Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Nazis in Skokie: 30 Years Later

When I caught the date on the calendar, an alarm went off in my memory. It was 30 years ago this week that we demonstrated the meaning of Meir Kahane’s slogan "Never Again."

The Nazi-Skokie story opens in late 1977 when Frank Collin, head of the National Socialist Party of America (Nazis) in Chicago, applied to the Skokie Park District for a permit to hold a rally in a Skokie park. The Chicago suburb’s population at that time was 66,000, about half of them Jews; many, survivors of Nazi Germany. The park district required Collin to secure a huge liability insurance policy to cover possible damages. So Collin responded by saying his followers would march, in uniform, in front of the village hall on May 1, but the village's lawyer obtained an injunction to block the demonstration. The village board also enacted three ordinances: Requiring insurance for demonstrations, banning persons from parading in "military-style" uniforms or displaying offensive symbols, and banning distribution of hate literature.

A lengthy series of court battles ensued after Collin obtained Jewish counsel from the Illinois Division of ACLU. Both the injunction and the ordinances were declared unconstitutional. Here’s Federal Judge Bernard M. Decker expressing the principle in striking down the Skokie ordinances: "It is better to allow those who preach racial hatred to expend their venom in rhetoric rather than to be panicked into embarking on the dangerous course of permitting the government to decide what its citizens may say and hear…The ability of American society to tolerate the advocacy of even hateful doctrines…is perhaps the best protection we have against the establishment of any Nazi-type regime in this country."

When Collin’s court victory was announced, thousands of Jews were mobilized by Rabbi Meir Kahane, z"tl. I was among them, a 17-year-old street fighter bussed in from Rockaway, New Jersey. The Nazis might march in Skokie, but we’d be there to meet them. The slogan Never Again has often been misinterpreted as meaning never again will there be a Holocaust. That’s a mistake. The slogan meant never again would we stand idle while Jewish lives were threatened. The slogan meant that our generation—the post Irgun Jew—understood with the greatest simplicity that there are causes worthy of the ultimate sacrifice. Especially when the enemy is making it.

Was Collin victorious? No. There were too many of us. The band of several dozen brown-shirt goons were no match for what we'd brought to Chicago. Hell, they'd have been no match for my friends in Rockaway. Forced to change the site of their march from Skokie to Chicago's Marquette Park, these Nazis were clandestinely transported in U.S. mail trucks then protected by nearly five hundred police—mostly mounted, in full riot gear—who had been imported from multiple Chicago suburbs to protect these thugs. Protect them from thousands of men who had come to twist them into swastikas.

One sad note: If the ACLU had not agreed to represent Collin, he would have lost in court. "Skokie would have prevailed," said David Hamlin, the director of the Illinois ACLU in a later interview. "There's no question about it. The Nazis couldn't afford to hire a lawyer, and even if they could have, I don't think there is a lawyer who would have taken the case."


G said...

As I recall, didn't the Nazis target the Jewish population of Skokie because they couldn't originally get a permit to march in Chicago? My recollection is that they used that as evidence of their "victory" by claiming they got what they wanted all along: to march in Chicago. I wasn't there, or even alive, so I'm not sure, but that's what I remember from what I heard about it.

Thomas Negovan said...

I googled Judge Decker's statement, and your blog came up. As a long-time comics fan I of course recognized Dave Cockrum on the sidebar, I am a fan and bought a copy of the Uncanny Tribute book!

I feel like I'm missing the point of this post... are you disagreeing with Decker's statement? You say "one sad note" but I don't see the connection between defending one's community- which I strongly agree with- and the government allowing a community to decide what elements are "undesirable". I agree with Decker's quote, that our constitution rights are exactly the thing that are "the best protection we have against the establishment of any Nazi-type regime in this country."

I respect your writing, and your opinions, and am sincerely seeking understand your thoughts. I know I'm missing something here.

Joanie Mackowski said...

Hi-- I'm writing in response to Thomas, even though the thoughts you write about, Thomas, aren't mine: but I believe the post is disagreeing with Decker's statement. And I don't think I agree with Decker's statement any longer, myself. I think Decker's statement may blur the line between speech or expression and actual coercion, intimidation, offense, harm. Just some thoughts, though. Sending best wishes-- Joanie.

Observer said...

The Skokie matter was wrongly decided, due to incomplete analysis of exceptions to free speech.

Free speech is not absolute; it depends upon the content of the speech. Obvious exceptions to free speech are dangerous speech (fire in a crowded theatre) and specific threatening speech ("I intend to kill you").

The error in the Skokie decision is the omission of an obvious third exception type: a credible threat of violence which is not specific, if supported by ideology and by historical pattern of mass murder. (Yes, I'm suggesting new case law and/or new refinement of existing case law; Skokie should have been used to establish this third exception type.)

Thus, the Nazi march and uniform and flag are indeed expression and a form of speech, but what do they say? They say, "Let's kill Jews." This is a credible threat because it is supported by two massive foundations: Association with an extensive, organised ideology; and a historical pattern of implementing the threat (six million dead).

If a historical pattern is admissible in judging a wife batterer, it should be equally admissible in judging a threatening organisation.

Thus, the Nazi name, uniform, flag, swastika, etc are a form of speech which is a credible threat of violence. The same could be argued of a KKK group burning a cross, even on its own property: It is a threat of intended violence, rendered credible by the organizational history and ideology combined with the historical pattern of action to implement the ideology (10,000 lynched blacks).

(For similar reasons, the infamous Metzger case should have resulted in criminal conviction.)

In contrast, Farrakhan's hate speech is protected; though outright hatred of whites and Jews, it is not backed by any organized plan for mass violence nor historical pattern of action to implement the plan. Farrakhan can proclaim his hatred all he likes.

Alternately stated, there is a line, fine though it may be, between simple hate speech and hate speech intended to instigate violence in the long term. Cf. the infamous Metzger case, which should have resulted in criminal conviction.

As a separate issue, there is an argument for American Nazis or KKK to be classified as terrorist groups and thus outlawed.