without a repeat of the riots that struck the last time.
Surrounded by an undaunted show of police force, the National Socialist Movement's hour-long rally at Government Center began 43 minutes late and ended with 30 arrests, including three news media photographers.

About 170 observers and counterprotesters stood in front of the TARTA bus station on Jackson Street, separated by a row of riot-clad officers, a median with trees, and a line of barriers. They held signs against hate and chanted for the 63 neo-Nazis, some in uniform, to leave.

Authorities reported no injuries or damage after the rally. They and the neo-Nazis said the event was a success.

"Today, it was law enforcement that hit a home run," Toledo police Chief Mike Navarre said yesterday.

Bill White, a National Socialist spokesman from Roanoke, Va., said participants included members of the Ku Klux Klan, Retaliator Skinhead Nation, and the World Church of the Creator.

"I think it went very well, extremely well," he said, despite technical difficulties with a public address system partway through the rally that prompted the group to use a bullhorn.

Yes, it went very well for the neo-Nazis. They were able to put on their show at all kinds of taxpayer expense.

However, it didn't go so well for people who wanted to make known their opposition to the National Socialist Movement's message. It's clear that police ran roughshod over the free-speech rights of average Toledoans in the process:
Terry Lodge, a Toledo lawyer and longtime civil rights activist, said he was upset by what he perceived as police harassment. He noted how people constantly were brushed back by police horses. He also was disturbed by how some people seemed to have been arrested for being too vocal or animated.

"What you have in Toledo is martial law for a day," he said. "The whole business of shoving people back pre-emptively is wrong."

One outsider in the crowd agreed that security went too far.

"It's clearly police intimidation against the people of Toledo," said Shanta Driver of Detroit, who identified herself as a member of the National Women's Rights Organizing Committee.

J. Eaton, 26, of North Toledo said he saw police officers arrest a man after overhearing someone say that it appeared there was "something brewing" between him and others. "They're just abusing their power," Mr. Eaton said.

John Jackson, 21, of West Toledo said the neo-Nazis can spew all the rhetoric they want as long as they don't incite rioting in a black neighborhood again. "Just stay out of the 'hood," he said.

These were not just isolated reports. Throughout the city, activists were angered by police tactics, and with good cause:
"I thought they were heavy-handed, and we thought their use of horses was very intimidating," said Perrysburg resident Kathy Baldoni, who helped organize The Toledo-Area Peace Team.

"Police seemed to arrest people without reason. They were clearly not doing anything that would have provoked an arrest."

Sheriff's deputies from several different Ohio counties rode on horseback through the crowd and pulled out protesters. At one point, a peace-team member, who refused to give her name, laid down in the path of a horse but was not arrested.

Toledo police Chief Mike Navarre said all arrests were justified.

He also said that law-enforcement officials did not want the peace team to attend the event. "I didn't particularly want them to be here," Chief Navarre said. "Numbers create problems for law enforcement."

The Michigan Peace Team joined the Toledo-Area Peace Team at the rally. Members stood poised throughout the crowd, and often pleaded with police officers not to arrest protesters.

A Toledo police officer, who refused to give his name, threatened to arrest several peace team members if they interfered with an arrest.

As always, the indefatigable History Mike's Musings was on the scene in Toledo. He reported from the scene about the police's hair-trigger responses, including the arrests of news photographers like Jeffrey Willis:
Police arrested two photographers at the beginning of the NSM rally in Toledo today.

One was Jeff Willis, of the Toledo Journal. I have not found out what prompted the police to arrest second, unidentified photographer.

I saw Jeff get bumped and step beyond the orange-and-white barricade; perhaps that is why he was arrested. As far as I could see, he was just doing his job.

Mike also has described the absurd costs the Nazis are inflicting on the city of Toledo -- costs that will no doubt escalate with the legal litigation bound to result from the trampling of citizens' free-speech rights.

Mike, in fact, makes a really important point regarding those rights:
I witnessed people being arrested who did not appear to have committed a crime, and received reports of people arrested for sitting in cars trying to warm up outside of the protest zone.

The costs of the freedoms of Toledoans (and those coming from other areas to protest the Nazis) were startling. As repugnant as it may seem to protect the rights of the Nazis to free speech, what about everyone else?

A protester that I interviewed on Saturday at the rally put it bluntly.

"They [the NSM] walked right out the front door of our city hall to shout their hate messages," said Danita Watkins of Toledo. "It's just like the city rolled out the red carpet for them. They are up there acting like they own the city now."

Should a group of people, under the banner of free speech, be allowed to hold an entire city hostage? Should average citizens be denied their right to free speech just because the city believes there might be unrest?

And what if this event had occurred in warm weather, instead of in single-digit wind chills? I would be willing to bet that there would have been four times as many protesters, both inside and outside the "official" protest zone. How many detainees would it take before people would begin to think that the costs in terms of civil liberties to the general public outweigh those of the neo-Nazis?

I don't think the city of Toledo intended to send the message about whose rights are more important that they just sent.

Because it's not a message any responsible civic entity should want to send.

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