Oct 19, 2005

Caught in the Clash: An Account of the North Toledo Riot

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A first-person account of the North Toledo riot on October 15, 2005; this originally ran in the Toledo Free Press

The October sun warmed the first anti-Nazi protesters who assembled in Manhattan Plaza; it might have lulled some into a false sense of complacency.

That was not the case with Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre, who stopped and talked with everyone who gathered to oppose the National Socialist Movement.

Speaking with an anti-racist skinhead, Navarre offered a friendly warning.

"It's a beautiful day out today, isn't it?" he asked. "It's way too nice of a day to be sitting in a jail cell, so let's keep things legal."

He warned the protesters that any deviation from the agreed boundaries of behavior would be dealt with swiftly.

"We will have no tolerance for criminal activity," he said.

The organized protesters, however, would turn out to be the least of Navarre's worries.

I followed the Chief's car to the Cherry Street mini-station, where a media briefing was set to begin at 9 a.m. Navarre described the plans for the day's events, and issued warnings to the media.

"There is a significant danger of violence breaking out today," he said. "We want everyone to be safe out there."

Heating Up

At approximately 10 a.m., the assembled protesters began marching down Manhattan Boulevard to Stickney Avenue. The anarchists, most dressed in black, took the west side of Stickney, while the socialists and communists walked down the east side of the street.

Two Toledo Police officers momentarily stopped the 30 members of an anarchist group, who marched with a banner proclaiming ARA (Anti-Racist Action). They explained the rules once again, and reminded the members they would not tolerate anyone breaking the agreement.

As the groups neared Woodward High School, the police funneled both flanks into one assembled mass of protesters along the east side of the street. The group began a series of anti-racist chants.

I overheard a call over one of the police radios that a large number of gang members had been dispersed near LaGrange Street and Central Avenue.

The organized protesters were almost immediately joined by residents from the neighborhood, some of whom were dressed in gang colors. By 10:30 a.m., the combined protesters numbered about 100 people.

From the large number of people chatting on cell phones in the crowd, it appeared that the growth of the crowd could be attributed, in part, to people being attracted by text messages and video images.

The attention of the crowd began to focus on the unexpected presence of a half-dozen neo-Nazis near Stickney and Woodward Avenue. This did not seem to fit the original plan, in which the Nazis were to stage a short rally within Wilson Park before beginning their march on East Streicher Street.

The first wave of eight NSM members merely stood at attention approximately 50 yards from the crowd. NSM leader Bill White was dressed in civilian clothes at this time, chatting into a cell phone.

Soon, three carloads of Nazis pulled into Wilson Park in full uniform. The crowd, which by now had grown to an estimated 250, became more vocal in its opposition to the group.

White reappeared in full Nazi regalia, joined by Ohio NSM operative Mark Martin. Both began to address the crowd, taunting them with racial epithets.

"Hey! The Toledo Zoo called, and they want their monkeys back," shouted Martin, as the NSM members began making chimpanzee sounds. "Why don't you go cry to your daddy? Oh wait, you're a n*****; you don't know who your daddy is!"

White suggested the protesters "ought to go back to cooking French fries at McDonalds, since that's all you can do," and led the Nazis in a series of chants.

By 11:20 a.m., the situation on Mulberry began to deteriorate, as bottles and rocks were launched from the back of the crowd. Mounted police and police in riot gear made a few arrests, and many in the crowd interpreted these arrests as evidence the police were more interested in protecting the Nazis.

"Why did you take that young man?" demanded an older protester. "He didn't do anything!"

Bill White and his supporters moved back about 20 yards and attempted to continue their taunting.

"Hey Shaniqua, how many ‘baby's daddies' you got?" shouted Martin, creating an African-sounding name for effect. "How many welfare checks do you get every month?"

At 11:40 a.m., the police began to move the Nazis to a planned press conference in a secure area in Woodrow Wilson Park. The crowd, which was prevented from entering the park, ran down Central Avenue, where they hoped to confront the Nazis on their planned march through North Toledo. I was listening to Bill White's opening remarks when police radios nearby began to crackle. Overwhelmed police units on Mulberry were calling for backup. I and a visiting photographer from Washington, D.C., ran with the police to Mulberry and Central, where things were starting to get ugly.

Boiling Point

We reached the intersection of Mulberry and Central just before noon, and a few projectiles had already been thrown. Rocks and bottles continued to be launched from the back of the crowd.

"Why are you protecting the Nazis?" was the most common theme running through the crowd. I was photographing a man being arrested when another volley of debris was launched. In a span of perhaps 10 seconds, a half-dozen chunks of concrete landed in a radius of 20 feet from me.

The crowd forced police to retreat about one-half block up Mulberry, and we were now fully immersed in the angry protesters.

Contrary to published reports, there did not seem to be any racial animosity; I am white, as were the three media people I found myself standing next to. The anger was directed at the police department, who were increasingly seen by the crowd as collaborators with the Nazis.

"They got no right to come into our neighborhood like that," shouted an angry young man with a brick. "We gonna send them right back out."

Three Latino gang members sat against Jim and Lou's Bar and talked to me.

"You've got every gang here," one gang member said, rolling a thick joint of what he called "chronic," a potent brand of marijuana. "We want to kick these motherf*****s out."

The police forced the protesters back to Central Avenue.

"This is your one warning," shouted an officer through a megaphone. "Leave the area, or you will be arrested."

Shortly after noon, the first volley of teargas canisters and flash-bang devices were launched. Throughout the afternoon, I caught more than a few strong whiffs of teargas (the first is the worst; one becomes sort of accustomed to repeated contact).

The police drove the crowd further up Mulberry. Rioters in the alley began launching projectiles over the roofs of houses. I took cover on the porch of an abandoned house with three other media people.

The police pointed the wooden pellet rifles at us and ordered us to "move or be arrested."

A writer for BG News tried to reason with the officer, saying we were going to get hit with concrete if we left the porch.

"That's your problem; you knew that coming here," he said. "Move or be arrested."

We moved.

Smoldering Bronson St.

The crowd regrouped near Bronson Street and drove the officers back well north of Central. An estimated 500 people now filled the intersection at Mulberry.

"Where are all these people coming from?" cried an older woman. "I don't recognize any of these kids!"

Carloads of youths in gang colors careened through the neighborhood, driving at reckless speeds.

A shout suddenly went up over the appearance of a white TPD Jeep traveling north on Mulberry. As many as 30 chunks of concrete and brick were hurled at the vehicle, smashing every window.

For the next 10 minutes, every car going through the intersection was treated to the same barrage of projectiles.

"Stop it! Stop it!" screamed an unidentified woman to the teens. "You are being ignorant!"

The rioters paid no heed to her and continued to stockpile rocks for the inevitable next charge by the police. During the next two hours, this pattern of charge and retreat continued along Mulberry.

One of the weirdest occurrences, and one that happened throughout the ordeal, was the bizarre exchange of common courtesy that continued to show itself in unusual places. A young man hurled a chunk of concrete toward the police, and his arm bumped me after he heaved it.

"I'm sorry, man," he said. "You all right?"

After a volley of teargas and flash-bang devices went off, an elderly man's Cadillac inched through the intersection of Mulberry and Central. No one threw anything at his car, and he had the presence of mind to politely use his turn signals as he rounded the corner. In the midst of chaos, this man was determined to follow all traffic laws.

Of course, could there be anything more unusual than a 41-year-old white writer sitting on a curb and furiously typing a preliminary draft of an account of the riot on his laptop?

Or that he would be able to find a wireless signal 30 feet from the intersection of Mulberry and Central?

A shout went out shortly after 2 p.m.; an EMS vehicle moved east on Central toward Mulberry. Two dozen youths met it head on, launching a flurry of rocks into the front windshield. The windowless emergency vehicle stopped and immediately reversed its direction.

A resident on Central screamed at the youths.

"What the f*** is wrong with you?" she demanded. "What if someone is hurt and needs help?"

The rock-throwers exchanged high-fives in a surreal, twisted show of solidarity.

A young woman came to me and a photographer and offered to show us some things she had seen.

We walked around the block to the house of Thomas Szych, whose dispute earlier in the summer was ostensibly the reason the Nazis wanted to demonstrate and show support.

Most of the house's windows were smashed, as was his glass front door.

"We never called the Nazis," said John White, the father of Thomas. "Why are they attacking our houses? Look — they even broke the windows of an old woman who had nothing to do with this."

The elder Szych said he chased off the rioters with his gun.

"I fired six warning shots in the air, and I said: ‘I've got plenty more if you want some,'" he said. "If I have a heart attack, I am going to sue that Bill White."

One resident, who declined to be named, had a different view.

"The Szychs are the problem; everyone else on this street gets along," he said. "They are the ones who called the Nazis in the first place."

He pointed to Thomas Szych's house: "Look — that man started all this, but he turned tail and ran the day the Nazis arrived," he said. "You'd think he would stick around and meet his buddies."

Our guide took us around the corner to the vandalized truck of a local television crew.

Most of the windows had been smashed, and the vehicle had dents on all sides.

"Some people are mad at the media for giving the Nazis attention," said resident Yolanda Jackson. "I'd hide that press pass if I were you."

Another resident pushed his 1-year old child, Jaelyn, down the street.

"It's a shame the children have to see this," he said. "No one should have to grow up with this bullshit." Throughout the ordeal, a woman in a grey suit kept talking to any rioter who would listen: Oshai Crenshaw.

"Look — it doesn't have to be this way," she told a group of young men. "Why don't we stop and think about what we are doing to our city?"

Another near-constant on the scene was Ramon Perez, a Lagrange Village Council member. Perez also talked to gang members and urged them to cease the violence.

"Listen — this is our neighborhood," he told a group of youths. "When you act out like this, the Nazis win."

A man in a clerical collar walked down Central, just past the area where the EMS truck had been attacked. Rev. Mansour Bey left the alternative "Erase the Hate" rally on Lagrange Street and walked through the fray to act as an intermediary.

One woman challenged him.

"Why aren't all the area pastors out here trying to stop this?" she asked. "Don't they have faith?"

"I can only speak for myself," he replied. "I have faith." He continued walking toward Mulberry, a lone voice in a sea of chaos.

Bey later linked up with Toledo Mayor Jack Ford, Toledo Fire Chief Mike Bell and other City officials in an attempt to defuse the angry crowd.

We walked back from our tour of Dexter and Bronson streets to see the end of the attempt at negotiations with the mob. This effort might have been more successful shortly after noon; another two hours of rage, weed and booze made these efforts much less likely to prove fruitful.

The looting and burning of Jim and Lou's Bar, on the corner of Central and Mulberry, put an end to any civil resolution of the crisis. Reinforced by officers from the surrounding area, authorities quickly dispersed the crowd and gained control of the area by about 4 p.m.

Fire crews were able to put out the blaze in relatively rapid fashion; the smoking ruins of a favorite watering hole for local politicians stood as a symbol of all that had gone wrong on this sunny Saturday.

Watching the final police offensive, a North Toledo man quoted Dr. Seuss.

"To think that I saw it on Mulberry Street," he said.

1 comment:

news games said...

Very interesting approach to "It's way too nice of a day to be sitting in a jail cell, so let's keep things legal." :(