Freedom of speech reigns in rally faceoff

After it was over and the shouting ended, an easy winner could be declared from Saturday’s faceoff between Kansas Citians and the National Socialist Movement: free speech.

Albeit salty at times, as both sides tried to offend the other. But it was all just a spewing of words.

On the north side on the 12th Street downtown — held back by yellow police tape, barricades and a line of officers — hundreds of rally opponents stood elbow to elbow. They came to show that regular people hate hate speech. Many carried signs.

“Go to hell white devils.”

“One World, One Race, One Love.”

“White Flour! And more butter.” The words appeared next to a photo of disgraced Southern cook Paula Deen. Both sides laughed at the large sign.

“Humor dispels hate,” said sign-holder Ryan Jones of Kansas City. “Making a mockery of it makes the whole thing hard to take seriously.”

On the south side of 12th Street, in the shadow of Andrew Jackson’s statue, three dozen neo-Nazis marched down a sidewalk, clad mostly in black, before waiting turns to preach their views.

They had threatened to bring 1,000 members from various groups — skinheads, Aryan Nations — to Kansas City for a national conference and rally to “stand against illegal immigration and rise against the downfall of the American economy.”

So why did so few show up? Fear of photographs by the FBI and fear of employers seeing their images on news coverage, said NSM commander Jeff Schoep of Detroit.

The neo-Nazis ended up outnumbered by the pro-diversity crowd about nine to one. And that didn’t count the several hundred people who rallied at Liberty Memorial at the same time, to embrace diversity instead of hating it.

Even the police outnumbered the white supremacists, at least two to one.

Officers wore riot helmets and backpacks full of gear. Even horses with the mounted patrol had plastic visors protecting their eyes. Four police looked down through binoculars from perches on City Hall. Sheriff’s deputies stood watch at the top of the Jackson County Courthouse steps.

Everyone entering the protest zone was searched. No knives, no strollers, no protest sign sticks, nothing that could become a projectile, was allowed.

There was no violence. One homeless man was arrested when he ran into the street, grinning as he threw a dollar bill and some change at the neo-Nazi group. Police caught one person trying to sneak in eggs. They went into the trash.

The rally speeches, which started 45 minutes late, began when a man raised his fist and screamed into a microphone, “White power!”

The crowd across the street roared boos, waved signs and made hand gestures. They were the old and young, African-Americans, whites, and a few women wearing hijabs.

On the neo-Nazi side, most wore black uniforms with insignia patches on their left sleeves, pants tucked into black boots. After each speaker, or key phrase, they yelled, clicked their heels and gave the “sieg heil” salute three times, their arms slicing the air.

A couple of miles away, another diverse crowd of several hundred gathered near Liberty Memorial and heard a far different message from a Mexican immigrant named Gabriela Carmona.

She told about about coming to the U.S. from Mexico as a young girl and how her parents struggled but worked hard so she could get an education, because they all wanted to live in America.

“Now I can work here legally and get a driver’s license,” she said.

At this rally, organized by a collection of city officials, civil rights groups and human rights organizations, people cheered her. The message was peace, togetherness and the American dream for everyone.

David Rudman of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau told the gathering that the parents of many Jewish Americans came here from countries where they had been persecuted.

Rudman insisted it was not a coincidence that the National Socialist Movement group chose to rally on Nov. 9, the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night on which thousands of Jews were hauled to concentration camps and anti-Jewish riots and murders occurred throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria.

As for the neo-Nazis on the courthouse steps, Rudman said to cheers: “We don’t want them here, we don’t want them in our community.”

Irene Caudillo, chief program officer of El Centro, told the gathering that the fight for immigrants is not with the “group on the courthouse steps.” She said it is with Congress, which needs to provide the path to citizenship because America is better for having good, hardworking immigrants.

“We stand here today because we care about the American dream for all,” Caudillo said.

The crowd also heard Kansas City Mayor Sly James say that immigration reform will happen only if people push elected officials and use voting as a voice.

“Neo-Nazis, skinheads cannot stop us as long as we are righteous,” James said.