August 22, 2010 protest against Park 51. (Photo: asterix11)
At first, I thought it was just me. I’d witnessed dozens of far-right demonstrations over the years, but this was the first which literally sent chills down my spine.
I spoke to a few activists who’d effectively made attending, confronting, and exposing these sorts of things into their life’s work, and had witnessed hundreds of events staged by all manner of racist groups, from the National Alliance and the Minutemen to the Teabaggers and the National Socialist Movement.
"I’ve never seen anything like this before", one said, as another nodded his head in agreement. "The rhetoric, the music, everything… it was just… overwhelming. Did you see the effigies? I don’t even know what to say."
"Jesus died for you, Allah wants you to die for him!" (Photo: Matt Berkman)
I didn’t either. I’d spent the first hour or so listening for amusing quotes from the speakers to broadcast via Twitter. Then I began paying closer attention not only to the increasingly strident words emanating from the podium, but to the tone, the gestures… and to the response from the crowd.
It stopped being funny.
By the time I arrived home, having had a bit more time to process the experience, I wasn’t even the slightest bit surprised to see a YouTube clip of an African-American construction worker at the rally, mistaken for a Muslim (apparently on account of his hat), being harassed and nearly assaulted by the crowd. The whole event was beginning to feel more and more like the pre-game show for a televised lynching. It hardly mattered if the victim was a real Muslim or not.
There had been numerous streams of stimuli to process. The words were the easiest, at first; I’d heard them all before.
It was "a slap in the face" to build a mosque here, they said.
It would "only add to our pain".
"No place would be far enough."
"Tell everyone who will listen, at every PTA meeting!"
"Mohammed was a pedophile!"
For every incendiary statement from the podium came an even more vitriolic response shouted from one location or another within the crowd, back and forth, with the orators seemingly drawing strength from the crowd and projecting it back in magnified form.
And there had been music, of course, after every speaker. Booming, overpowering. The generic patriotic musical interludes were easy to scoff at, but the instrumentals seemed to gather, solidify, and animate the tension in the air.
(Photo: Matt Berkman)
Then there were the visuals. I’d missed the effigies, but every variety of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sign I’d ever seen was well-represented, some waved by small children from their fathers’ shoulders. Lots of flags, mostly American, a handful of Israeli. One JDL shirt with "Gush Katif Forever" emblazoned on the back.
I’d gotten the impression that that despite the shirt and the flags and the one family I overheard speaking Hebrew, I was actually one of very few Jews here. I wondered if there had been more before I got there, who perhaps felt something unsettling about the atmosphere and decided to leave.
There had been a definite tension between various types of people that the rally had attracted. A handful of people in the crowd apparently made some limited effort to diffuse the episode with the African-American consruction worker. Others had mildly chastised the man shouting that "Mohammed was a pedophile": "That’s not helpful", they said.
There was clear disagreement on what constituted the most appropriate means of expressing xenophobic bigotry. Some attendees seemed genuinely uncomfortable with what they were seeing, like a cat startled by its own reflection in a mirror.
These, unfortunately, were apparently the extreme minority. Most seemed thoroughly enthralled and invigorated by the moment, reveling in the sense of shared outrage and collective determination to do something about it.
It became increasingly clear what I’d found so disquieting about the experience of bearing witness to this. I’d been able to write this phenomenon off as a lunatic fringe movement before. It was certainly no more sane as a result of my having been there, and there had been no more than five hundred to a thousand people in attendance, but I could no longer simply write it off. I’d stood in the heart of it, surrounded on all sides by a teeming sea of hate, and felt its potential. It was utterly terrifying.
The rhetoric of national humiliation, of "us" and "them", of the enemy within, of the state as the vehicle for asserting the supremacy our way of life, and the need to sieze control, in one way or another, should the state continue to be an obstacle to realizing these grand dreams.
I’d never experienced this so directly before, only through multiple levels of abstraction. Only through newsreels.
Despite this deep sense of dread, and the queasiness I feel when playing those newsreels over in my mind, I find one thought reassuring:
These echoes from the past originate from a period before that movement had passed the point of no return, when ordinary people still had the power to stand up and prevent things from going any further.
It wasn’t too late then, and it isn’t too late now, to say…
Zach Morris is a Jewish activist closely engaged in both Palestine solidarity and antifascist struggles.