Monday, July 03, 2006

A nice day for Nazis

The summer in Puget Sound -- clear skies, temperatures in the mid-80s, a light breeze -- was in full bloom yesterday in Olympia. As I walked away from the media area near the podium set up on the Capitol steps where a feeble clutch of neo-Nazis held forth to a crowd intent on mocking and ignoring them, I smiled at two of the 275 Washington State Patrol officers called out to duty that day.

It was clear that there was nothing much cooking that day except for sweating neo-Nazis standing on some granite steps in the hot sun in long sleeved-brownshirt outfits and black boots. The patrolmen, well away from the action, were in short sleeves and standing near a balcony where nothing was happening, chatting and relaxed.

"Nice day for overtime, eh?" I said with a grin. They grinned back.

The whole scene, really, was a bit of theater of the absurd: Here, on the Capitol steps, screaming racial invective into the public-address system, was a total of 12 neo-Nazis, ten of them decked out in crisp brownshirt outfits with neat little patches on the shoulders. Occasionally, as a speaker would wrap up his schtick, they'd all stand in line and do the "Sieg Heil" thing.

Meanwhile, fifty yards away -- separated by a fence and large open space -- was a crowd estimated at over 300 people, nearly all of them there to mock, deride, and toss insults at the Nazis.

The 275 officers -- a number of them in full riot gear -- were ostensibly there to keep the two sides separate. There were police planes flying overhead as well, and snipers on the rooftops. It was an overwhelming police presence, and a tremendous expenditure of public dollars.

And for what, exactly? For the sake of 12 social misfits who think that getting up on the Capitol steps and ranting about Jews and dirty immigrants is the way to spark a social revolution.

The neo-Nazis in question -- the Northwest chapter of the National Socialist Movement, whose activities regionally we've reported previously (you may also recall they were the group that designated me a "race traitor") -- were not exactly threatening. For that matter, they were completely unimpressive in nearly every regard: disorganized, lackluster speakers with nothing interesting to say, and physically unimposing. Even their new brownshirt outfits came off more like insipid geek fantasy role-playing.

The speakers -- like Nigel Fovargue, the Los Angeles Nazi whose image graces the top of the post, or Shawn Stewart, a skinny Iraq War veteran from Billings, Montana -- really had little to say, other than spewing racial invective: "There's a little cockroach that has crawled into every nation and they have been kicked out everywhere. Who am I talking about? The Jew. The Jew hates you all," Stewart said.

This meant they all ran out of steam after about ten minutes; by 2:30 p.m., a half-hour into the rally, they all began talking among themselves about who would speak next. After awhile the speakers began returning to the podium to rant a little longer.

The rally's chief organizer, "Jim Ramm" -- whose real name is Matthew Ramsey, a former Snohomish County militia promoter whose earlier activities I documented recently -- spent much of the rally walking about the steps, videotaping the speakers (as well as those of us in the press area) and checking the sound system. But he also took the podium on occasion, delivering his invective with a guttural snarl.

Ramm and his NSM crew had been predicting a large turnout of fellow neo-Nazis, but all they really demonstrated was just how pathetic a response their recruitment efforts have been over the past year. This can only be a good sign for folks in the Northwest, who have suffered the presence of neo-Nazis for many years now, because nationally speaking, in contrast, the NSM has become a significant presence on the far-right scene.

This is especially the case in light of the violence the NSM was responsible for inducing in Toledo, Ohio, last year, and attempted to spark earlier this year in Orlando, Florida.

In stark contrast, the crowd in Olympia was largely good-natured -- their main purpose was to mock and laugh at the Nazis. Following up on the previous day's community gathering that celebrated the city's diversity, the crowd of protesters that showed up was intent on making a positive response to the Nazi preesence.

Especially noteworthy was the troupe of protesters dressed as clowns -- Nazi clowns, who actually goosestepped together better than the inchoate cluster up on the Capitol steps. They pranced and laughed and danced in the front of the crowd, setting the light-hearted mocking tone that prevailed throughout the afternoon.

The idea for this was hatched by local organizers, including Rick at Olyblog, who approached me last January with the idea, and which sounded at the time like an excellent response I endorsed.

Mind you, this runs directly counter to the advice given by my friends at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, who consistently urge people to stay away and defang the Nazi rallies by denying them an audience.

Having covered Aryan Nations events in Coeur d'Alene, I can attest that this is generally good advice. Though community organizers in northern Idaho would often hold counter-rallies elsewhere as an alternative celebration (to good effect, I might add), nonetheless, the parade routes there would still be lined with counter-protesters who just turned ugly, spewing hate right back at the Nazis; this always seemed to me to be counter-productive, a matter of feeding the beast. The Nazis always took sustenance from it.

The response in Olympia, however, was one of the most effective I've seen yet. For one thing, by making mockery the theme of the day, it transformed the mood of the crowd from an angry one -- and who wouldn't get angry if they actually listened to what these Nazis were saying? -- into a celebratory one. They played music, they danced, and made so much noise having fun that, if you were in the crowd, you couldn't hear a word the Nazis were spewing.

Rick at Olyblog has more, as does the Olympian.

It also seemed to disorient and dishearten the Nazis. Of course, they recognized that their entire audience that day was constituted of people who opposed them -- and it was clear from their taunts ("The only reason we are able to be up here today is because you people don't have the guts to do what it takes to silence us," Gary Nemeth told the crowd) that they hoped to spark violence from them, a la Toledo. But after awhile it became clear that their audience was, for the most part, studiously ignoring anything they had to say, and was more intent on dancing and playing music than taking after their sorry asses. And this clearly deflated them.

Finally, it provided an opportunity for the various diversity-oriented interest groups drawn out by the Nazis to get together, network, and actually form working coalitions that likely will prove effective in organizing the Olympia community against the lapping waves of right-wing extremism. Those organizers deserve a hearty round of applause for how well they responded to Monday's event.

It's especially important because groups like the NSM flourish in environments where people try to ignore them in the hopes they'll just go away. As we've seen in the past couple of decades, they don't.

And, in an environment where rising mainstream eliminationism demonstrates the broad influence of far-right hate groups well beyond their pathetic membership numbers, and there is no shortage of mainstream right-wing transmitters duplicating their tactics, hate groups can no longer be simply ignored.

And the crowd in Olympia may have finally found exactly the right way to respond to them.

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