I'm standing in front of a long rack of black boots at the American Army & Navy Store on South Orange Blossom Trail, pondering that age-old question: What should I wear to my first Nazi rally?
The National Socialist Movement, one of the best-organized neo-Nazi groups in America, is set to march through Orlando's Parramore district, and I need some boots. I try on four different pairs: two old, two new. I settle on a $10 pair with scuffed toes. I pick up a $5 black T-shirt for good measure.
While the media is preparing for a feeding frenzy when the Nazis come to town, scurrying around trying to find the best angles and interviewing anyone they can find, I've decided on a different tactic. I want to watch this march from the inside. I want to hear the pep talks the Nazis give one another before facing an angry crowd 20 times larger than their own group. What will they mutter to each other as they march? What's it like on the other side of the line?
There's only one way to find out.
Following instructions from David Gletty, an organizer with the Orlando chapter of NSM, I show up nearly two hours early for the march Feb. 25. I told organizers I'm from Missouri (true) and that I wanted to march with them (true). I also told them my name was Bill (not true) because I'd already been in contact with the NSM's national office and didn't think they'd let me in as a reporter. It's a bit of subterfuge, but the story warrants it.
I park on Central Avenue and walk toward the meeting point, the parking lot underneath I-4, across the street from the Orlando Police Department. From 100 yards away I can already see the unmistakable image of a swastika on a poster one man is holding. It reads "White People Unite."
I casually stride up to the group and lean on a minivan next to a kid with a shaved head. Not 10 seconds later, a tall man with short dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses walks up to me.
"Hi, I'm Bill White," he says in a husky voice.
White is the national spokesman for NSM, and he's traveled all the way from Virginia for the rally. He's dressed in full NSM "storm trooper" regalia: black cargo pants tucked into black boots, a tan button-down shirt with a black tie and a red felt swastika band around his left arm. White thanks me for coming out and immediately walks off to take a call. I was worried that my hair was too long, but apparently my $15 surplus-store Nazi outfit is convincing enough.
I introduce myself to a couple of people. Most of the Nazis milling about are from out of town. There are two burly guys from Wichita, Kan., two thin-framed friends from Tampa Bay and a carload from Savannah, Ga. There are a few marchers from Ohio, a couple from Lynchburg, Va., and one man down from Alabama. I count about 25 total waiting under I-4 to march. At least six are in "storm trooper" outfits like White's. Another quick fashion observation: long, stringy goatees are in with Nazis.
A crowd carrying anti-racist signs is starting to gather around the edge of the police perimeter. I feel the need to stay alert. Gletty steps out of an SUV and introduces himself. He's a muscled man in khakis, a polo shirt and sneakers. He's got close-cropped blond hair, but not a buzz cut. Gletty is a former professional roller derby player, which means he can kick some ass … while on skates.
There's another Orlandoan bearded and wearing sunglasses standing next to me near the minivan. After an introduction, he points to a University of Central Florida student who's here taking photos.
"She looks good," he says to me as we lean against the minivan. "Probably a Jew, though."
In the distance I hear a drumbeat and around the corner of Church Street and Garland Street come the anti-racist protesters, faces covered with handkerchiefs. They form a line across the road and march forward, holding a sign that reads "We're anti-fascists. We shoot back." They make it right up to the south entrance of the parking lot before the mounted police cut them off. White and the other storm troopers, standing in the middle of the lot, turn and bolt toward the ruckus. The police find themselves sandwiched between the racists and the anti-racists. White is screaming at the top of his lungs, "Smash the Reds! Smash the Reds! Smash the Reds!" The police push the counter-protesters back with their shields, and when some of them resist, they're taken down and handcuffed.
The rally has barely started and the scene is already chaotic. Protesters are yelling at the Nazis. One guy, introduced to me as being from the Aryan Nation group, is pumping his fist and whooping as more counter-demonstrators are arrested. Other Nazis wave their signs "We don't have white guilt" at the crowd of people. White is jumping up and down. "Beat those commies! Beat those fuckers! Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!"
Gletty yells to the group to watch our backs. I look over my shoulder to see a black man, who has somehow made it through the police line, walking toward the group. One young storm trooper, shaved bald, leaves this scene and sprints back to meet the intruder. The Nazi is no more than an inch from the black man's face, yelling something about "nigger" and "dirty neighborhood." Others from the group pull the Nazi away as police escort the black man back to the masses. Later the bald Nazi tells me, "I wish more niggers would have started stuff. I like to get angry."
So far, this thing is every bit as crazy as I thought it would be. The NSM is a lightning rod for hatred, on both sides of the fence. They held a rally in Toledo, Ohio, five months ago that led to riots among the counter-demonstrators. Businesses were torched and bricks were thrown at police. We haven't even started marching yet, and I'm already on edge. I look over my shoulder constantly.
The police tell us we're starting early due to the disruption, and Gletty gets us formed into two lines. I'm standing behind a girl, 25 years old at most. On the back of her neck is a tattoo of an eagle clutching a swastika in its talons.
"Listen up," Gletty yells over the roar of a sheriff's helicopter overhead. "This is a point in history for Orlando. Nothing like this has ever been done. Remember: Image is important. We want to stay civilized. Give these police officers the respect they deserve."
Gletty knows what he's doing. From the front of the police station where we are, the growing mob is visible. We're already outnumbered, and the cops are our only protection from a sure ass-whipping. Make no mistake: Nazis may have First Amendment rights like everyone else, but their cause is not a popular one.
Gletty gives us the OK to start. The girl in front of me kisses a swastika medallion hanging around her neck, and we're off.
The march down Church Street is fine. Gletty walks up and down the line telling us to stay alert. He pats me on the shoulder and says, "Good job, comrade." I feel sick.
As we near Terry Street, Gletty tells us this is where the shit could hit the fan. I round the corner and there are throngs of people, white and black, lining the opposite side of the street. It's a wall of sound, mostly indiscernible, but definitely vitriolic. Some people are just observing. Others are hurling insults. "Fascist!" "Racist!" "Pig!" I look one young black man in the eye. He mouths something to me and shakes his head in disgust. I'm on the wrong side, and I know it. I remind myself that I'm here to do my job there's no better way to catalog blind hatred and bigotry than to immerse yourself in it.
As we near Washington, Gletty tells us to watch out. There are more protesters, or else the same ones are running to keep up. I hear a woman shout, "Shame on you."
We pass by a few houses on our side of the street that aren't buffered by the police. Outside one stands a young black woman and a small black girl. As we pass, the angry Nazi shoves his sign in their faces and says, "Huh? How do you like that? Why don't you clean up your neighborhood?"
From the crowd across the street comes an airborne stone, then another. Someone from the back of the group yells, "Rocks!" One whizzes by my head and instinctively I duck and almost trip over myself.
We make it to our destination, the federal courthouse, and it's more of the same. We're on one side. Several hundred protesters smashed against plastic barricades are on the other side. The police, decked in riot gear, stand between. Hughey Avenue is no man's land.
White is still at it. He stands beside the angry Nazi, who's also lobbing racial slurs across the road, and belts out, "Nigger, go back to your ghetto! Nigger, go back to your ghetto!"
He pauses to pull us all into a semicircle. Standing in the middle, he begins a fire-and-brimstone speech in an angry, dictatorial tone you don't encounter often in civilized society. His rant concerns the "commie Jews" who are steering the national crime conversation away from the facts the facts, in his mind, being that crime is a black issue. He paces back and forth, yelling to be heard over the din of the crowd. Apparently everyone has it all backwards; these Nazis are not about hate, says White. They're about love of your own race, that is. Look at them, says White, pointing across the road. They are the ones who hate.
As he finishes the group screams, "Sieg Heil!" They hit their chests and throw out a few Nazi salutes. "Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!" It's an eerie flashback to some World War II special on the History Channel.
I can't bring myself to do it and don't lift a finger. Neither does the Nazi beside me. He leans over and says, "I'm a little sieg-heiled out." A crack in the fascist armor, or a cramp in the arm? Who knows?
Gletty gets in front of us and gives us another shot of anti-Semitic bile. When he ends, the group again throws out more salutes. He tells us we're about done. "Get in another two minutes of Sieg Heils, and we're out of here," he says.
The police lead us down Hughey and across the street into the parking lot. I see protesters scurrying to surround the lot. The police, I'm told, will escort our convoy out of the area which is great, only I didn't park here. What the hell am I going to do? Either I try to walk the two blocks back to my car and risk getting beaten by a gang of enraged hippies, or I go with the Nazis. Sounds like an easy choice.
I squish into the back seat of a white pickup truck along with the two Tampa Bay marchers. A woman and a skinny tattooed man sit up front. We pull out and are soon on I-4, en route to Gletty's house for some post-rally grub. The Tampa duo talks quietly between themselves. The girl up front is on the phone with someone named Lars. The driver lights up a cigarette.
In five minutes we're on the 408 heading east. The driver switches the radio station, and a Slipknot song gives way to "Tripping Billies" by the Dave Matthews Band. Ten seconds pass, then 20, and the driver still hasn't changed the station.
Eat, drink and be merry
For tomorrow we'll die
The fiddle comes in for a short solo. No one in the car says anything.
Remembering once out on the beaches
We wore pineapple grass bracelets
The light, poppy sound of the DMB melody fills the car. The driver puffs away and the Tampa guys stare out the window. I start to hum aimlessly.
You and me and all our friends
Such a happy human race
Nothing like a little DMB to wrap up a hate rally.
We pull up to Gletty's house and walk around back. People are sitting in a rickety wooden gazebo, some drinking Bud Light, others fruit-punch Gatorade. (It was a hard march.) Everyone's here, all 25-plus. Most who were in the storm trooper outfits have changed. Many take their shirts off right here, revealing giant swastikas tattooed on their chests. Gletty brings out a pan of chicken breasts, boiled potatoes and baked beans. I sit down and listen.
The Aryan Nation guy is talking about how Nazis don't hate, they just love their own race, a virtual rehash of White's speech earlier. Everyone is jolly, and if it weren't for the swastika tattooes, this could be your neighbor's Fourth of July party. Of course the conversation is a bit surreal; topics like "Jewish conspiracies against America" are breezily discussed as if talking about yesterday's baseball scores. Which decade am I in?
A heavyset Nazi with a thick beard tells me that he just doesn't support the Iraq war. Sure, he would support a military effort against a real threat, but come on, what's Iraq going to do to us? Besides, he says, there are more pressing issues here at home: lack of health care, failing schools, rising crime.
"We need to focus on helping the children over here first," he says. For once I agree, though I'm guessing he's talking about helping only the white children.
I walk over and scoop up a few potatoes and some baked beans (delicious, by the way). While I'm up, I listen to a discussion going on across the gazebo. One Nazi, a former Marine, sits shirtless, showing off his swastika tattoo and his gut, talking to the Aryan Nation guy.
"I consider myself a racist," says the Aryan Nation guy. "Whites are just a better bloodline than niggers."
The ex-Marine has a different take. "A racist is someone who hates blacks solely because they're black. I don't hate them just because they're black. I hate them as a race because of what they do to my people."
Soon the debate devolves into the same message I hear over and over again: All of our problems crime, poverty, too much rainfall are the result of the lax Jewish-communist government we support. And you thought the world was a complex place.
We check the early news reports of the march online coverage, a couple of Nazis opine, has been favorable so far and I mention that I need to get back to my car downtown.
Gletty hollers above the group. "Hey, guys! Guys! We've got another white brother leaving. Let's give him a good white power send-off." Like a contestant leaving American Idol, I am surrounded by people wishing me well. "White power," says one as he shakes my hand heartily. "Hail Victory!" barks another.
I picture saying that to my mom the next time I get off the phone. "It was good talking to you, son. Love you."
More than one person asks if I'm on Stormfront, which is apparently the coolest online forum for the Fourth Reich. The boys from Kansas invite me to stay in touch. "Maybe we could get something together," says one of them.
I still hear the discussions of racism and more calls for "white power" as I make my way out of the backyard and back into the 21st firstname.lastname@example.org