Members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) stood on the corner of Indian Hill and Foothill shouting racist and hateful messages. NSM, the largest neo-Nazi organization in the United States, came to Claremont to protest illegal immigration and provoked a strong response from our proudly intellectual and diverse community.
On its website, NSM outlines its platform that involves “defending the rights of white people everywhere, preservation of our European culture and heritage, strengthening family values, economic self-sufficiency, and reform of illegal immigration policies, immediate withdrawal of our national military from an illegal Middle Eastern occupation and promotion of white separation.”
Claremont McKenna Professor of European History Jonathan Petropoulos, who has done extensive research on the Holocaust and National Socialism, characterizes modern neo-Nazis as “rebels without a clue.”
Given the terrible atrocities that National Socialism perpetrated in the past, it is shocking that right-wing extremist movements like NSM exist. Petropoulos believes the motivation to join these movements is “born out of ignorance, frustration, perceived lack of opportunity, and poor education in history.”
The number of neo-Nazis has remained constant and small in America and Europe since the end of World War II. Unlike in Europe, where most nations have strong anti-Nazi speech restrictions, in the United States, the First Amendment allows groups like NSM to hold and openly express their views.
According to Petropoulos, American free speech rights make it “easier to be an extremist in the United States.” Yet, they also create “opportunities for more moderate people to affirm the value of public discourse and American core values.”
Petropoulos points to the 1978 National Socialist Party of America (NSPA) march through the streets of Skokie, Illinois as an example. NSPA deliberately chose to demonstrate in Skokie, a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago. Although the demonstration created tension and caused pain, Petropoulos says it also elicited a strong response and reminded all Americans that “Neo-Nazism is unacceptable and that we can’t remain complacent.”
In On Liberty, philosopher John Stuart Mill advocates a “marketplace of ideas,” in which all views, even bad ones, can be voiced. In this marketplace, people consider all points of view and decide which views are correct. Offensive and terrible views can be expressed but should be rejected and destroyed.
On the morning of NSM’s rally in Claremont, members of the community gathered at Memorial Park to prepare for a real-life “marketplace of ideas.” Broken-down cardboard boxes and wooden posts transformed into protest signs adorned with anti-Nazi and and anti-racist slogans. Claremont for Peace held a peaceful demonstration in the park, while many of the counter-demonstrators marched north to confront NSM.
Many of the counter-demonstrators wondered why NSM chose to come to Claremont. Claremont resident Joe Tonan said, “Claremont is known for its diversity and tolerance.” Claremont High School student Stacey Matzavinos said it was necessary for the community “to tell them [NSM] that we don’t support their ideas and that we are an accepting place.”
At the intersection, the counter-demonstrators encountered a heavy police presence composed of officers from the Claremont Police Department, the departments of many neighboring communities, and the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department. Officers armed with weapons and wearing riot gear stood guard over the intersection at street-level and from the rooftop of the U.S. Bank. A police line was set up to barricade the intersection and keep counter-demonstrators separated from the northwest corner, where NSM stood.
Hundreds of counter-demonstrators, armed with signs, bullhorns, and numbers, crowded into all available space in the intersection in anticipation of NSM’s arrival. Moments before NSM marched into the intersection, counter-demonstrators chanted loudly, “No Nazis, No KKK, No Fascists, USA!”
Around two-dozen members of NSM, dressed in S.S. red and black paramilitary uniforms and carrying flags and shields adorned with swastikas, marched into the intersection. Jeff Hall, Southwest Regional Director of NSM, addressed the loud crowd of counter-demonstrators over a bullhorn calling for strict immigration enforcement and for closing the border. Hall proclaimed, “This is not your country. We are not parasites. Ask yourselves if you are.”
Tensions mounted as counter-demonstrators furiously denounced the neo-Nazis shouting, “Nazis go home!” One man yelled at the NSM members, “If the police weren’t here protecting you, none of you would be alive!” Middle fingers were extended in the direction of the neo-Nazis, and many profanities were heard. Police maintained order and kept any of the violent rhetoric from erupting into actual violence.
The neo-Nazis were drowned out by the noise of their boisterous opposition. Although members of the media who were allowed past the police barriers may have been able hear what NSM members were saying, the general public and onlookers were unable to hear them. In this raw and fierce marketplace of ideas, it was clear which side won.
After NSM’s departure, counter-demonstrators poured into the street taking over the intersection. Anthony Eagle said he was “glad we, white, black, brown, red, and yellow, were able to unify and counter them [NSM].” Al Barrientos said that NSM’s demonstration “really wasn’t much of a protest. They barely even showed up.” The counter-demonstrators illustrated that in the face of a terrible ideology, if people choose to actively oppose it rather than be idle and complacent, they can defeat it.
Not every racist carries a swastika flag. Neo-Nazis may be the most visible and vile version of intolerance; as such, most people are inclined to merely ignore them. Yet, we cannot and should not be apathetic to the less extreme versions present in everyday life. Intolerance survives in the form of minutemen, strong anti-immigration laws and de-facto segregation of neighborhoods and schools. We must be as active as the counter-demonstrators were in confronting NSM when we face down all forms of intolerance.