Last October, the National Socialist Movement sparked a riot in Ohio. It was an untrammeled victory for the neo-Nazis.
In years past, the Toledo, Ohio, neighborhood of Polish Village was heavily populated with Polish-American factory workers who lived comfortably on middle-class wages. But when auto and glass plant jobs fell off, many longtime residents moved away and were replaced by blacks and Hispanics who now live alongside poor whites in small, run-down houses. Unemployment and gang activity are high in Polish Village. Racial tensions sporadically flare into violence.
Last summer, a feud began between two families in the neighborhood. Amelia Gray, who is black, said it all started when she accidentally dinged her next-door neighbor Tom Szych's car while backing out of her driveway. Szych, who is white, accused Gray's children of trespassing and throwing garbage in his yard. He began videotaping Gray's house and called police at least 75 times to report "suspicious black kids" and death threats from gang members. ("Mr. Szych's calls were highly exaggerated and found to be without merit," Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre said later.) Szych told a television news crew that "almost all" of the blacks in his neighborhood were criminals. Later that summer, police seized a handgun from Szych after he allegedly waved it at Amelia Gray's children.
"It's just blacks he doesn't want here," Gray said. "He just wants his old Polish neighborhood back."
Enter the Nazis. In mid-September, a group called the National Socialist Movement announced that white residents of a Toledo neighborhood "plagued by n----- crime" had called an NSM hotline. In response, the group said it would march through their neighborhood in a show of force to intimidate "the Negroid beasts victimizing White citizens." The NSM identified the caller as Tom Szych's father, John Szych, who also lives on the block, as does Tom's brother James Szych. All three Szychs denied calling the Nazis. But Tom Szych said he'd welcome them. "If the Nazis come in and want to fight the black crime, if they can do better than our Toledo police, hey, more power to [them], you know," he said.
Because they promised to stay out of the street and stick to public sidewalks, the Nazis were not required to apply for a parade permit. City officials informed angry black leaders that nothing could be done to keep the Nazis out. In fact, they would be marching with a heavy police escort. "Unfortunately, they have the right under the First Amendment, and as distasteful as it is, we have to protect them," said Chief Navarre.
In the days leading up to the Nazi march, police learned the word on the street was that rival gangs in Toledo had declared a temporary truce and formed an alliance to take on the NSM. "The intelligence indicated the gangs were calling a peace among themselves and would show a unified front," said Deputy Police Chief Derrick Diggs. "They felt the Nazis were challenging them."
The night before the march, the mayor of Toledo appealed for calm during a speech to the 2,000-strong congregation of a Baptist church. Community leaders organized an "Erase the Hate" rally in hopes of drawing anti-Nazi protesters away from a confrontation with the Nazis. Three hundred did attend the anti-hate rally at a senior center the morning of Oct. 15. But many more showed up in the streets on what turned out to be a warm and sunny day.
By late morning, a grand total of 14 uniformed NSM members were huddled under police guard at Woodrow Wilson Park, the march's pre-announced rallying point. They hoisted a banner that read, "White People Unite! Fight for Your Race!" Across the street, about 200 anti-Nazi protesters chanted, "Enough! Enough! We're going to f--- you Nazis up!" A quarter mile away, a mob of another 300 to 400 protesters rapidly accumulated near a major intersection along the route of the march, which had been publicized the day before. The anti-Nazis in both locations were mostly local blacks and Hispanics, some wearing gang colors. There were also several dozen white youths with bandanas across their faces. These were outside agitators, mostly militants from a group called Anti-Racist Action.
The Toledo Police Department had 150 extra officers on duty in the area. But the heavy police presence had the opposite of a calming effect. A crackdown by the department's new Gangs/Crime Suppression Unit had strained police relations with North Toledo's black residents. "Why do police protect the Nazis, but when five African-Americans are standing around we get questioned and maybe frisked by the police?" asked Pastor Monsour Bey of North Toledo's First Church of God. "Aren't the Nazis a gang? Whose side are the police on?"
Bottles and rocks began flying before the Nazis could leave the park. The NSM march was over before it started. Police officers threatened to arrest the Nazis if they did not get back in their cars and leave. The Nazis complied and hurried away with a police escort, but the riot's fuse had been lit. The mob began burning and looting when officers fired tear gas and flash-bang grenades.
Meanwhile, the Nazis arrived at the Lucky Duck Tattoo Shop in West Toledo. They changed out of their uniforms and some got tattoos while they all watched the first news reports from the scene they'd just fled. The rioting lasted four hours. Twelve officers were injured, one seriously when a rock struck her in the head. One hundred and fourteen adults and juveniles were arrested. During the mayhem, shots were fired at Tom Szych's house and a brick was hurled through his back window. According to reporters at the scene, Szych returned fire from inside his house, shooting six times over a crowd before yelling, "Want some more?" The next morning he brandished his .357 on CBS News' "Early Show."
At a press conference that day, Chief Navarre said the violence had been much worse than police had expected. He said in retrospect it was clear that city officials should have persuaded the NSM to march in a "neutral location" rather than a residential neighborhood. "These groups thrive on this kind of attention," the chief said, "and what happened yesterday was a victory for them."