Our newsroom is usually empty on a weekend, but that was not the case when the neo-Nazis came to town on a Saturday in Spring 2006. After covering the rally at the Capitol, our reporters wrote what they saw and Thomas Morgan out it together into a classic example of team journalism as well as the advantage of perspective that being a weekly can afford. Our cover, featuring the children of Neo-Nazis, speaks to the banality of evil.
(This story was written by Thomas P. Morgan based on reporting by him and Gretchen Cochran, Lawrence Cosentino, Laleah Fernandez, Kyle Melinn, Joseph Neller, Stephen Patterson and Emily Sorger.)
Lansing City Council President Harold Leeman Jr. lifted up the brim of his floppy gardener's hat to get a better look at a Michigan State Police helicopter circling overhead.
“We'll be hearing that all day,” he said, bending over to pick up another piece of trash.
A few blocks south, downtown Lansing was quieter than usual for a late Saturday morning. Almost all businesses were closed. The area was cordoned off by more than 500 police officers from 10 different agencies. Several dozen officers in riot gear segregated in groups of three or four along the sidewalk on Washington Square. Two more officers stood on the roof of the Lansing Police Department's headquarters, scanning the scene with binoculars. About 20 onlookers sat on benches facing the Capitol and spoke in hushed tones.
In two hours, the National Socialist Movement, a Minneapolis-based neo-Nazi organization, was set to rally on the Capitol steps. All was quiet except for the chop-chop-chop of the helicopter.
“We are preparing for the worst,” state police Lt. Jim Shaw said. “We expect high emotional tension, and we are fully staffed in order to deal with it.”
Officials feared that counter-protests, led by the Lansing Coalition Against Nazis, could lead to violent confrontations with police and neo-Nazi supporters.
To the east, on Michigan Avenue, baseball fans trickled toward Oldsmobile Park for the 2 p.m. Lansing Lugnuts game. A lone woman, Crystal Bradford of Las Vegas, picked her way toward the park over the construction debris on Michigan Avenue. “My boyfriend is a hitting coach,” she explained.
From the vantage point of the ballpark, the activity at the Capitol looked like a swarm of ants at the bottom of an overturned jar, with the dome a lump of sugar. “It's a little scary,” Bradford said. “Things like this don't happen in Vegas.”
As the still-growing crowd stepped around large piles of horse manure spattered in the middle of Capitol Avenue, three buses transporting 73 neo-Nazis and their supporters arrived shortly before 2 p.m., about 30 minutes late, at the Capitol's west parking lot, visible only to media and police.
One of the last people to step off the second bus, which was driven by a black woman, was a preteen blond girl donning a full Nazi schoolgirl uniform.
“I'm not allowed to say nothin',” said the African-American bus driver when asked for comment.
The neo-Nazi rally was scheduled to start at 2 p.m. A large group of drum beating counter-protesters marched in a circle at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington Square. The crowd around the Capitol had swelled to about 600. No one in the public had seen the Nazis yet, who were still inside the Capitol speaking to some 60 members of the press.
“They're wasting their time,” National Socialist Movement commander Jeff Schoep said of the throng of counter-protesters waiting to greet the Nazis outside. “Americans want change, and we're going to give them that change.”
“We're growing everywhere all over the country,” Schoep said. “Every time we do rallies we get bigger.”
As the neo-Nazis spoke to the media, Lansing police chief Mark Alley relaxed on a flower pot in front of City Hall, casually chatting with several bystanders.
“It's going fantastic,” he said.
That wouldn't last long. Fifteen minutes later, a few people had gathered in the fenced-off area designated for neo-Nazi supporters. That included one black man wearing Adidas basketball shorts, who casually spoke to a man in military fatigues while standing next to a tree.
“Let's go in!” shouted several people outside of the supporters' area, which was not protected by police. Scores of people rushed into the zone to confront the man in military fatigues, who was quickly swarmed by a fury of fists and rage. Somebody ripped the swastika band from his arm, drawing loud cheers of “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA!”
After what seemed like an eternity, but really just a matter of minutes, police on horseback rushed in to break up the melee.
Four minutes later, around 2:30 p.m., the neo-Nazis finally walked out onto the Capitol steps, a half-hour later than planned. They carried with them the Israeli flag, which they made a point of laying on the concrete behind the podium and stepping on. Boos and chants of “go home” erupted in the crowd. The neo-Nazis extended the straight-armed salute. Many in the crowd extended middle fingers in response. Horse feces began flying through the crowd.
At the podium, National Socialist Movement Chairman Clifford Harrington said the neo-Nazis would continue their rallies until they “get the attention” they need. “White power, we salute, you,” he said. And once again, the crowd saluted back.
“This is a scene from 'Planet of the Apes,' and you gotta love it,” Hal Turner said from the podium. “It proves what animals you all are.”
“Those short, squat, chain-smoking little dwarves — go back to Mexico,” another neo-Nazi shouted during his turn to speak.
“They've erected these fences to protect us,” screamed another. “We are not afraid of these Negro beasts.”
Janet Okagbue stood at the fence enclosing the opposing viewers with her 15-year-old daughter, Sasha. Okagbue said she brought Sasha to the rally with education in mind. “I think it's an aspect of life that a lot of kids are sheltered from,” Okagbue said. “I wanted my child to be exposed to evil in a safe environment.” She said they discussed safety issues beforehand, but as a young black woman it was important for Sasha to know what groups like the National Socialist Movement are about.
“I can't really hear what they're saying,” Sasha said, “but they look ridiculous, and I know that what they're saying is stupid.”
Eight boys, all students of Eastern High School, raced from one fracas to another along Capitol Avenue. “We're here to take care of things,” said one of the boys, unable to explain what kind of things.
The boys' attention temporarily shifted to a brown steed carrying a sheriff's deputy. The horse stiffened its legs, preparing to relieve itself. Several people backed away as the horse's penis grew in size, but the boys stayed put. With jaws agape, the boys watched as the horse urinated onto the street into what quickly became a small lake. The boys continued to watch in awe until the horse finished its business. They composed themselves and sped off to the next mini-event.
At about 4 p.m., the neo-Nazis left the Capitol steps and lined up at the west side of the Capitol to get back on the buses. While the Nazis moved west, police quickly directed the crowd to move east along Michigan Avenue.
By 6 p.m., just like any early Saturday evening in downtown Lansing, all was quiet. Workers had already removed all but a few sections of the fence around the Capitol. The only real sign that anything out of the ordinary had happened was the yellow police tape that still blocked some streets and the piles of horse manure.
Gentle laughter could be heard from the Capitol steps, where about 20 high school and college students armed with rags and jugs of water were perched to symbolically — and literally — clean the rally site. Joining them were two little blond girls with toilet brushes.
“We should have people bring toilet brushes next time,” somebody said to MSU student Corey Kriebel, who organized the scrubbing.
“Hopefully there won't be a next time,” Kriebel responded with a wince.