At yesterday’s “Michigan Response to Hate: Building United Communities” conference in Lansing organized by the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, a panel discussion was held on “Demonstrations.” The expressed intent of the panel was help community leaders, non-profits, and law enforcement officials “organize and prepare for scheduled and spontaneous demonstrations involving hate and bias incidents, organized hate groups, and counter protestors.” The panel featured two members of local law enforcement and provided an interesting “inside” look at how governments have handled security preparations for white supremacist rallies following the 2005 Toledo riot.
The first speaker on the panel was Darlene Sweeney-Newbern of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission who talked at length about the riot that took place in October of 2005 in Toledo when the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement (NSM) attempted to march through a residential neighborhood. Sweeney-Newbern explained that the community and police failed to prevent the riot by meeting only with whom they perceived to be leaders rather than those respected in the community as leaders and by allowing the neo-Nazis to march in a neighborhood. This allowed the Nazis to exploit existing tensions in the neighborhood and when the Nazis appeared chanting the same racial slurs that the police in the community frequently used, people quickly directed the protest towards the police after forcing the Nazis to retreat. Sweeney-Newbern pointed out that two buildings destroyed in the riot were specifically targeted with a bar burned because it had a reputation as being for “whites only” and a gas station being damaged because employees had a history of treating African-Americans “horribly.” She presented a fairly complex analysis of what caused the riot, understanding that it was far more than being simply a “violent rampage” as it has often been portrayed in the media. However, she fell into the trap of blaming the violence on the “anarchists and agitators” who are “not any better than the ones marching [the Nazis].”
The next speaker was Mark Alley who is the Chief of Police at the Lansing Police Department. Alley spoke at length about security preparations for the April 2006 NSM rally in Lansing. Alley explained that the Lansing Police Department learned extensively from what happened at the October 2005 event in Toledo as well as another rally that happened in December of 2005. Alley said that his department learned that they could respect First Amendment rights by restricting the time, place, and manner of the Nazis’ speech and consequently chose to restrict the Nazis to speaking at the steps of the capitol. The police further setup an “event participation zone” that excluded vehicles and required people entering to pass through a metal detector. Along with this, they positioned 575 police officers and required the Nazis to meet at a secure location to be bussed into the city. At the same time, the Lansing Police Department pursued an aggressive media and public relations strategy of working to dissuade people from protesting the Nazis. The strategy also included the Lansing Police Department asking businesses to close in the downtown area as well as sponsoring a “diversity celebration” to draw people away from the protests. Alley described the event as a “success” from his perspective with only 16 arrests, minor injuries, and little property damage. He made no mention of the fact that none of the charges stuck.
Captain Gregory A. Krusinga of the Michigan State Police also talked about this model as it was applied at the recent white supremacist rally in Kalamazoo. Krusinga explained that the white supremacists wanted to drive a wedge in the community and that to prevent that the Kalamazoo police decided to implement a controlled “event zone” similar to what was used in the December 2005 rally in Toledo and the April 2006 rally in Toledo. He told the audience how fences were positioned in a manner that made it impossible to throw missiles at the speakers or between the “supporter” and “protestor” cages. Additionally, Michigan State Police officers were dispersed throughout the surrounding neighborhood to “diffuse” tensions. Krusinga also explained that the media was helpful in making the event a “non-event.” He further told the audience that they “knew” that some supporters wanted to confront Nazi sympathizers so that following the end of the rally the city of Kalamazoo let the protestors march without a permit in order to prevent a conflict. Krusinga explained that overall, the protest was “actually a pretty good demonstration” and that the event was a success with only four arrests.
Also speaking on the panel was Sheri Wander of the Michigan Peace Team. Wander talked about how “peace teams” have been used to diffuse violence at protests against white supremacists over the past ten years in Michigan. She shared stories of how peace teams have prevented protestors from violently attacking white supremacists and argued that they have had success in deterring violence. She explained that the highly militarized police response is in itself an act of violence that essentially says that the police do not trust citizens to respond how they see fit. On a similar note, Valerie Newman of the National Lawyers Guild talked about how the Guild provides legal and direct action training. She also explained how the Guild could interface with police and work to make sure that people know the legal consequences of the decisions that they make at protests, although she said that ultimately the police can simply do “whatever they want.”