Monday, February 27, 2006

Neo-Nazis in the 'hood

[Photo by Julie Fletcher/Orlando Sentinel]

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the same neo-Nazi organization that has been raising its profile out here brought its roadshow to Orlando this last weekend, intending to promote the notion that "the crime problem is a race problem." But they wound up not getting the message out:
More than 500 counter-protesters held back by 300 police officers drowned out the message of a neo-Nazi group that marched through Orlando's historic black Parramore neighborhood Saturday.

Twenty-two members of the National Socialist Movement, some wearing khaki uniforms with swastika armbands, finished their march with a rally outside the federal courthouse that could not be heard over the jeering crowd.

The group shut down the rally 90 minutes early and left town.

Seventeen people were arrested, all of them from the crowd separated from the neo-Nazis by lines of police in riot gear.

Police and civic leaders expressed pride that the event ended without the violence some had feared.

"I've lived here since 1944, and I've never been more proud of Orlando, Orange County and Central Florida," said former legislator Alzo J. Reddick, one of the organizers of the Be Cool campaign that urged residents to ignore the march and the rally.

Though there were 17 arrests and some minor violence, it was all a distinct contrast to what happened earlier this year in Toledo when the same organization attempted the same tactics -- namely, marching into a mixed-race residential neighborhood and deliberately antagonizing the people who lived there. In that case, the police were poorly prepared to deal with the NSM's failure to follow the terms of its permit, which meant that they wound up holding an impromptu rally at the local high school rather than marching through the neighborhood, and as security fell apart, the anger of the residents at having their home streets invaded boiled over into rioting and random violence.

That is, of course, exactly why the NSM holds its rallies the way it does: to maximize the insult and to inspire violence. Their entire purpose is to instigate it by taking their abusive and hateful rhetoric right into people's neighborhoods.

It's important to note that there was a substantial presence of an anti-Nazi crowd in Orlando -- and it was by and large very well behaved. Moreover, their presence forced the Nazis to shut down early and skedaddle; they got the message -- that their presence was unwelcome -- loud and clear.

This puts the lie to the hope of some civic leaders, including the Orlando Sentinel's editors, that perhaps just ignoring the Nazis would be more effective. Yet the same state senator that the paper chastised in fact, as their own story reported, led a powerful contingent of silent opposition to the rally whose presence made a real difference. The Sentinel's plan for everyone to "stay away" might have worked, but the actual outcome was far more powerful and effective a response.

No doubt, some of the pre-rally organization also made a difference:
Under a response dubbed "Operation Be Cool," community leaders and the Police Department hope to avoid a repeat of Toledo, where angry counter-demonstrators clashed with police in anticipation of a march by a few members of the National Socialist Movement. The riot in October resulted in 114 arrests and 12 injured officers.

The Orlando police, NAACP, black ministers and other leaders are urging people to avoid the area during the march. Posters on storefronts along West Church Street urge residents to "Dis & Dismiss Ignorant Racists . . . They expect you to come downtown to confront them. Be Cool! Don't be drawn into violence."

"Stay home. Stay away. There won't be a problem. Everybody will be safe, and it will be over," police Chief Michael McCoy said.

Earl Dunn, who runs Paradise Island Cafe on West Church Street, said he plans to close his business Saturday.

"Customers will be afraid of what these guys can do," he said. "It's best for us to close that day."

But down the street, Andria Brown said she intends to keep her store open in defiance of the white supremacists.

"Let them have their silly thing. I'm going to be right here," said the owner of Zion's Daughter Alterations.

Several Parramore residents questioned why the city would allow white supremacists to parade their hate through a black neighborhood. The city said it had no choice.

"We live in a country where there is freedom of speech," said Reggie McGill of the Orlando mayor's office.

Orlando was stuck in a dilemma that faces many cities confronted with events like neo-Nazi rallies for the first time.

All cities have ordinances in place that carefully limit the circumstances of marches, parades, rallies, and the like, and regulate them under a permit system. But the Supreme Court rulings on these issues have been fairly consistent in knocking down restrictions limiting where these rallies can occur, including residential neighborhoods:
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia stated in Christian Knights of KKK v. District of Columbia that when using a public forum, "...speakers do not have a constitutional right to convey their message whenever, wherever and however they please."

Accordingly, the government may regulate a marcher's use of the streets based on legitimate interests, such as: 1) Accommodating conflicting demands by potential users for the same place; 2) protecting those who are not interested onlookers, like a "captive audience" in a residential neighborhood, from the adverse collateral effects of the speech; and 3) protecting public order.

The court emphasized that a permit process cannot be used to "...impose even a place restriction on a speaker's use of a public forum on the basis of what the speaker will say, unless there is a compelling interest for doing so, and the restriction is necessary to serve the asserted compelling interest."

The court ruled the city's denial of a permit request from the Ku Klux Klan to march 11 blocks and the resulting decision to limit the march to only 4 blocks was unconstitutionally based on anticipated listener reaction, which turns on the group marching, the message of the group, and the extent of antagonism, discord, and strife the march would generate.

However, the court also held that a restriction based on the threat of violence could be constitutionally justified if that threat of violence is beyond reasonable control of the police.

... Nonetheless, because of conflicting police testimony and evidence, the court concluded the threat of violence posed by the proposed Klan march was not beyond reasonable police control and that the restriction therefore violated the first amendment.

It's clear that Orlando officials concluded that they could provide reasonable police control, and so had no grounds for limiting the planned march route.

However, it's worth noting that the NSM is taking to planning its rallies in residential neighborhoods, which is one of the reasons for the new volatility of their appearances. As I noted before, this amounts to real harassment, particularly when the racial insults and chants start. In the Orlando case, the entire rally was predicated on the notion that the neighborhood where the rally was to occur was a major source of criminality.

I think the fact that these are being planned primarily for residential neighborhoods also gives cities some real leeway in circumscribing the reach of these events and containing them in smaller areas where they will harass fewer people in their homes. As noted, the Supreme Court also has placed a high priority on the right of government to keep people secure in their homes ("the State's interest in protecting the well-being, tranquility, and privacy of the home is certainly of the highest order in a free and civilized society"), though it also has knocked down overbroad restrictions against any rallies in neighborhoods. Still, it seems at least feasible to me that restricting a march route based on the need to protect the "captive audience" of the neighborhood from the collateral effects of such a march would pass constitutional muster -- especially since the effects in a case like this are so pronounced.

Still, it strikes me that there's something profoundly wrong with this picture.

An outfit like the NSM -- where the followers can be counted, along with their IQs, in the 25-and-under category -- can go to Orlando in search of a parade permit and emerge saying, "We basically won everything we wanted," and subsequently receive massive amounts of police protection in the ensuing publicity stunt.

But in New York City, antiwar protesters are herded into pens and refused the right to march, or protests of the Republican Convention result in mass arrests.

How exactly did that come to pass?

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