Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The backyard Nazis

[Photos by David Lynn at OlyBlog]

I'm not sure why this always happens on weekends when I'm out of town on business, but while I was away in L.A. the neo-Nazis came out to play just down the road in Olympia -- and were chased away by a crowd of opponents who outnumbered them by about a factor of 20:
Justin Boyer, Seattle unit leader of the Nazi group National Socialist Movement, said the rally was a prelude to a larger march on the Capitol planned in July. He said he was happy with the group's turnout after two weeks of organizing. The group had planned a march down State Avenue but at the last minute chose to gather at a parking lot across the street from The Olympian.

But if Boyer was happy, anti-neo-Nazi organizers were delighted with their turnout, which drew 150 to 200 protesters to the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Martin Way, where the rally was scheduled to start.

One man said he gave away 150 anti-neo-Nazi signs at Sylvester Park.

The march and counter-protest have sparked a lot of discussion over at OlyBlog, where some of the contributors and commenters have suggested that it might have been better to ignore them or, perhaps, to have held a counter-rally in a place other than the Nazis' venue. Meanwhile there are also posts with photos and an on-scene report.

The question they're struggling with is one that I've seen the town of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, struggle with for over 25 years, as organizers from the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations compound at nearby Hayden Lake would put together an annual July parade on their streets.

At first, counter-protesters organized as those in Olympia did, by confronting the paraders with large numbers of opponents. But after a few years of this, the tensions were growing and violence seemed likely to break out at any moment. So organizers put together a separate rally celebrating diversity elsewhere in town the same day, and drew significantly larger crowds in support. Still, there was always a small contingent of protesters who preferred to hurl insults, and they continued to show up and harass the Nazis over the years.

The counter-protest in Olympia featured some insult exchanges and some ugly but minor interactions with the members of the NSM who came out to rally. From all the accounts I could examine, however, it's clear that the vast majority of the protesters were peaceful and well behaved.

More to the point, their presence sent an unmistakable message: That this kind of hatemongering will go neither unheeded nor unconfronted. The NSM organizers were clearly unprepared for this kind of response and shut their rally down sooner than they had intended.

Sending this message is vital, because the quiet approach -- simply pretending they don't exist, and perhaps they'll go away -- doesn't work. People like those who join the neo-Nazi movement believe they're standing up for white society's unspoken wishes, and they see this kind of silence as tacit approval. It encourages them to ratchet things up, particularly recruitment and violence.

Now, if the NSM were to try to make this kind of rally an annual event a la Coeur d'Alene, it would make sense to simply organize a counter-event elsewhere. But when they first go poking their heads out of their holes, it's absolutely vital to let them know the community isn't going to just pretend they're not there.

The counter-protesters, I think, could have done a better job of reining in those inclined to verbal abuse. But they did the right thing, most of all, by showing up and letting the haters know the challenge they represent would not go unmet.

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