Protest in Arizona approaches high theater
The crowd around me was a strange one. It was dominated by young men and women dressed in black with dark kerchiefs tied around their faces, serving to both hide their identities and proclaim them as anarchists. There was a group of United Universalist Church members, peace loving folk with their yellow shirts and banners proclaiming love. A small group of Latino youth with tan uniforms and brown berets stood at attention in a line, their faces serious. A couple kids came dressed in pink “gay pride” shirts. There was a smattering of videographers and photographers, including my husband. A few were like me, just regular folks of all different colors dressed in street clothes. In stark contrast to us all was a group dressed in clown outfits and tutus.
We were carrying an assortment of signs, noisemakers, drums, bullhorns, accordions, and even a trumpet. The signs gave away our purpose for gathering at the Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse in downtown Phoenix that day: “Nazis go home”, “Nazis = Sociopaths on Parade”, “Follow your leader (with picture of Hitler blowing his brains out)”, “Nazis not welcome”, and many more along those lines. In an attempt at levity mine read, “Neo-Nazis: Finding dates at family reunions since 1945”.
The word came down about a week before that the National Socialist Movement was going to march in downtown Phoenix. Seeing as they pretty much sum up everything I find despicable in human beings, I made plans to join in a protest against them. My hope was to have a peaceful demonstration expressing our condemnation; an act of censure rather than censor.
The National Socialist Movement is a splinter neo-Nazi group that espouses a white separatist nation, where “Only those of pure White blood, whatever their creed, may be members of the nation. Non-citizens may live in America only as guests and must be subject to laws for aliens. Accordingly, no Jew or homosexual may be a member of the nation.”
They also are strongly anti-immigrant and state that “All non-White immigration must be prevented. We demand that all non-Whites currently residing in America be required to leave the nation forthwith and return to their land of origin: peacefully or by force.”
The NSM has a twenty-five point treatise that is a somewhat whacky blend of a lot of different “isms”: fascism, socialism, collectivism, anti-Semitism and racism. They advocate for nationalization of all corporations, communalizing of big department stores and suppression of the (whites only) press when it is “not conducive to the national welfare”.
Their stance on religion: “We demand absolute religious freedom for all denominations in the State, provided they do not threaten its existence nor offend the moral feelings of the White race.”
Regarding abortion the rule is “Prohibiting abortion and euthanasia, except in cases of rape, incest, race-mixing, or mental retardation”. Ruthless prosecution of law breakers including “race traitors” is also on the list. Their use of swastikas on flags and uniforms and a belief that Adolf Hitler was a “great white civil rights leader” further serves to place them firmly in the fringe.
What concerned me the most about the NSM was their current tactic to try to mainstream themselves into society. They have made attempts to move away from denigrating other races and portray themselves instead as racial purists who see whites as an endangered species to be preserved at all costs.
Another way they’ve devised to integrate is by adopting the current anti-immigrant agenda that is so prevalent today. As was innocently proclaimed on their rally invitations, “This rally is in support of American citizens who desire the harmony, tranquility, orderliness, and the economic stability that arises from secure borders and enforcement of immigration laws. This rally will be a protest against the butchering of Arizona`s SB 1070 and the lawlessness produced by politicians and activist judges that refuse to safeguard our nation and secure our borders.”
The reason I find this alarming is that a majority of Arizonians happen to agree with this particular sentiment, which places them squarely on the same page as a Neo-Nazi group. These regular Arizonians will also have little argument with this tea party-esque statement: “The National Socialist Movement has a long history of hosting rallies that demand strong enforcement of existing immigration laws and that promote nationalism.”
As we milled around waiting for the promised march of the NSM a young man dressed in the black of the anarchists was handing out fliers instructing everyone to link arms and block the Nazis from marching to the courthouse. Once there the NSM would be sequestered in the courtyard in front of the building and protected from the protesters. The intent was to prevent this from happening.
Word trickled though the crowd that the Nazis were spotted marching a couple of blocks west of the courthouse so we all headed over there to see what was going on. A phalanx of police in full riot gear surrounded a small group of about forty NSM members, mostly tattooed men with the shaved bald heads and goatees they seem to favor. Some were dressed in black uniforms and carrying their NSM flags (a weird blend of stars, stripes and swastikas), red shields with swastikas as well as American flags. There were a few women with them too. They were hard to see behind the solid wall of police and the screaming protesters.
As was planned, the anarchists joined in a line across the street and a line of police formed facing them, riot shields front and center. Taunts and insults were exchanged between the NSM and the protesters and it quickly became clear that from the anarchist viewpoint the police were as much a target of wrath as the Nazis. Those of us who were not into the anarchy thing stayed on the sidewalks or well back and the photographers and videographers closed in to get it all recorded. I wandered back behind the police line to take a look at the Nazis and watch them do their Sieg Heils. They were repellent but fascinating and kind of reminded me of a scary punk version of Hogan’s Heroes.
It appeared we were at an impasse and nobody was moving but suddenly things got hectic at the front line and I saw the Nazis cheering and shouting, “Run roaches run!” and “Gas the Jews!” The police had shot pepper spray at the protest line. I headed towards the front of the line, which started moving now and saw people sitting on the sidewalk or stumbling away with tears streaming down their faces. Clowns were running here and there. A writer with the Phoenix New Times was sitting on the curb being tended to for a direct hit of pepper spray to the face. I stood by as medics squirted magnesium hydroxide into his eyes and cleaned his face. Several other journalists, photographers and cameramen were also hit, though fortunately my husband was not among them.
The march continued and I moved along with it. I kept to the sidewalk but without thinking I soon found myself out front of them. A tear gas canister was lobbed and purple gas billowed. Staccato reports of rubber bullet guns rang out. Pepper spray squirted. At that point the wind shifted slightly and I found myself choking and my eyes burning. I headed down a side street to escape.
The kids in black grabbed newspaper stands and threw them in the street to block the march.
Bottles of water, rocks, signs and reportedly a bag full of blood were all lobbed at the police and Nazis. More tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray flew in return and slowly the march moved forward. The wind shifted again and I retreated further to get away from more choking gas. Finally it was safe to follow behind and I watched as the NSM marchers were let into the courthouse.
J.T. Ready, one of the more notorious of the NSM who once had aspirations for political office before he was “outed” for his fringe beliefs, was marching with his brethren that day. He left the group when they reached the courthouse to do his favorite thing: talk to cameramen.
Ready was a good friend of State Senator Russell Pearce, the sponsor of SB1070 and now a proponent of removing birthright citizenship from the constitution. Ready has described Pearce as “a father figure to me” who provided “a lot of guidance”. Pearce has attended anti-immigrant rallies with Ready in the past and a now-famous picture published in the New Times shows the two men with their arms around each other, smiling broadly for the camera. Pearce has since distanced himself from Ready and denounced the NSM as “These hate-based groups”, which is very ironic since Pearce is well-known as a hater of immigrants himself and wears his bigotry proudly on his sleeve.
Ready decided to show bravado so rather than walk through the safety of the federal building courtyard he chose to walk around the block on the sidewalk, through the throngs of protesters. What saved him was the fact that at first nobody realized who he was and it was only when a heckler following shouted “Russell Pearce’s puta!” that people started catching on. One young man caught up to Ready with a recorder and asked him,
“What do you think of Russell Pearce?”
Ready answered, “I think he’s a hypocrite”
“Why do you think he’s a hypocrite?”
“Because he tries to pretend he’s not racist when he really is”
“Are you a racist?”
“No, I’m race-aware”
At that point a water bottle hit Ready in the back and shouts of “Racist!” started in as well as more thrown bottles, F-bombs and a rapidly advancing crowd of pissed off anarchists. Then irony intervened once again in the form of a large black man with Ezkiel 25:17 tattooed on his forearm who acted as a bodyguard for Ready, claiming that even a Nazi had a right to speak.
This man helped fend off the throng until police arrived to escort Ready unharmed to where he was once again surrounded by TV cameras and could make his case for having his first amendment rights trampled on. One of the escorting officers patted Ready on the shoulder in a reassuring fashion before he was ushered back to his fellow NSM buddies, with jeers following from the protesters left out on the sidewalk.
What followed was a long dull rally of Nazis speaking to themselves over loudspeakers, which we fortunately couldn’t hear as the crowd worked to drown them out. At one point protesters yelled “Boring! Boring! Boring!” though megaphones. The Nazis waved their flags and everyone exchanged middle finger salutes.
Finally the rally was over and after their women were whisked away in a van the NSM men were escorted once again from the courtyard by the riot police and, followed by a much-diminished group of protesters, marched back down Jefferson Street, presumably to where their cars were parked. When the pepper spray started shooting again I decided I’d had enough so I peeled off to find my husband and go home.
This was my first experience of this kind; all the other protest rallies I’d attended had been peaceful. I had many mixed feelings about the whole thing. On one hand the Nazis were despicable people but on the other they enjoy the same First Amendment rights as the rest of us. Their intended purpose for this rally was to rehash the same old pro-SB1070 rhetoric that many before them have, including Russell Pearce, Jan Brewer, the Tea Party and practically every other Republican in Arizona. While I believe this makes them all the more dangerous, I don’t believe that they should be blocked from exercising this right—any more than I should be for expressing my distain for them.
While I don’t doubt for a moment that a few of the police may feel sympathy for Ready and his crew (as the pat on the back seemed to indicate), I do not believe that all police are evil or the enemy, as the anarchists do. Most of the men and women on the police force are simply doing their job, protecting a group that came out to speak. To throw out a blanket of hate over large groups of people really plants you squarely in the camp of all the other haters out there, whether immigrants, African Americans or law enforcement officers are the target. It may seem cool and fun to lob bottles and rocks but all it accomplishes is the focus shifts from the real target of derision to the guys doing the throwing. J.T. Ready gets to whine in front of the cameras about how his rights were violated and the news stories focus on plumes of tear gas and a downtown scene that resembles a riot.
That said, I believe that the police in charge of this situation acted stupidly by pepper spraying people indiscriminately, especially when they hit members of the press. I mean come on guys; do you think this is going to make you look good? Really? If there is civil disobedience going on that turns a bit wonky then at least a loud warning to get the hell out of the way would be a good idea… you do own bullhorns, right? And another word to the wise: when you have a group that is despised as much as Nazis planning to march in a volatile post-SB1070 climate you may want to plan for every contingency. Things are only going to heat up in the “dry hate” state.
Abby Hoffman once said, “You measure a democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists.” He also said, “Free speech means the right to shout 'theatre' in a crowded fire.” I’m not even sure what the last one means but like the clowns in tutus, it seems to provide a little welcome absurdity.
Oh, and Ezekiel 25:17? Since I’m a Bible illiterate I looked it up:
“And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them”.
Proving once again that irony rules in Arizona.
Thanks to Bob McMullen for the photos.
For some live action of the event as well as more images check out this video by Bob:
And another by videographer, Dennis Gilman: