A holy war is a holy war is a holy war?

By Meera Subramanian

Here’s a riddle for you: How can a small neo-Nazi march, organized to draw attention to the alleged persecution of white people by black people, and a counter-demonstration of approximately 600 blacks, take place in Ohio and not spur a single news report to directly address the question of race, except to deny its role in the events? Not six weeks after Hurricane Katrina supposedly awakened this country to the fact that it had some latent race issues to deal with, the media once again missed an opportunity to deal with the murky territory of race in the great melting pot of the United States.

There were over a hundred arrests in Toledo, Ohio after rioting broke out last Saturday. The rally organized by the National Socialist Movement (“America’s Nazi Party”), drew only a couple dozen white supremacist demonstrators, who gathered to bring attention to a neighborhood where they believed whites were being threatened by the presence of black gang violence. The Aryan Nation website goes into descriptive detail of the alleged abuses. Members of the black community responded by taking to the streets and the crowd ended up directing their anger towards the police after the neo-Nazis left.

One report from the Associated Press dominated the media, repeating quotes from a defensive mayor and a startled police chief. A CNN live feed summed up the situation in Toledo with “What a mess,” and then, without skipping a beat, transitioned into: “All right, a sign that New Orleans is approaching normal…”

In an Aljazeera piece, Toledo Mayor Jack Ford denied that race was even an element. “I don’t think it was race relations at all. It was some gang members who had real or imagined grievances and took it as an opportunity to speak in their own way over the march.” His statements, along with other city officials, generally took on a defensive tone, attempting to justify their position and their actions as they walked the delicate line between first amendment rights and civil peace while ignoring any exploration of the underlying reasons for what happened. Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre was onto something when he said, “This is not a police problem, this is a social problem.” But his statement was left dangling in the AP wire, as was any credible attempt to explore such “real or imagined grievances,” that brought six hundred people, mostly young black men, out into the streets to throw rocks at cops, overturn vehicles, set buildings on fire.

Apparently, there’s no time to pause and begin to answer such questions. Instead, what predominated the press was blame, for those who failed to contain the crisis, for those who exploited it, for those who sparked it. Bill White, the spokesperson for the neo-Nazis, blamed the violence on the police. The police, in turn, “blamed the mayhem on a disorganized group of the community’s youth.”

The overall lack of reporting is of note as well. By Monday, two days after the event, The Toledo Blade had a dozen articles listed about the incident, but the national press seemed to have forgotten Saturday’s events. Even The New York Times relied on a basic AP feed that focused on the unheeded pleas of local ministers and community leaders for a peaceful response to the neo-Nazis.

Consistent with most mainstream media, the topic was bereft of context. A few facts and numbers, quotes from officials and one or two residents and the story is considered complete. Explanations come in the form of one-sentence kickers, such the one that ended the AP story widely circulated on Saturday in which black resident Keith White said, “They let them come here and expect this not to happen?” By closing the lead article with this, the AP was essentially echoing the sentiment of the man: Well, what else do you expect? We’re just here to give you the facts.

Race wasn’t the only elephant in Toledo’s living room. Economics and religion were crowded in there too. Because, really, why Toledo? In the same CNN article, Mayor Ford says he’s not clear why the neo-Nazis chose his city or that neighborhood in particular. The National Socialist Movement is based in Roanoke, Virginia. Perhaps Toledo was chosen because it is a prime example of a mid-sized, Mid-Western city that has witnessed its economic infrastructure steadily decline, and rate of unemployment increase by more than half, over the past five years. Frustration and lack of opportunities feed into the dynamics of what occurred and make cities like Toledo a target for hate-based activity.

There was also not a single mention, in these evangelical days, of the religious element of the neo-Nazi movement in America. While all claim to have God on their side, neo-Nazi groups have a wide range of focus on the Christian element within their manifestos. Many neo-Nazi groups in America are seen as Christian Identity, a racist version of the Biblical fundamentalism that clenches a Bible in the hand not raised in Sieg Heil. But the Aryan Nations webpage, which has links to the National Socialist Movement (the rally’s organizers), as well as mention of “Aryan Jihad” and quotes from Adolf Hitler, also has an Arabic insciption at the top of their site and a quote from the Qur’an praising “Jihadists who strive hard and fight.” In other words, a holy war is a holy war is a holy war. By looking to the Bible and defining themselves as the true descendents of Adam, neo-Nazis nevertheless seem to focus their hatred on Jews and downplay the love of God part.

Perhaps Police Chief Navarre was representing the nation and the press more than he realized when he said, “If this march had occurred in downtown Toledo, we wouldn’t have had the unrest.” Avoidance seems to be the way Americans choose to deal with the biggest social issues that stand before us. At least until the next natural disaster, murder-trial acquittal or Saturday afternoon rally by a couple dozen neo-Nazis reminds us of the work we still need to do.

Meera Subramanian is a graduate student at New York University.