It was around 1989 when some permutation of the Ku Klux Klan and a motley group of affiliated miscreants applied for and was — as is their right — given permission to demonstrate in Gainesville. At the time my business was located in the Jackson Building on downtown’s Washington Street.
I remember standing at my shop’s plate-glass window as the malodorous-looking clot of people trooped by. Some were clad in the Klan’s trademark white sheets and pointed hoods, although in accordance with the Georgia law banning masks in public, their faces were exposed. There were paramilitary-looking goobers in camo and lots of leather. Both genders and every age group, from toddlers to senior citizens, were represented.
There were skinheads, with most of their exposed epidermis adorned with what appeared to be elaborate jailhouse tattoos. There were flags and banners declaring the hate du jour — illegal immigration.
They were flanked by stone-faced police officers, deputies and state troopers in riot gear.
Know who wasn’t there? Anyone else. All of the streets leading into downtown had been closed off long before the march began.
I don’t know who thought up that strategy but it was ingenious. The group got to hold their march but that was it. There was no one there to see them or react to them. No confrontation. No fisticuffs. No dramatic sound bites for the evening news. It had to have been about as satisfying as a flat soufflé.
They gathered, marched and then slithered back to wherever they came from with nary an incident. All of the downtown merchants lost a day’s sales, but in the grand scheme I suspect it was well worth it.
Now, 25 long years later, the only thing that has changed on the hate landscape is the locale. The National Socialist Movement, the largest neo-Nazi group in America, has received a permit to hold its 40th anniversary rally in Chattanooga on April 26 outside the Hamilton County Courthouse.
People in Chattanooga are naturally concerned. No, concerned isn’t the word I’m looking for; furious, outraged, incensed, alarmed — these are all components of the local climate. No one can seem to agree on the proper response to this unwanted assembly.
Newspaper articles and Facebook postings contain suggestions ranging from open hostile confrontation to counter-demonstrations at a distant venue to offering the Hitler wannabes a substantial amount of money to stay away.
People are understandably on edge. The bomb squad was summoned after a suspicious package was found outside Mizpah Congregation, one of Chattanooga’s three temples. Turns out it was a box of donated books.
One particularly vociferous Facebook poster is insisting that the only effective response to the neo-Nazis is to be loud and in their faces: “Non-confrontation of Nazis and the KKK is a proven failed tactic. They love it when people do not show up. It shows a fundamentally failed understanding of both democracy and the concept of a market place of ideas to even suggest people should not show up and argue with them. I will be there to debate, argue and mock them off the streets with y’all!”
Oh, dear. Try as I might, I can’t imagine any way this sort of standoff can end well.
Another commenter wrote: “I don’t agree with hate-mongering. Not from neo-Nazi Hitler wannabes and not from some of their opponents who would escalate the tension by confronting them in the name of tolerance.
“These jerks have freedom of speech and assembly. ... They want counter-protests, confrontation and media coverage. ... If you really want to rain on their parade, ignore them. Give them empty streets and take away their headlines. Organize a boycott, don’t feed the troll.”
I hope Chattanooga listens to that last guy. I hope they do come together, just not on the courthouse lawn. I hope officials borrow a page from Gainesville’s playbook and create a vacuum around this hateful, antagonistic demonstration.
The demonstration will take place on the eve of Yom HaShoah, the day of commemoration for the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust during World War II, atrocities that neo-Nazis alternately celebrate and deny ever happened.
It’s a good day to light a candle, plant a flower or read this poem found scratched on a concentration camp wall after liberation: “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when I don’t feel it. I believe in God even when He is silent.”
April 26 will come and go. So will the neo-Nazis. I’ll be thinking of the folks in Hamilton County, Tenn., as they take a stand against bigotry, racism and intolerance. Regardless of the weather, the sun will be shining on the good people of Chattanooga.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.