If April 13 belonged to the students of Rutgers University who initiated a statewide day of action against budget cuts (see my previous post), three days later, it was students from The College of New Jersey taking to the streets, this time to protest the presence of Nazis in downtown Trenton.
Behind a barricade of concrete blocks and rows of state troopers stood the roughly 30-50 neo-Nazis, members of the Detroit-based National Socialist Movement, which claims to be the largest neo-Nazi organization in the U.S. On the other side were a multiracial crowd of 300 protesters, chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Nazi scum have got to go!” and “Don’t give in to racist fear, immigrants are welcome here!”
And it was the spirited, angry, and coordinated chanting by a contingent of TCNJ students that set the tone and mood among the protesters.
It rained all day that Saturday, so Bryan Williams, a resident of Trenton, NJ, held up a hastily-created sign that explained the crappy weather: “It’s raining because God don’t like Nazis.” Despite the incessant rain, several dozen Trenton residents were joined by student activists from TCNJ, including members of the Progressive Student Alliance and the International Socialist Organization, in a rousing protest against the NSM, who were here for a conference and to rally at the steps of the statehouse. Enraged at the presence of Nazis in their city, the protesters easily outnumbered and drowned out the speakers on the other side.
Many among the working-class, multiracial crowd of protesters were outraged not only the Nazi presence, but also at the massive police mobilization, which was sheer overkill. Where, they asked, could the sate find the money to mobilize so many troopers and so much equipment to protect Nazis when Trenton, like the rest of New Jersey, is facing huge budget cuts?
Hundreds of police officers and police dogs lined the entrance, several hundred more lined the area designated for protestors, and about fifty stood directly in front us, fully equipped with shields, helmets, and weapons. We also saw what appeared to be snipers on the rooftops lining the street near the statehouse. The following day, The Star-Ledger reported that after their rally, the Nazis were transported to their hotels in NJ Department of Corrections vehicles.
Downtown Trenton looked like a police state, with patrol cars and cops at each intersection. Armored vehicles could be seen parked in the alleyways. Protestors were funneled through a maze of streets and parking lots to the site of the rally, forced to walk past a line of aggressive police dogs, and then through metal detectors. We had to give up our handmade signs. One protester (the photographer who captured the images in this post) was even forced to give up her camera bag. We were then frisked, men and women alike, by male troopers.
Everyone who went through this humiliating ordeal could see the hypocrisy at work: Nazis protected by taxpayer-funded riot police; residents of Trenton forced to discard their handmade signs before entering a completely encircled “protest zone.”
Perhaps this was the reason why members of Anti Racist Action (ARA), who had done much in the previous weeks to get the word out via Facebook, decided not to join the protesters. However, by sitting out the protest, they cut themselves off from the hundreds of unaffiliated Trenton residents who stood chanting in the pouring rain. The previous day, anarchists belonging to the group had provoked a confrontation with the Nazis outside their hotel, and, according to the ARA blog, “After the dust settled, six Nazis were hospitalized, more were injured, their vehicles and property were damaged, and their conference was ended.” While these actions have no doubt dampened the morale of the Nazis (we can be sure they will think twice before returning to Trenton), I think they did little to build the strength and confidence of the broader anti-racist movement.
Equally contradictory, I think, was the role of the New Black Panther Party, a group of about 30 people. We cheered them as they arrived, chanting, with their fists in the air. But the group soon separated themselves from the rest of the protesters, and spent as much time denouncing white anti-racists as they did denouncing the Nazis. “All crackers!” they chanted at the protesters–not the Nazis or the cops—telling them that they were “on the wrong side” (of the barricades). Fortunately, this sectarianism was not embraced by many of the African American protestors, who instead expressed the need for solidarity and unity in the face of racism.
Conspicuously absent at the protest was the right-wing Zionist group known as the Jewish Defense Organization (JDO). A police spokesman said that the JDO’s online barbs against the Nazis was one of the factors that raised “fears of violence” and necessitated the mobilization of local, state, and federal security agencies. On the day of the protest, however, the JDO was nowhere to be seen. I wonder how they might have reacted to the “Free Palestine” bumper sticker on my car.
For the hundreds who did show up to protest, however, the day ended in victory. The Nazis, who had a permit for an ambitious four-hour rally of up to 150 people, brought out no more than a third of that number, and turned tail after ninety minutes. They seem to have got the message: “No Hate in the Garden State!”