Today in my state capital, which is a largely African-American city, neo-nazis are apparently holding a rally in front of the state house. Reports say 100 such young men are scheduled to show up, wave banners and shout whatever they think is important.
Another group of people, the New Black Panthers, are planning to counter-protest. They feel they must do this because not to do so would signal either tolerance or weakness. Perhaps they’re right. This group of counter protesters are also using this as an opportunity to bring attention to some of the other problems in this city — gang violence, poverty, addiction, domestic violence, political corruption, and institutional racism. Very smart. Why not steal the platform from the neo-nazis and use it for more constructive means? I like that.
All this is happening nine miles down the road from me, right now. Although it’s mid-April, it’s as cold as November. The rain is bucketing down, and the wind whips the trees around. It’s a good day to stay inside, and I hope that’s what most people do.
I keep thinking about that old line from a Pete Seeger song, “What if they had a war and nobody came?”
The angry and the ignorant, like the poor, will always be with us, I’m afraid, and giving them attention only gives them what they want. If the New Black Panthers can redirect the limelight, excellent, but perhaps, some of us could also make use of the afternoon in another way. Why not spend the time reading The Racist Mind: Portraits of American Neo-Nazis and Klansmen by Raphael S. Ezekiel. I read this book when it first came out in 1996 and I’ve never forgotten it. (Apparently it riled up a few folks, because some of the reviews on Amazon have obviously been written by Aryan. . . ahem . . . sympathizers, poor dears.)
One of the things I found most interesting about the work was Ezekiel’s conclusion that many of the young people (almost exclusively men) involved in these groups felt marginalized in one way or another. They were frightened by the changing world. They had few, if any, positive male role models. Many had been bullied and/or felt powerless and were seduced by images of Nazis wielding extreme and savage power. Better, they felt, to be on the side of the one holding the whip, the one wearing the intimidating uniform, than to be on the victim’s side. They were recruited at an age when they were looking for excitement — as all young men do at a certain age. (Ezekiel felt that if any other slightly dangerous, radical group had come along — eco-warriors for example — they would have become part of that group instead.) I couldn’t help but recall his work when I asked an African-American inmate in the prison where I was teaching why he had become involved in the Bloods gang. “It’s the adrenaline, you know?” he said. “For rich white kids it’s stuff like extreme sports. This is our extreme sports.”
Sigh. Surely we, this young man’s friends-and-relations, could have offered him an alternative to joining a gang, couldn’t we?
Ezekiel also concluded that the vast majority of people in these sorts of groups leave the groups by the time they’re in their mid-twenties. Partly they leave because they want to have families and get on with life, and partly because eventually all the vitriolic rhetoric begins to fray. Partly they leave because emotional and psychologically healthy men, once they get a bit older, are less and less interested in violence.
My experience with such groups, although it hasn’t been extensive, is similar to the experiences I’ve had with gang members, believe it or not. They both seem like extreme versions of the club-houses boys used to build when I was a kid. “No Girls Allowed!” was painted on the side of the boards. (Substitute “No Blacks” or “No Crips”, if you like.) They flew the pirate flag. They had secret handshakes and secret rituals. They demanded fierce loyalty. They dared each other to do dramatic and dangerous stunts. Often they stole from their parent’s liquor cabinets or from the local stores. They swaggered. They felt superior. Sometimes they bullied younger kids, or weaker kids (even if, by themselves, they might have BEEN the weaker kids).
And eventually they grew up, and put away such childish things. They found they actually liked girls, and that there was no need to be afraid of them after all. They walked out into the daylight, down streets filled with all sorts of people, and realized they needn’t wave the skull-and-crossbones after all.
While we mustn’t tolerate hate speech or hate crimes, or those who incite violence, we also mustn’t let them frighten us into overreacting and give them credit for being more powerful than they are. The vast majority of people do not feel as they do. I, for one, am embarrassed for and by them — for their ignorance and coarseness and vulgarity. They probably wouldn’t permit me to do it, but I’d like to take them by the ears, sit them down and teach them the truth of the world — that we are all related to each other on this Spaceship Earth, and we have a duty to be kind to each other, for we ARE each other. That’s what all the holy books say. Heck, even West Point says, “cooperate and graduate,” even the military has a “Leave no soldier behind” policy.
And just as the neo-nazi must learn that his black, brown, yellow, white and red neighbors are his relations, the rest of us have to accept we’re related to the angry, ignorant little boy with his rallies and his swastikas and his swagger. Therefore, there’s little point in casting him away where he will only grow more isolated, more angry. Maybe the punk band Camper van Beethoven was right — let’s take the skinheads (or neo-nazis) bowling.