DEYAN RANKO BRASHICH was born in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia, and is an Op-Ed columnist for Connecticut's Litchfield County Times.  He writes the monthly Letter From America column for Romania’s Scrisul Romanesc, a literary magazine and is the Editor-at-Large for  The Country and Abroad, another literary/art magazine where he authors the Dispatch from Abroad column. He is a frequent contributor to Pecat, the Belgrade, Serbia weekly news magazine, Britić, a magazine published in the United Kingdom, Ekurd Daily, a multinational Kurdish news portal and Passport, a lifestyle quarterly. He resides in New York City and Washington, Connecticut.





Neo-Nazis marching in Chicago 1978 - Photo courtesy Chicago Tribune

I visited Skokie, Illinois four times in 1977 and 1978. Each time I flew into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, rented a car and drove to Skokie, a Chicago suburb that called itself “The World’s Largest Village”. It was then predominantly Jewish with six thousand Holocaust survivors calling it home. It was also the home of the bowling operations of the Brunswick Corporation, the sports conglomerate headquartered in nearby Lake Forest, Illinois, where I would spend the night.

My visits were with Brunswick’s legal team trying to resolve a New York piece of litigation, a dispute over a bowling lanes contract. The dispute was not acrimonious, it was over money. It was “just business”, one side trying to screw the other, “nothing personal”. After the theatrics staged for our respective clients the attorneys would socialize over drinks at White Hart Pub in Lake Forest’s posh Dear Park Inn.

During one such pleasant chat we discussed the legal issues of the then raging controversy over a proposed political rally of the Nazi Party of America – originally the National Socialist White People’s Party but then Frank Colin’s National Socialist Party. While I had been aware that there was a Communist Party in America – its home being in New York City’s Astor townhouse on West 26th Street directly across the street from the Serbian Cathedral of St. Sava, the church I attended - the existence of domestic Nazis in the United States in 1977 was news to me.

I have a history with the Nazis. Six months after I was born Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and my life would take “a road less travelled”, eventually to the United States. That life was in jeopardy when the Gestapo raided, then searched our house in Belgrade failing to find incriminating documents hidden in my crib. My father was arrested and jailed by the occupying Germans twice escaping execution by a stroke of luck. As a result, my sentiments are understandably not pro-Nazi.

As for the political rally, it seems that the Nazis, some 30 of them had sought a permit to march the streets of Skokie in make believe uniforms complete with red, white and black swastika armbands, unfurling huge swastika adorned flags that would flap in the wind and in the residents’ faces.

Skokie responded with “shock and outrage” and sought “a court order enjoining the march on the grounds that it would ‘incite or promote hatred against persons od Jewish faith or ancestry’, that it was a ‘deliberate and willful attempt’ to inflict severe emotional harm on the Jewish population in Skokie [especially on the survivors of the Holocaust], and that it would incite an ‘uncontrollably’ violent response and lead to serious ‘bloodshed’”. The court stopped the proposed march dead in its tracks.

The Nazis appealed and while this was pending before the Illinois Supreme Court I stopped by a rally against the injunction which had, after all, abridged the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. The rally was in a flea bitten, down-at-heals hall, BPO Elks or some such organization, attended by a bunch of men and, as I remember, no women whatsoever. On the stage were five or so callow youths wearing uniforms with flat top kepis sporting swastikas displayed on the table in front of them. The main speaker was a middle-aged man of dubious intelligence stringing words which did not make much sense but seemed to please the meager crowd.

My reaction was that this motley crew was no threat to liberty. These rejects were no danger to the Republic, and certainly not to me. In fact, they were a pitiful bunch of bastards, a sorry assembly of losers, but Americans nonetheless and as citizens, entitled to voice their opinions and “peaceably … assemble, and … petition the government for a redress of grievances”, if any they had.

The American Civil Liberties Union had taken up the Nazis’ cause and the dispute was well on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court for final adjudication. So back in New York, I joined in the ACLU’s support of the Nazis’ right to march with swastikas unfurled to their hearts content – which ultimately, they did, but in Chicago, not Skokie. My support of the Nazis' right to demonstrate and voice vile political speech was not welcomed by friends and family. Nonetheless the Nazi protest march, a puerile effort such as it was, died with a fizzle and a snicker, without violence or bloodshed.  

I still stand by my Skokie decision but “the times are a-changin” as Bob Dylan sings. There have been many political demonstrations since, many starting peacefully then morphing into violence and death. The ’89 Tiananman Square protest started peacefully enough with unarmed students asking for democracy. Tanks rolled in, shots were fired, people and political discourse died. The Arab Spring flowered in several Middle East and North African countries in 2011 with the political protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square grabbing the headlines. It too ended with tanks rolling in and gunfire.

In Charlottesville, this past weekend the planned demonstration was in opposition to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General. But the demonstration was markedly different that the one proposed for Skokie. The alt-right white supremacists and neo-Nazis held a torch light march through the town on Friday night shouting “Blood and Soil” [“Blut und Boden”] the slogan espoused by Hitler’s propaganda  machine when cleansing enemy territory of undesirables, such as you and me.

On Saturday, the protestors marched to the Robert E. Lee statue shouting the same slogan but they had donned protective gear, helmets and plastic face shields. They sported make-shift shields made of plywood, some had bats and batons. On the sidelines, wannabe “militia men” in paramilitary gear were sporting military assault rifles glaring ominously at one and all. Virginia is an open carry state, where brandishing weapons is protected by law. This was not a prelude to a demonstration; this was a prelude to an armed confrontation.

That’s where I draw the line. If you arrive at a political rally with protective gear - helmets, shields, whatever – you do not have lawful intent, a lawful purpose. You lose the protection of the First Amendment and you are to be denied a forum, by force if necessary. But the reverse is also true – a government’s attempt to stop a lawful protest protected by the First Amendment gives license and legitimizes the use of force and violence against it.    

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