Antiracists protest neo-Nazis

Sarah Blaskey reports from Wisconsin on a protest that shouted down the Nazis.

Anti-racist demonstrators turned out to shout down a rally of the National Socialist Movement (Heather Kleinberg)Anti-racist demonstrators turned out to shout down a rally of the National Socialist Movement (Heather Kleinberg)

SOME 1,000 counterprotesters shouted down a neo-Nazi rally called by the National Socialist Movement (NSM) in West Allis, Wis., on September 3. The neo-Nazis were attempting to exploit a conflict at the state fair in August, which the media falsely depicted in racial terms.

West Allis, where the rally took place, is just outside of Milwaukee, the nation's most segregated city, but despite the organizers' best efforts to stoke racist antagonisms, only a few dozen Nazis and supporters attended the rally.

"I think they [the neo-Nazis] are looking at Milwaukee as a place that is very racially segregated, where there is a lot of potential to stir up a race war," explained Steve Burns, Program Coordinator for the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice. "I think they saw an opportunity that they wanted to exploit with this incident at the state fair. They're trying to sow racial division. And so anything they see as a racially loaded event, they are going to try to use that for recruitment."

A large crowd of counterprotesters came together about 1 p.m. in the street outside the NSM rally grounds. The group held its own rally, calling for peace and equality, and denouncing the daily violence of institutional racism that so many people face in the U.S.

"The fact that there was such a strong, diverse mobilization against this rally in the most segregated city in the country shows that despite the influence of racist education, economic and housing policies, Wisconsin's working class is refusing to unquestioningly swallow these divide-and-conquer ideas," said counterprotester Dan Suárez.

When the Nazis arrived at 2 p.m., more than 100 police in full riot gear used two portable fences to separate the two groups. Chants of "Nazi hate has got to go!" drowned out the obscenely racist messages yelled out by NSM leader Jeff Schoep. Counterprotesters also chanted in Spanish to show solidarity with the immigrant community.

"In terms of age, race, ethnicity and gender, this was the most diverse rally I've ever participated in," Suárez recalled. "Despite the diversity, however, there was an element of de facto segregation in that there were large, fairly racially homogenous clusters of counter-protesters within the rally. Unsurprisingly, the riot police concentrated the majority of their forces in proximity to the groups of nonwhite people."

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AT ONE point, several counterprotesters were sandwiched between the NSM rally and a group of jeering Nazi supporters who were protected by walls of riot police. When a scuffle broke out, riot police acted swiftly and harshly against the counterprotesters, who were forced to retreat. Meanwhile, the Nazi-sympathizing antagonists were left unchallenged, and weren't expected to give up any ground by the cops. Then mounted police were brought in, in an attempt to intimidate the antiracist protesters.

"What the police do is wait for a fight to start, and then they jump in and try to deal with that," Burns said. "But what I saw was what I would call 'peacekeeping' by people who were just there--who weren't police--who were seeing an argument and trying to diffuse it."

Several Nazi sympathizers also stood among the counterprotesters during the rally, attempting to provoke people and making futile efforts to defend the Nazis. One sympathizer tried to silence the counterprotest by citing the Nazi's "right" to freedom of speech.

The counterprotesters were unflinching in their opposition. They pointed out that they, too, had the right to freedom of speech--in this case, the freedom to challenge the neo-Nazis' message of bigotry and terror.

"Any time we see racism, it's important to speak out against it and not be silent," said Burns. "And I think that Nazis are kind of obvious examples of that."

Although the NSM was able to hold its rally, thanks to the large counter demonstration, the neo-Nazi's message of hate was not what made headlines in local papers the next day. Even in official NSM videos of the event, speakers talking over the loudspeaker were almost impossible to hear over the loud counterprotest surrounding them.

"We stood up together against hate and fear," Suárez said. "When an entire community--white and Black, man and woman, young and old-- stands up together against the associational embodiment of hate, terror and bigotry, it absolutely should be considered a success."

Holly Harvey contributed to this article.