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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Laughter may be the best medicine, but can it destroy hate?

There are pictures of both neo-Nazis and their opponents doing stupid things below. Let the viewer beware. 

Knoxville Protests the Nazis, 8/14/10
These kids were AWESOME.
A very strange thing happened here in my college hometown this past weekend-- we had about fifty National Socialists from freaking Michigan descend on our downtown and hold a rally against illegal immigration.  I really have no idea why they bothered coming to Appalachia, but they caused quite the gridlock in the downtown area because it took 400-500 police in riot gear to protect fifty Nazis from getting creamed by the enraged locals.  It was just so surreal-- I felt like I was on a different planet. 

They had a short (as in four block) parade down the main drag in our downtown area (which is called Gay Street, mind you) and parked their sorry neo-Nazi butts on our old courthouse lawn to spread their message of hate from an itty-bitty PA system.  Yours truly, along with about 100-200 other people, showed up for a counter-protest across the street.  Since I've written about the ethics of using humor to combat hate previously (but with Fred Phelps) I thought I'd show you the varieties of response I saw to the Nazis as they made total fools out of themselves.  I saw a lot of love, a little bit of hate... and a whole lot of humor.  And the humor really interests me, I have to admit. 

Okay, so if you don't want to be offended by racist people doing nasty things, go no farther. For the rest of you, let's start off with some pics of the so-called "master race" to set the mood for you...

Knox Vs. the Nazis, 8/14/10
Yup. Buddy can't even hold a flag right. The counter-protesters started chanting, "Your flag is backwards!" and, "ASU? ASU? ASU?" until the guy finally figured it out and turned it around. Backwards flags were a bit of an epidemic, however. Get a load of this kid:

Knox Vs. the Nazis, 8/14/10

Like father, like son, it seems. He held his flag backwards for the ENTIRE FREAKING RALLY and never figured it out. Silly Nazis. You're failing your children. 

Knox Vs. the Nazis, 8/14/10
Mmmmm-hmmmmm....  yeah. 

But, enough of the bad guys. Let me instead show you how the counter-protesters responded. As it turns out, counter-protesting can be a highly individualistic affair; a local anti-racism group had taken out the parade permit with the city and provided a few signs, but many who showed up had their own idea of how to counteract the Nazis' hate campaign. The first group were the hecklers who called themselves the Coup Clutz Clowns:  

Knoxville Protests the Nazis, 8/14/10Knox Vs. the Nazis, 8/14/10

Yes, that really IS a goose-stepping clown Hitler. The guy was absolutely amazing to watch in action (he really fit the role of French street performer well), and he was likewise a very accomplished heckler. The female clown was also fun, dynamic and wrote an original funny song about the plight of an illegal immigrant for the rally.  Every time somebody across the street pulled off a Nazi salute, they'd blare mariachi and ranchero music over an enormous PA system.  Others brought their own signs, which ranged widely in content (as well as legibility):

Knoxville Protests the Nazis, 8/14/10Knoxville Protests the Nazis, 8/14/10
D'awwwww, she made her own protest sign. Absolutely adorable.

Knoxville Protests the Nazis, 8/14/10Knoxville Protests the Nazis, 8/14/10

Knox Vs. the Nazis, 8/14/10

Knox Vs. the Nazis, 8/14/10

Knox Vs. the Nazis, 8/14/10Knoxville Protests the Nazis, 8/14/10
If you can't read Spanish, her sign says "hate shrinks your penis."

Knoxville Protests the Nazis, 8/14/10

The LOVE signs, actually, are mine. They were left over from that protest of the hate-preacher I did on campus a few months ago, so I brought them out for this rally at a friend's request. Some friends and colleagues of mine are holding the black ones.  The lady in the middle is the wife of my minister friend, and on either side of her are my friend the education grad student (left) and a lecturer in my department (right, with the huge sign). 

The Nazis were about forty minutes late to their own rally, and when they finally got themselves organized and did their whatever-it-was they planned on doing here, the reactions were mixed.  For instance:

Knox Vs. the Nazis, 8/14/10Knox Vs. the Nazis, 8/14/10
The girl on the left is my friend "Colleen," the one who does ethnographic research in Rhetoric and Composition.  Here she is bein' awesome.

Knox Vs. the Nazis, 8/14/10

Naturally, I was a little horrified by this. Protesters, this is why hate is NOT a reasonable substitute for love in a counter-protest. That little girl learned this by imitating the angry guy standing directly in front of her. That is not the lesson these parents wanted to teach their daughter by bringing her here.  If we teach our kids to hate... how does that make us any different than the parents across the street teaching their kids hate?

Okay, so now their anti-immigration protest is over.  The NSM guys got the footage of themselves they wanted while holding their hate flags for the Internet, and we all feel all political and progressive for resisting them in the way each of us thought best.   The clowns and hecklers badgering the Nazis certainly made the counter-protesters feel good, and it kept us from getting too wrapped up in the message they were trying to sell here in the South.  But I nevertheless have some ambivalence about all this. 

In the din of the mariachi music and chanted abuse, I could barely hear what the Nazis were saying, about the impending demise of the economy, the fears of crime and joblessness; that feeds into the anxiety that a lot of people feel, justly or unjustly, about the rampant illegal immigration problem in the US, and I was a little worried.  You see, these guys know exactly the right message to play on the fears of those in the South whom I'd call "my people": middle to working class WASP conservatives who might have trouble making ends meet in a tight economy.  That message plays with them because they're scared.  They're worried about the national debt ballooning up and swallowing the country whole.  They're apprehensive about what they see as the unmanageable burden illegals put on their social systems, and often times, they feel like nobody is listening.

If those people were to stroll down Main Street and see the fracas between these two groups on Saturday, they would conclude that only one side is taking their fears seriously, and it wasn't us.  It was the guys holding the "white pride" flags and the swastikas.  And even those who aren't really all that racist may feel a need to turn to the National Socialists if they feel the mainstream parties aren't addressing what the NSM spokesman called a "simple matter of survival."  The head honcho guy for the Nazis put out a call to all the Tea Party people in my area to come listen to what he has to say.  That's my father's social circle.  And as a social justice freak with roots originally in that community, that possibility scares the heck out of me.  What if all this laughter and derision just reinforces the message of hate these guys came to sell right in our backyards? 

And yet, I'm nevertheless torn.  If this wasn't the right response to the Nazis' hate... what is?  How do you block a message like this from spreading?  It doesn't seem like there's any easy answer. 

All the pics of the protest above were taken by me last Saturday and are available on Flickr. If you'd like to see the rest of the pics from this zany protest and counter-protest, you can go here to my Flickr account to see them.

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