While visiting my dear friend Anthony in DC this past weekend we were out and about on the Mall, visiting the botanic gardens and the nature photography exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Anthony noticed that there are a lot of police officers about. Like an abnormal amount. Many of whom are attired in riot gear. Interesting. Being the curious cat that he is, Anthony asks an officer what is going on. A socialist rally. Interesting. The officer also suggests that we might not want to be around the Mall for it. Very Interesting. So there we are thinking "Oooh, a bunch of Trotskyists, how fun." You know, like socialism as a political party. We continue on our merry way, not really thinking too much of the situation, after all, it's DC.
So I've been to DC many times, seen all the sites, done all the stuff you do when you do DC. But I've never seen a protest/rally. You always hear about some absurdly large number of people (always emphasizing the great size, mind you) gathering on the Mall for cause X or Y, and I never really have understood what it actually accomplishes, aside from a day off work and a lot of taxpayer dollars. Call me a Republican, but it seems kind of narcissistic and wasteful, in a country where less than half of the citizens actually vote for the people who decide on these great issues.
But I digress.
As we merrily trot along enjoying the sunshine, we run smack into the "parade" coming down Constitution (or one of those avenues that has some significance), so hey, why not stop and see the socialists? We first watch the row of policemen on horseback, literally shoulder to shoulder across the entire road, with even the horses in "riot gear" (aka- clear shieldy thingys across their eyes). This seems odd to me- a lot of... pomp? protection? excessiveness? for a little parade. But who am I, the silly New Yorker, unaware of the parade proceedings of other cities, to question protocol? Then we stare over the policemen lining the "parade" 3 deep on each side of the road. I see some dudes and some American flags... and then the wind blows a bit and oh, wait... no, I must be mistaken... it couldn't be... Oh but it is. Swastikas.
Suddenly I am acutely aware what kind of socialism this is. And why there are more policemen than people in the parade.
And I am all at once outraged, disgusted, shocked, appalled, confused, and overwhelmed. But I have very little time to process any of these emotions because simultaneously I am surrounded by the even LARGER crowd of counter-protesters walking along with the Neo-Nazis, probably 6-deep along the sidewalk on which I am standing. They are dominated by a large group of equally scary looking white guys shouting into a megaphone. While I cannot recall the content of the megaphone commentary, I am acutely aware of the chant they are repeating: "Power! Power! Power to the people! Death! Death! Death to the Nazis!" Over and over and over. Then there are the flower-patterned girls singing "You Are My Sunshine."
All in all, a lot to take in, given that this entire situation unfolds in approximately 86 seconds. And dagnabit, I left my camera in my suitcase. Thankfully, I was able to find a short news clip to help you understand the situation. Apparently we left before things got really crazy, when the counterprotesters got a little out of hand. You know who was arrested? The counterprotesters.
So ok, taking a step back (and a lot of steps away from the Mall), I am confronted with something I just cannot resolve or put aside. We live in a country characterized by freedom, political freedom, freedom of expression, and a whole host of other freedoms. That are given to ALL people, not just the majority. All people, no matter how radical or polarizing or extreme or ignorant or WRONG. And yes, this includes Neo-Nazis. Who, given this freedom, must be protected from others who may disagree so vehemently with their position that they are willing to resort to violence to make their point. So half a million taxpayer dollars down the drain for these 30 hate-filled white supremacists to walk down the street in DC to protest illegal immigration. To express their beliefs safely and freely. I think because of what and who it is, it just doesn't sit right with me. There are many many people/beliefs/causes/issues with which and whom I disagree, but I can do so respectfully and with an understanding that they well-meaning human beings who have as much right to express their beliefs as I do. But this? It just burns. I dunno, I haven't quite been able to process through it yet.
I will say that "thankfully" the vast majority of the protesters were older, so it wasn't a fresh crop of crazies in their teens and twenties. But my heart just broke seeing a little boy, probably no more than 9 years old, walking hand in hand with his father, wearing a shirt with a Swastika emblazoned on the front. My blood has rarely boiled as hot as it did in that moment.
So what did this Neo-Nazi protest achieve? Certainly not sympathy for their cause or any type of productive dialogue. No, it basically pushed both sides further into their corners. Which is not what freedom and democracy is about, now is it? But alas, I must take faith in the system as a whole, even if a few crazies abuse it along the way. And take comfort that it was 30 and not 300,000. And hope that someday it will be zero.