On the eve of the Spanish Civil War
, the Communist
leader on the side of the left-leaning Republicans, Dolores Ibárruri
, coined the slogan "¡No Pasarán!
"--in English, "They Shall Not Pass
!" This became the rallying cry of the Republican forces, swelled with liberal sympathizers from around the Western world
and backed by the Soviet Union
. They lined themselves against the Catholic
, conservative Nationalists staging a military coup with the generous support of fascist Italy
and Nazi Germany
In the vicious warfare that ensued, both sides committed atrocities against civilians and prisoners of war, first in a chain of reprisals, then merely out of habit. While the Nationalists were organized, disciplined, and well-armed, the Republicans were a confused alliance of convenience between left-leaning moderates, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, and Basque and Catalan separatists. In the midst of the struggle, the Republicans sometimes fell to killing each other, a tendency that, ironically, grew only more common as the Nationalists solidified their dominance over Spain.
As Franco led his forces into Madrid, he gave his riposte to the battlecry of the anti-fascist forces: "Han pasado."--"They have passed."
Seventy years later, in a country an ocean away, similar struggles still occur. But we Americans tend to shy just short of actually massacring each other in any organized fashion. Prosperity distracts us. We generally settle for just screaming at each other instead. But the same sort of confusion, anger, and blurring of ethical certainties can play itself out as easily on the local backroom stage as it can in the national amphitheater.
Members of the neo-nazi organization National Socialism decided to stage a rally in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.
What sort of audience they hoped to find in one of the most liberal cities in the Midwest, populated almost entirely by aging hippies, open-minded college students, urbane yuppies, and leftist intellectuals, is difficult for me to understand, but the city government had approved the rally and a confrontation gathered on the horizon.
It took me time to decide my response. I care enough about my community that I was unwilling to shrug off the provocation in apathy. But some prominent voices, for example the executive director of the Madison Jewish Community Council, called on everyone to merely ignore the racists. What they were craving was attention, confrontation, and excitement. A swelling counterprotest would hand them that, gift-wrapped, even. If, instead, no one was there to listen, the neo-nazis would have no one to gush hatred at except themselves.
I've found his line of reasoning compelling, but I wanted to hear the other side, so I read the response of the local Progressive press. They made the more persuasive argument. The few committed neo-nazis who would show up goosestepping to this rally would be hoping for a fight, but a peaceful counterprotest wouldn't give that to them. And if people who would sympathize with their message, for whatever reason, knew that they might have to walk past friends, neighbors, or coworkers, maybe they would reconsider attending. Perhaps most importantly, ignoring the nazis has a terrible track record. I decided to join the counterprotest.
When I'd woken up the day of the counterprotest, it was already nearing time to leave. I had been planning to make a small sign of some sort, thinking maybe of writing "Wir haben keinen Bock auf Nazis" and testing whether these admirers of Hitler had ever bothered to learn German, but I only had time to get showered, get dressed, and get a bit of breakfast before I had to leave.
My mother planned to attend the rally herself, and being considerably more organized than me, she had printed a laminated sign saying "Yes to fresh vegetables, No to Nazis!" She was particularly incensed that the Nazis were cutting short the weekly farmers' market. She has a cunning absurdist streak and she planned to make a show of her peculiarly intense outrage at the sidelining of the farmers, as if that was the most offensive thing the neo-nazis could have done. As I found out later, her veggie-strewn placard gathered spontaneous accolades from several members of the crowd.
And it was a crowd. There looked to be near a thousand people milling around the capitol square before the rally began. The participants in the counterprotest were varied, a mingling of clean-cut college students, young punks, old punks, well-dressed soccer moms and cellphone dads, union activists, unreformed hippies, and unrepentant hipsters. All races were represented, as well as a confusion of generally liberal political causes. Several of the protesters took advantage of such a gathering of leftish folks to trade in copies of the Socialist Worker, anti-death penalty petitions, anti-war sloganeering, anti-Bush tirades, and invitations to local movements against gentrification.
It began as a spectacle, really. People met up with their friends and engaged in lively conversation. The crowd meandered back and forth along barricades backed by stern riot police according to rumors of confrontation or nazi-sighting. A group of African drummers found each other in the throng and put on an impromptu concert. People danced in the street. A clown on stilts juggled with a considerably shorter tattooed and pierced girl in a tanktop. A chain of guys and girls in pink rabbit costumes wound their way through the crowd, drawing applause and cheers. Black flag waving, shirtless kids with faces masked like their Zapatista role models jogged by yelling, "We're prancing for ANARCHY!" while a group of policemen trailed behind them warily.
It was like some sort of liberal carnival. You almost forgot the point of it all.
Then the neo-nazis took the stage. The local authorities gave them a forum on the very steps of the capitol. A thick barrier of open grass, helmeted and bullet-proof vested state troopers, riot police on armored horses, and orange fences accented with yellow caution tape gave the fascists plenty of breathing room. They can't complain they were treated shoddily. The crowd respected the lines of demarcation, though there was an undercurrent of anger that the state had turned out so many troopers to stare us down threateningly while the ones calling for murder and terrorism they turned their backs to. The police looked tired and irritated. I suspect they could have imagined better ways to spend a Saturday.
As for the fascists, apparently their idea of a good Saturday was standing around in brownshirt uniforms and clunky helmets like they were in a historical reenactment and throwing up Sieg Heil salutes every minute or so. The two women among the sausage party were dressed in what was probably supposed to be severe but womanly National Socialist uniforms. They actually looked like cocktail waitresses.
The neo-nazis had about two hours worth of speaker blasted speeches on the docket, but for the first hour at least no one could actually hear what they were screaming because the crowd was too loud. One woman in particular gave a high-pitched, screeching speech that proved completely unintelligible, so, with nothing to respond to, those in the crowd with megaphones began a gleeful chorus of mocking imitation instead.
Chants swept through the counterprotestors in waves, with a new one springing up spontaneously anytime the noise died down low enough that the neo-nazis' words could be made out. Thus I only caught snippets of their rhetoric. It was almost comical, hateful nonsense so severed of context that it crossed into the realm of sheer absurdity. Stuff like, "blah blah blah indecipherable angry rhetoric...the Jews are behind global warming!" Or, "etc etc boy do we like waving our fingers... Mexicans are pouring over our borders to murder your children!"
The crowd would boo and hiss and yell obscenity after every audible snatch of their speeches. We were at our loudest whenever they threw up the nazi salute and when they manhandled the Israeli flag, strange considering the number of protesters in the crowd decrying Israeli's bombing campaign in Lebanon. But we're Americans. When push comes to shove, we tend to side with Israel. As the neo-nazis ripped the blue-and-white flag in two and spit on it or trampled it, protesters worked themselves into a frenzy, screaming at the top of their lungs every insulting, degrading thing they could think.
We did not leave until they did. They exited with a soundtrack of anti-Semitic heavy metal. We responded with a chorus of, "Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye."
I yelled too, as prone to conflict avoidance as I am. I held my sign up and I booed and I chanted and I did what I could to be one of the hundreds making them feel unwelcome. I shied away from the more violent callbacks (no, the only good fascist is not a dead fascist--murdering a person you don't like still constitutes murder as far as I know), but I was angry.
I was angry that they choose my city to spew their hatred at, I was angry that the city catered to them so easily, and I could feel my anger sharpening with each strike of rhetoric that I caught. As the rally dragged on and the crowd thinned down to a hardcore group of a few hundred, I began to hear longer and longer stretches of their speeches. I don't need to describe the content; it hasn't changed much since the first nazis got up on the podium. I felt dirty.
Worse, I felt complicit.
This is exactly what the neo-nazis had wanted. It was obvious to see that nothing could've made them happier than a crowd to hear their hatred and confirm their offended sense of persecution. It must have been an adrenaline rush, standing on high and taunting a mass of people you hate who are powerless to do anything more to you than flick you the birdy and hold up snarky signs. All that could have made the day better for them would've been a dust-up to prove their 'Aryan honor,' which we probably would've been more than happy to provide if the police hadn't been standing in the way.
It was an action movie. It had car chases and explosions and exquisitely scripted swells of excitement, with a shallow, entirely agreeable moral affirming the beliefs of everyone involved. It was artificial.
Not that genuineness would've improved the situation. The neo-nazis were severely outnumbered and the crowd was near rabid. If the police hadn't stood in the way, there would have been a fight. There would have been blood. And it would have been difficult to prevent myself from joining the fray. My personal ethic of pacifism and my loathing of violence as a means to an end might have amounted to naught when compared to my animal rage at that moment.
It was two dozen racists with brains poisoned by filth versus several hundred high-minded liberals in a rural college town. No war was going to start that day, and despite the theatrical flag waving, no revolution for either side was in the making. Circumstances made it a non-event.
In other circumstances, the same sort of emotions start wars.
But, at the same time, do I really wish the alternative had occurred that day? Would it have been better if no one had showed up and the neo-nazis could have spoken with full clarity to passers by? If no one bothered and only those who were sympathetic had gathered, maybe those who were just curious and looking for a message, a pattern to explain the difficulties of their lives that they couldn't understand, would that have been a more dignified way to respond?
I wouldn't have felt better about myself if I'd stayed home that day. Neo-nazis and I are never going to see eye to eye, but that doesn't mean I should look away when they stare me in the face. The counterprotest was rote, but it was necessary.
For the sake of my friends, neighbors, and everyone who would suffer if these people's hatred came to power, I had to be there that day. To protect the honor of hometown, a place that I will always love and rise to defend if it is sullied unjustly, I had to be there that day. Everyone who decided to come was right to be there that day. The ambiguity of the emotions I felt, the hatred, is something I'm willing to accept. The spectacle, the predictable outrage that fed the neo-nazis deepest needs is something I'm willing to accept.
They did pass that day.
They passed with another rally under their belts, another jolt to juice their ideology of victimhood and victimization, and the city returned to normal within hours, as if nothing had happened. No one was convinced. No one was persuaded. They have passed.
But they didn't pass without a fight.
That was the meaning in the mayhem. It was worth digging for.