Sunday, March 11, 2007

Main Event - nonfiction


(Nick King photo, Columbia Tribune)

I’m one of the few hundred who have come to watch the Nazi horde descend on Columbia, Missouri. It’s a beautiful spring day. The sun feels great and you can almost hear the birds twit-twitting over the propellers of the news helicopters. Counter-protestors told everyone not to come. No one wanted a repeat of the Toledo riots. If we try to fuck up those Nazi pigs, they said, the cops would have to intervene and that would make the fascists looks like the victims.

But we came. Let’s be real: how often do you get a chance to see a Nazi rally? Of course we were going to go see the goddamn Nazi rally. It’s the political equivalent of a three-ring circus—well, maybe one that abuses its animals—and, as with three-ring circuses, fascism is not so popular since the mid-twentieth century.

People are packed on the corners of 9th and Elm so tight you can almost imagine getting teargassed because of the tweaked-out kid in the Che Guevera t-shirt standing in the front. He looks like someone who could make a bad decision. I move away.

It looks like everyone is waiting for a parade, I think. And then I remember that it is a parade, the Nazis have a permit and everything. Everyone’s standing around and peeking up each road, trying to see which way the marchers will be coming from, because no one knows. The last memory I have of people lining the streets like this was back at the homecoming parades of my hometown Cleveland, Missouri. Children would be swarming around like fruit flies and clutching cones of cotton candy in their sticky fingers right up until the moment they heard the bass drum of the marching band reverberating in their chests, and then they’d position themselves along the sidewalks, in front of all the mashed thrown candy that was too squished to be worth picking up, just trying to catch a glimpse of the source of the music coming from somewhere up the street. Their parents would look on with a Norman Rockwell-sort of contentment. Instant nostalgia.

Except now there are college students, not children. And we are waiting for the fascist swine instead.

Police are everywhere. Earlier, on the way to my morning run I saw them swooping up Hitt street. All kinds and varieties of squad cars. Paddy wagons. Motorcycles. Horses. It was like a scene from Blues Brothers. “I hate Illinois Nazis,” someone says. People laugh nervously. A squat-looking officer tells people to stay the fuck off the opposite sidewalk.

I look around. The makeup of the crowd: mostly college kids, but some middle-aged geezers too, and people in tie-dye t-shirts, blacks, Jews. A kid with a Marxist t-shirt and a mad-bomber-looking winter cap. It occurs to me that outside of the people in tie-dye t-shirts, the blacks, Jews, and Marxist party members, the rest of us are just here to see what the hell neo-Nazism is all about; the concept of it existing in the 21st century is so completely alien to me that I forget to be pissed off, as something so bizarre it’s hard to take seriously. It seems like I am not alone in this sentiment, as the crowd of observers here may not be linked by their common humanity as well as they could be by ownership of a digital camera.

Everyone’s got a goddamn camera. Forget the press, who are climbing up the fucking trees to get pictures. Even the cops have cameras. On the monstrous Christian Life Center looming over the intersection I would have expected SWAT snipers, but instead I see a lone police officer with a telephoto lens. Pictures must be important. We’ve got to make this moment stick.

A person looks east. Another person looks east. People look east. The crowd lurches.

Nazi bastards!

I see them in the distance, materializing from behind an apartment building, marching parallel to 9th street. Actually, I only see the signs bobbing up and down. Mob squad police trot alongside and block my view. The press sprints up the road towards them, like a 100-meter dash with a camera-bag handicap where gold medalist gets pepper-sprayed.

Then—

Oh, fuck. The Nazis aren’t coming to this intersection. They didn’t turn.

A little air is let out of the crowd. They were ready to go. But I don’t despair; I know the parade route. I leave the mob standing at 9th and Elm and decide to catch the Fascist monsters on University Avenue. I am surprised no one goes the same way I do. I’ll be able to get a close look. Sure enough, when I make it to University, people are sparse. Just a few look on from their apartment stoops.

I get excited.

I see the horses first. Cops with helmets on horseback telling people to clear the sidewalks. Then I see the press, keeping a few paces in front. Next, the teenagers with punk-rock haircuts who just walk alongside, being a part of the action, as well as a few black-rights activists silently holding up their fists.

Then I see them.

And in one of those odd little moments where expectation meets reality, I want to scratch my head.

There are only twenty or so Neo-Nazis. A few of them are dressed in Nationalist uniforms, and have shaved heads, but other than that, they look average. A couple dozen white people who look an awful lot like the people back in Cleveland, Missouri. I must have been expecting space aliens with Hitler moustaches or something. All of this hype for a few fascist boy scouts. They pass. I don’t shout anything. There’s no point. My excitement has disappeared. Disappointed, I begin to head back to my apartment.

But I stop. Pause a moment. And I turn to run. Towards 9th and Elm.

The Neo-Nazis aren’t the main event.

I take a back route. I get excited again. On the way I see three guys jump out of a car with a few six-packs of beer, laughing and keeping their hands on top of their ballcaps to keep them from flying off, shouting hurry up, we’re going to miss it!

I make it to the intersection. The waddling cop tells me to get the fuck off of the sidewalk. And right then, right as I cross the street to go be with the crowd, I can see everyone craning their necks, looking up the road, trying to catch a glimpse of why they’re all here.

Hundreds of people with almost one expression. I’ve never seen people in Columbia this excited about something. I’m stunned.

It’s like they’re stuck in that arrested moment that seems to exist just before every memory begins, and right then, it feels like it could last forever, Christmas morning in Hell, the crowd anxiously waiting to see what happens when Point A finally reaches Point B. And God, I wish someone would turn the cameras around, and catch the look on their faces right as the wild unknown prepares to step into reality—they don’t know it, but they’re the stars of the show.