In the wake of the election, there have been lots of accusations of people being Nazis, protests devolving into violent melees, and just an air of hostility regarding people saying things we disagree with. In this time, I am reminded of the time I went to witness an actual Nazi rally. It was a week before I left for Calvin, and I thought, “When will I ever be able to see actual Nazis?” So, I made the hour and a half drive to spend the late morning witnessing the exercise of free speech and right to peaceably assemble.
In August of 2006, approximately forty to fifty Nazis took to the steps of Madison’s capitol building, making their entrance to the classic Ramones song “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Arrayed against them were several thousand protestors – a mixture of black bloc anarchists, ACLU lawyers, hippie relics from the sixties, communists, college town liberals, and just ordinary people. Separating the two groups was a small battalion of police in riot gear.
The whole thing had a carnival-esque atmosphere. It was theater, an open air play unfolding on the steps of the state capitol building where everyone had a role they were playing.
The Nazis themselves playing the role of agent provocateur. The fliers they had plastered all over town promised a rational discussion of issues affecting everyday Americans (immigration, homosexuality, crime, etc…), but everyone knew that was nothing more than a flimsy veneer masking their true intention – to rile up the citizens of Madison into rioting and making asses of themselves.
So, rather than reasoned discussion, the crowd was treated to a display of brownshirts “Seig Heil-ing,” an attempt to burn an Israeli flag (which the rain had made too damp to ignite), and shrill diatribes against immigrants/Israel/race-mixing/general Nazi ideological talking points. Clad in brown shirts with swastika armbands, the Nazis hoped to appear imposing and organized. They failed. Instead, they came across as a bad community theater troupe – a sad group of people in rumpled costumes, with a bad sound system, desperately clinging to a dream long since dead.
Set out against this pathetic display were the protestors. First, the black bloc anarchists, or more accurately the teenagers playing at black bloc anarchist. Clad black from head-to-toe with black bandanas covering their faces and backpacks supposedly filled with tools of troublemaking, their uniforms were supposed to convey an organized and dangerous group, but like the Nazis, they failed. Their attempts to cause trouble came across similarly to how a kitten will attack your foot – there is no real danger, but you indulge the fantasy. I recall joking with a police officer in the crowd and her saying how most of them were upperclass white kids from the suburbs who drove their parents SUVs to the protest. I had a mental image of them leaving their McMansion dressed in their anarchist garb and their mom yelling after them, “Okay, sweetie, have a good time making trouble! Be back by six; we’re having lasagna.”
Sprinkled throughout the crowd were observers from the ACLU and other such organizations. They wore high visibility vests and lanyards denoting their status as noncombatants. Any time the police approached someone to tell them to simmer down, the observers were there, clipboards at the ready, prepared to document everything to make sure no civil rights were trampled.
On the outskirts of the crowd were tables set up by holdovers from the sixties and various communist/workers groups. Aged, burned out hippies were hawked their wares, an assortment of nondescript trinkets, healing crystals, and other new-age paraphernalia. Others circulated petitions to legalize marijuana or support fringe candidates whose sole issue was to legalize marijuana. Next to them were the booths dedicated to socialist and communist causes. Tables stacked high of dog-eared copies of The Communist Manifesto, Das Capital, and homemade revolutionary pamphlets in all caps with many exclamation points. The pamphlets were free. Marx and Engels were available for a “suggested” donation. A whole industry hoping to capitalize on the crowds drawn by the Nazis.
Finally, there were the ordinary folks, some there because they felt that the Nazis deserved to be countered, some drawn by simple curiosity. Standing in the crowd, shoulder to shoulder with these people there was an air of lighthearted frivolity. We conversed with one another, taking in just how absurd the situation was – a Nazi rally in one of the most liberal cities in America in 2006. Their shouts of “white power!” were countered by our shouts of “Nazi pigs have got to go!”
At the end of the day, nothing really happened. A small group of bitter, disillusioned people stood on some steps and tried to broadcast a message of hate. A much larger group stood by and shouted them down. Aging revolutionaries trotted out their dusty books and put them on display in an attempt to seem relevant once again. Some kids played dress up in an attempt to rebel against their milquetoast, suburban parents. We all wore our costumes. And then the play ended and we all went home.