Left: Riot police march through thick teargas south on Toledo's Mulberry Street toward protesters on October 15, 2005. Photo by Isis
Toledoans joined television viewers around the world on October 15, 2005 and watched in disbelief as hundreds of angry people faced off against the police for four hours on that sunny Saturday afternoon at Mulberry and Central.
After police finally dispersed the rioters, many people were content to write the incident off as the isolated work of violent, lawless hooligans and gang members.
We might take comfort in the fact that there were no fatalities, and that injuries and property damage were limited, at least in terms of American urban riots.
Some might also view the episode as a learning experience for police and city officials, as the second visit on December 10 from the neo-Nazi group known as the National Socialist Movement ended without violence or property damage (we shall set aside for the moment any concerns about freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, or other pesky constitutional issues that were raised by anti-racist activists who claim to have been denied such rights).
Unfortunately, the conditions leading up to the October 15 riot have changed little in the past year, and remain as potential fuel for another conflagration in Toledo. The presence of the swastika-wearing, goose-stepping members of the NSM was merely a lit match placed in the middle of a potentially flammable environment in the North End.
Protesters at Mulberry and Central
I have spoken with many people over the past year, and there is a decided unwillingness on the part of most observers to recognize that the rioters acted with at least an element of political activism (albeit of a violent, illegal, and unconventional fashion). Most local pundits, if they even consider the possibility of political awareness among the rioting protesters, would rather blame the “outsider” socialists and anarchists for “stirring up” the youth in the North End.
Both viewpoints are sadly mistaken, and reek of condescension toward those who gathered to object to the presence of white supremacists in their neighborhood.
In addition, many protesters that I interviewed during and after the events of October 15 complained about unemployment, poor economic circumstances, and police harassment as factors that led to their involvement in the rally and subsequent riot.
Left: Unidentified man being arrested on Mulberry
Aside from some civic window dressing, little has changed in North Toledo since the riot. There have been some public forums, and extra attention paid to the abandoned homes that blight the area, but the economic and social conditions that created an environment primed for combustion remain.
Any future civil unrest in Toledo’s North End might not be as quickly contained, or result in as little comparative damage, as last year’s riot.
The challenge, then, is for city officials and community leaders to avoid the temptation to dismiss the events of 2005 as an aberration, and to recognize that much work remains in the process of restoring LaGrinka as a vibrant neighborhood.
Failure to do so will most assuredly be a prescription for more of what we witnessed last October.
This is an op-ed piece that appears in this week's Toledo Free Press, which reexamines the North Toledo riot one year later.