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.

"No Girls Allowed" S. Dohanos, 1952, Saturday Evening Post

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.

21 Comments

  1. Lucky8 on April 16, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Lauren, loved the post. I was moved by the way you weaved in West Point’s philosophy of, “cooperate and graduate,” and also the military’s “Leave no soldier behind” policy. Fabulously done!

    • Lauren B. Davis on April 16, 2011 at 5:43 pm

      Thanks, Lucky8. That bit was inspired by the writing of Paul Chappell — his book THE END OF WAR. Interesting stuff from a West Point grad and a vet. You can read more about him here: http://paulkchappell.com/

  2. Shannon Allain on April 18, 2011 at 7:43 am

    Lauren: This group of marginalized, poor and desperate young men is exactly who terrorist groups recruit from. I am not surprised they are the same lost souls who populate other violent, hateful groups. I hope the rain kept most away and dampened their message of hate. But I have a feeling it did little to quell the fear, isolation and hopelessness driving most of these young men. Sad indeed.

    • Lauren B. Davis on April 18, 2011 at 8:29 am

      You’re absolutely right, Shannon. The ripples reach far and wide, don’t they. And yes, in the end apparently only 50 of so showed up. They were far outnumbered by counter-protesters. But still, too much animosity on both sides. Contempt breeds little more than contempt.

  3. Adam Syarto on December 19, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Wow, I stopped reading when she actually WANTS Black Panthers to have the spotlight. I wonder if she realized they want to kill all white people….For being an author she isn’t very well read into things she writes about.

    “Neo-Nazis that like my skin color?? Nah, I’ll take the group that wants to murder me for it.”

    *rolls eyes*

    • Lauren B. Davis on December 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm

      Ladies and gentlemen . . . I rest my case.

      • Adam Syarto on December 19, 2011 at 4:02 pm

        You have no case.

        • Lauren B. Davis on December 19, 2011 at 5:50 pm

          Adam, I appreciate you keeping it civil, and I can see you’re upset. I’m sorry for that. Certainly not my intention. You posted another comment with a dreadful video from Youtube showing a racist idiot who happens to be black. I’m not going to post it, since I don’t what to give that fool any publicity. Alas, racists (and idiots) come in all colors. Hate speech, and hateful, ignorant behavior shouldn’t be tolerated from anyone. I appreciate you keeping it civil. I suspect I am quite a bit older than you, and my life may have been different than yours. My family and social group is made up of people from many different races and religions, and as a result I see the similarities between us, which is a great delight. I truly believe if we–all of us–learn to stop seeing people as “the Other” the fear we have of each other will leave us and so will the anger. I wish you only the best, Adam. And thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep a conversation going (too much work to do!), but if nothing else I hope we can agree to disagree. And hey, you might even read the full post! 😉

          • Nita Fielding on December 19, 2011 at 8:07 pm

            Wow, Interesting interplay!
            I think anytime there is harsh tone used against something an author posted or wrote, the author was on the right track- hence the reactions!
            Your refutation is perfect and very well said 🙂



          • Lauren B. Davis on December 19, 2011 at 9:17 pm

            Thanks, Nita. Everyone’s welcome to add their two cents, as long as they’re respectful.



    • Susan on December 20, 2011 at 11:30 am

      Adam I find it very telling that you refer to the author as she, instead of by her name. It is easier to dismiss someone by making them less than you. I think that you and Lauren and myself have more in common than you imagine. You might be surprised. As long as we huddle in tribes and hide behind real or metaphorical walls we will never know each other and that’s a shame because we come into this world alone and we leave it alone. Life is far too short to spend it stuck behind walls, angry and alone.

  4. Sylvia Petter on December 19, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    At a time when one dictator after another has become or is becoming history, when people are acting together in great numbers in many cities in America to demonstrate againts reigning inequities, I fail to understand why neonazis feel the need to rally at all. Unless, of course, they are seeking attention because people are lookiing elsewhere, or perhaps they are being guided in order to deflect attention from other happenings that may ultimately affect all Americans.

    • Lauren B. Davis on December 19, 2011 at 7:51 pm

      We are living in interesting time, Sylvia. I don’t think the conversation about income equality is going away any time soon — nor should it!

  5. Paul Bond on December 19, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    As someone who holds a large number of unpopular and ill-considered opinions, I find the Neo-Nazis most striking for their lack of imagination. Really, white supremacy? My eyes glaze over! If you want to stir people up, you need to think outside the box. Protest the US census as unbiblical. Bitterly dispute the use of time zones as an invention of the New World Order. Rage against the UK for failing to satisfy its World War I munitions debts. Insist not only that English be recognized as our official language, but that the sestina be recognized as our official poetic structure. What mighty contests rise from trivial things!

    • Lauren B. Davis on December 19, 2011 at 7:52 pm

      I, for one, am against daylight savings time — does that count? 😉

      • Louise Freeman on December 19, 2011 at 8:25 pm

        Everyone in Alaska hates daylight savings time.

        • Lauren B. Davis on December 19, 2011 at 9:18 pm

          You do make me laugh, Louise. My problem is I NEVER require it to be daylight at 11:00 at night! As long as it’s light out I feel I have to keep working. Exhausting.

    • Paul Bond on December 20, 2011 at 9:33 am

      This post reminds me of something James Baldwin wrote to his nephew: “Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration, There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” I don’t cite that as a categorical truth about race relations good for all time, but I do think Baldwin speaks to a dynamic of the situation that still has some relevance.

      • Lauren B. Davis on December 20, 2011 at 10:22 am

        Paul — you are one brilliant guy! And one of the many things that’s so marvelous about that quote (Baldwin’s one of my favorite writers!) is that it can be applied broadly, beyond race relations to gender, religious, political relations as well. Well done, you.

  6. EB on December 20, 2011 at 11:00 am

    Good book:
    “Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead” by Frank Meeink

    NPR radio interview: http://n.pr/9AFMiS

    Meeink grew up in South Philly, was a famous skinhead as a teenager. Had a public access talk show, “The Reich.” Appeared on Nightline and other TV shows, in radio and newspapers, as a spokesman for neo-Nazi topics. He worked hard in his South Philly neighborhood to recruit members for his gang.

    Quote: “At 18 years old, things changed and Meeink spent several years in prison for kidnapping one man and beating another man senseless for several hours. While in prison, Meeink says, he was exposed to people from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds and started reevaluating his own [rascist] beliefs. His transformation solidified, he tells Dave Davies, after the Oklahoma City bombing, when he saw the iconic photo of a firefighter cradling a lifeless girl in his arms.”

    That’s enough quoting. Here’s the National Public Radio interview with Meeink about his book and the work Meeink does now with the Anti-Defamation League and gangs.
    http://n.pr/9AFMiS.

  7. EB on December 20, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Meant to add: here’s the link for Frank Meeink’s web site. He is the founder of Harmony through Hockey. http://frankmeeink.com/

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