About a dozen neo-Nazis gathered in Phoenix April 17. It was a relatively uneventful 30 minutes of a few people marching around and yelling racial slurs.
“Given how precarious this situation could have been, this represents quite a victory against hate,” said Paul Rockower, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix.
Community leaders say the group came looking to spread its message, but the rally instead showed a community unified against hate.
The JCRC formed a coalition with 26 other groups — including the African American Christian Clergy Coalition, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Arizona, the Valley Interfaith Project, the Arizona Faith Network, and the Phoenix Holocaust Association — to deny the neo-Nazis their goals of attention and amplification, Rockower said.
“The community was unified in its efforts to lower the temperature around the rally, and keep community partners away, as to avoid friction and escalation,” he said.
Prior to the rally, JCRC and other groups worked to discourage counter protests or engagement with the marchers. For example, JCRC hosted a webinar on April 14 with Cure Violence Global and Arizona State University’s Public Safety Innovation Lab to encourage members of the news media to cover the rally, if warranted, in a way that wouldn’t escalate or amplify extremist messages.
Ed McGuire, director of ASU’s Public Safety Innovation Lab and a professor of criminology and criminal justice, said it is important to encourage counter protesters to distance themselves from those they are opposing.
“They should certainly say what they want to say, and try to get their message out there, but preferably not right there at the event where violence is a huge risk,” he said.
When counter protesters are present, there is more opportunity for violence given the presence of three distinct groups: protesters, counter protesters and law enforcement.
“One of the issues that’s really concerning right now is that in the current climate, there’s really a significant sense of grievance among all three of these groups,” McGuire said, alluding to the protests that swept the nation last year after the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin, highlighting racial injustice and police brutality.
Rockower talked to the heads of the other groups in the coalition about keeping counter protesters away. “We don’t want anyone risking their lives to protest their vile messages,” Rockower wrote in his email. Those leaders then sent emails to their members. PHA President Sheryl Bronkesh said the JCRC made it clear that it “would not be in our best interest to counter protest.”
And it worked.
On April 17, members of three different neo-Nazi groups showed up: the National Socialist Movement, the Texas-based 14 First, and a Phoenix-based faction of the Aryan Nations, according to the Anti-Defamation League. They started at the Arizona State Capitol and ended at Eastlake Park. The counter-protest “was measured,” Rockower said.
Tammy Gillies, ADL’s regional director in Arizona, described NSM as “equal opportunity haters” who want to strike fear in the community.
“We should all be able to live in communities where we feel safe and secure. And we should be living in a world of diversity and inclusion that makes our community stronger, not places where we are afraid or we feel excluded,” she said.
Bronkesh said she talked to some Holocaust survivors about the rally. One survivor laughed when she heard only a dozen neo-Nazis showed up and said she was proud of Phoenix.
Another survivor expressed to Bronkesh his sadness that hatred against so many groups has increased.
Marc Lerner, board chair for the Arizona region of the ADL, said even though it was a small and relatively peaceful turnout, “groups that are committed to stirring up hatred and bigotry can’t be taken lightly.”
In 2019, there was a 55% increase in the number of white nationalist groups from 2017, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Two days after the rally in Phoenix, Burt Colucci, commander of NSM, was arrested in Chandler, charged with aggravated assault for pointing a loaded handgun at a Black man and threatening to kill him and his friends, according to police records.
Rev. Jarrett Maupin organized a candlelight vigil and a community gathering at Eastlake on April 25 as a way to combat what he called “the hate parade.”
“We can't have any level of tolerance for bigotry, or for racism, or for anti-Semitism, or for any kind of discrimination to get a foothold in our society,” he said. “One of the dangers of discriminatory behavior is that it is contagious if allowed to be encouraged.”
The vigil opened with a prayer and included a press conference and speeches from Rev. Luther Holland and Former Phoenix City Councilmember Michael Nowakowski. He estimates between 30 and 50 people came.
“I was born in a society where, because of my color, my skin, or the language I spoke, or my religious affiliation, I wouldn't be able to live in a certain place, or shop in a certain place or, enjoy equal protection under the law.”
During the press conference, he and others requested more protections for communities of color.
“We need more protection, because the threats are real,” he said. JN