Just when the hot August stench (of roadside cat-piss-stained sofas and the contents of fruit-fly infested college apartment sinks) has gone with the passing of Madison’s move-out week, the funk is about to get worse: More than a hundred Nazis are coming to spew their filth about the Capitol steps on August 26th. Predictably, the perennial debate–“ignore them” versus “confront them”–has emerged among activists and community organizers. Arguments in favor of ignoring them range from the strategic (“They thrive on attention; just ignore them and they’ll go away”) to the legal (“They have the same 1st Amendment rights as anyone else”) to the understandably frightened (“These crackers are crazy! I’m not going to stick my neck out to oppose them”). While I’m sympathetic to the last of these objections the first amounts to a grave misunderstanding of history and the legal argument is a red herring. I maintain that Nazis should be countered everywhere they rear their ugly heads and the point of this article is to convince you to join that effort when these scumbags show up in less than two weeks.
Learning from the Skokie experience
While this debate takes place in law school classrooms, on newspaper editorial boards and among community leaders, for a significant chunk of targeted communities the debate is settled–in favor of confrontation–the moment the news is heard. Nazi plans to demonstrate in 1977 in Skokie, Illinois were initially permitted and met with silence. As explained in University of Wisconsin professor Donald Downs’ book about the episode, Nazis in Skokie, town officials, “based their decision on the traditional ‘quarantine policy’ of the Anti-Defamation League and other major Jewish organizations.” Downs explains, “[T]o quarantine is to ignore and avoid a demonstration in the hope that it will pass away without causing disturbance and without attaining widespread publicity.” This policy fell apart when Skokie’s Holocaust survivors and their family members (about 5,000 of the town’s 70,000 people) got word and organized to counter the Nazis. Better than anybody, the survivors understood 1) the scope of the terror that Nazis are capable of and 2) that if ignored or underappreciated, Nazis can come to power.
Downs’ thesis–a proposed legal strategy for restricting Nazis’ speech rights–is based on the first of these understandings. His book–emphasizing the psychological effects of a Nazi demonstration in the hometown of survivors of Nazi terror–concludes: “[Nazi leader] Frank Collins’ abuse of free speech at Skokie and similar precedents have upset this delicate balance [between individualism and communitarianism]. It is time the courts set this balance aright.” We’re left wondering, if Downs’ theory pivots on the psychological effects upon Holocaust survivors, what if the targets aren’t Holocaust survivors? Downs confirmed my suspicions in a recent e-mail message with his thoughts on the upcoming Nazi rally: “Nobody is going to take them seriously, so let them show up and be ignored. Is there noise when a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it? Believe me, these guys live off of confrontation.” Downs’ support for curbing the Nazis’ “abuse of free speech” is actually consistent with his opposition to organizing a counter-demonstration.
This brings to light two important mistakes. Firstly, the fight against Nazis cannot be based on a legal strategy denying them their 1st Amendment rights. Secondly–and this is the most important point–Nazis do not marginalize themselves with their message. On the contrary, their message helps to organize and give confidence to the presently unorganized and separated individual racists with white supremacist sympathies.
Legal strategies are ineffective
Many have voiced opposition to our efforts to mobilize a counter-demonstration on the basis of the 1st Amendment. Aside from the glaring contradiction (“Defend free speech by keeping quiet!”), a civics refresher is in order: The Bill of Rights limits what the state (i.e. not citizens) may do. In all my organizing for this demonstration I have yet to hear one person argue for governmental intervention (deny the Nazis a permit, etc.). Those who did pursue such restrictions on speech in Skokie thirty years ago only did so to prevent a counter-demonstration of Holocaust survivors. Downs described this development, “As word spread around the community, survivor resistance and threats of counter-demonstration violence mushroomed, forcing the village to abandon the quarantine policy and to seek legal means of keeping the Nazis out.” Note the common element (shared by Downs and the ADL) between ‘ignore them’ and ‘deny the permit’: both tactics avoid organizing a counter-demonstration. The legal approach only emboldened the Nazis who now–with the infamous assistance of the ACLU–had a legitimate legal grievance which would overshadow their countless illegitimate racist grievances.
The Nazis will not – despite the efforts of some – be ignored
More often, I hear the argument that Steven Morrison, the executive director of the Madison Jewish Community Council, made in the Wisconsin State Journal. “It’s well-known that a counter-protest is just what the neo-Nazis want and count on. Without a counter-protest, they have only themselves to hear their hate-filled messages.” Ironically enough, the very same day, the same newspaper relayed to its readers the Nazis’ hate-filled message. And just in case some borderline white supremacist needed an extra nudge (or just the details of the rally) the State Journal was kind enough to oblige: “The rally will be held at 2 p.m. The Nazi group will commemorate the anniversary of the assassination of the white nationalist movement’s founder and rally against increased political repression of working-class white people, spokesman Bill White said in a press release.” No mention of our counter-demonstration and no mention of their racist central demand against immigrants. Anti-racists should take comfort knowing that the State Journal stopped short of explaining how to tie a noose for a lynching party. So much for Morrison’s, “they only have themselves to hear their hate-filled messages.”
In reality, the press (not to mention anyone walking by) will pay attention when a couple hundred Nazis goose step and seig heil all over the capitol square. And no matter how much we may hate it, we must acknowledge that the National Socialist Movement is growing and newcomers are much less likely to show up if a counterdemonstration is planned. People want an explanation for their poverty and despair. However bigoted and wrong their racist scapegoating may be, it is an explanation, none-the-less; and people are listening and joining. Drowning out their message with thousands of people is the only way to ensure that they don’t grow. Clearly we cannot rely on the media to not cover their event. The State Journal has already broadcast to its readers that the Nazis are the place to turn for “repressed working-class white people.” I don’t want to find out what the press would write if the Nazis are given two hours unopposed to expand on these ideas.
I take seriously what Hitler wrote on this subject, “Only one thing could have stopped our movement–if our adversaries had understood its principles and, from the first day, had smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.” Every demonstration has some first-timers at it. These sheltered kids (and, yes, the NSM’s recruits are largely teenagers) will never know how wrong-headed their ideas are unless we go there and spell it out for them. In language Professor Downs will appreciate: trees fall in the forest. Just because you refuse to find out if it makes a sound doesn’t mean others can’t hear it.
The Nazis’ message attracts recruits
The idea that Nazis marginalize themselves – because their message is so nutty – is based in a fantasyland. As reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors organized hate groups, the movement’s rallies are steadily growing. In the summer of 2003, 50 of them rallied in Indianapolis; 2004: 100 in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania; 2005: 150 in Yorktown, Virginia. One community organizer recently told me that while he is opposed to countering the Nazis while they’re so small, he will join any efforts to counter them when they are “a real threat.” But why wait?! We know they’re growing!
While I doubt it’s true, I don’t care if these Nazis do “want and count on”–as Morrison put it–being outnumbered and drowned out by a massive, diverse, vocal counter-demonstration. More likely, I suspect the Nazis feel the way Michael McQueeney – the National Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan – felt when the Klan was preparing to demonstrate in Milwaukee and Madison eight years ago. He said, “The only thing I would say for Milwaukee and Madison is just to remain calm and if you don’t want to hear what we have to say, then just stay home and watch television or go fishing.” By organizing the largest possible counter-demonstration we maximize the chances that Madison’s random closet-racist will have to walk past a neighbor or a former (or current) high school teacher or a family member to join the Nazi rally. Our communities are safest when white supremacists are firmly in the closet.
This gets us to the more general point: If we ignore their rally, should we ignore them when they leaflet our neighborhoods like they do more regularly with each passing year? Maybe we’ll stop ignoring them when they burn a cross on our front lawn (In the US, five cross burnings were reported by the SPLC in 2005- the same number were reported in just the first six months of 2006). But then again, they only want the attention, right? How about lynchings – do they lynch for attention, too? Hate-groups don’t terrorize Jewish communities and burn crosses and beat up immigrants and drag gay men behind their vehicles and lynch Blacks because they want attention. They do it because they hate Blacks, immigrants, gays, and Jews. They hold their rallies for the same reasons.
Nazis are emboldened by anti-Immigrant legislation
The National Socialist Movement is the largest and most active of the white supremacist groups operating the US today. It, like the others, has been emboldened by the climate of hostility toward immigrants. A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League shows how “white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other racists have declared ‘open season’ on immigrants.” Just four months ago, two white teenagers (with Nazi tattoos and a history of burning crosses) nearly killed a 17-year-old Latino. Shouting racist slurs they beat him, stripped him, sodomized him with PVC pipe and poured bleach all over him.
All indicators show that the far right is growing in numbers and confidence as they hitch their message to the heels of immigrant-bashing Congressmen like Wisconsin’s James Sensenbrenner and Colorado’s Tom Tancredo. However much they deny it, Nazis are active in the border vigilante groups, like The Minuteman Project (founded by James Gilchrist and Chris Simcox) and Border Guardians (a Tucson, Arizona group founded by Laine Lawless) who have been supported by members of Congress. Tancredo addressed a Minuteman Project rally, “You are not vigilantes. You are heroes!” Further, the hysterically anti-immigrant media types like CNN’s Lou Dobbs and The Washington Times’ Jerry Seper have buoyed their influence disproportionate to their actual size.
At a press conference Gilchrist insisted, “we’ve told white supremacists they’re not welcome here” and “we can do this peacefully, the same way Martin Luther King sought justice for American Blacks.” Turning away in disgust, a neo-Nazi on hand was quick to add, “I hope [Gilchrist] doesn’t believe that crap. I realize he’s got to be all PC for the media, but come on We’re in a race war, not a peace march.”
Laine Lawless was a little less ‘PC’ when she e-mailed Mark Martin from the National Socialist Movement with “several tactics, some legal and some not-so” on how to “get rid of” undocumented immigrants. Lawless asked Martin to forward her ideas to his e-mail lists, but to “please don’t use my name.” Failing to remove her note from the original e-mail, Martin exposed this cozy relationship between the Nazis and Tancredo’s “heroes” in the border vigilante movement. In her message, Lawless called for making immigrants fear for their lives if they cross the border, “sabotaging” their food and beer, and discouraging Spanish-speaking kids from attending public school. On this last item, she implored the Nazis, “Be creative.” Browse SPLC’s website (www.splcenter.org) to find the entire text of her e-mail and to read more on the relationship between these far-right groups and the more “acceptable” mainstream immigrant bashers. As a spokesman for the neo-Nazi group National Alliance told a Tucson reporter covering the Minutemen’s 2005 border patrol, “We’re not going to show up as a group and say, ‘Hi, we’re the National Alliance.’ But we have members of ours that will participate.”
These crackers are crazy
Lastly, a point for those who fear for their safety coming downtown on August 26th. As I’ve laid out, while they’re not about to take state power, Nazis are a threat and they do terrorize entire communities with their rallies, their leaflets, their cross-burnings and their violence. That’s all the more reason to build an enormous presence of counter-demonstrators. Entire organizations of anti-racists as well as individuals and whole families from the community are coming; Black, white and Latino. Arabs, Asians and Jews. Gay rights advocates, documented and undocumented immigrants are coming. Reports from all over the midwest keep coming in: Van loads of anti-racists are making the three hour trip from Winona Minnesota. Dozens – and that’s just what we know of – are making the trip from Milwaukee and Chicago. Motorcycle clubs are making the ride from around the country to join the staff from a local gym who are joining our demonstration. From all over the spectrum people are coming to say in a loud, unified voice, “Nazis aren’t welcome!” Only with a massive presence against these organized thugs can we guarantee the safety of our demonstration that day and the safety of our communities for the years to come.
Remember Michael McQueeney? He’s the Klan Grand Dragon who asked those of us who “don’t want to hear what [the KKK] has to say” to “just stay home and watch television or go fishing” when they were supposed to come to Madison in 1999. A few days before their scheduled rally, they canceled saying they ‘feared for the safety of their members’ because the Midwest Network to Stop the Klan organized to counter them. We would be right to fear for our safety if the Nazis are unopposed. What will stop them from taking a night on the town and terrorizing people once they’re done with their unopposed demo? Let’s not find out.
“It Can’t Happen Here”
While the threat of Nazi rule may seem distant today, even when fascists were in power across Europe liberals in America minimized the threat of their movement. If you’re still not won to the importance of countering these scum then I highly recommend a trip to the library and the video store; if history doesn’t convey these lessons then maybe well-produced fiction can. Read Sinclair Lewis’ brilliant satire It Can’t Happen Here (1935) and watch William A. Wellman’s 75-minute classic The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) starring Henry Fonda.
It Can’t Happen Here follows liberal newspaper editor Doremus Jessup as he belittles the threat posed by aspiring fascists with a paramilitary following called, presciently, the Minutemen. Confronted with the reality of their rise to power liberals “simply could not believe that this comic tyranny could endure. It can’t happen here, said even Doremus–even now.” The point Lewis makes, of course, is that it can happen here and it does us no good to wait until it happens to realize that point.
Adapted from the novel (1940) by the same title, The Ox-Bow Incident was produced with the same intent. Demonstrating that Americans are just as capable (as the Europeans living under Fascist dictatorship) of subverting justice to fear, a well-meaning judge in a small Western town is out-maneuvered by a mob dead set on lynching the first suspects they come across.
So come to Madison if you don’t already plan on being here August 26th. Our side will gather at 1pm on the State Street corner of the Capitol Square. The Nazis are coming from all over the country so our side must match them. For every one of them we will have a hundred to drown out their message. Bring friends, family, posters and your well-rested voices. May our free speech be much louder than theirs!
CHRIS DOLS is a member of the No Nazis in Madison Coalition and editor of NorthPinckney.com–host site of the now-weekly Pinckney Street Block Party (Fridays at 5! One reviewer called it “[T]he best way to end a week in Wisconsin”). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about either.