What Triggered the Toledo Riots?

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What caused Saturday's riot in Toledo, Ohio? And why did a neo-Nazi group come all the way from Roanoke, Va., ostensibly to protect the city's white residents against a wave of "black crime"? Were they invited? And if so, how could a mere 14 neo-Nazis have provoked perhaps a thousand mostly African-American counter-protesters into a five-hour melee that engulfed the North Toledo neighborhood of LaGrange, overturning cars, looting a gas station, burning down a tavern, attacking police, fire and emergency medical vehicles?

The National Socialist Movement of Roanoke, Virginia had applied two weeks ago for a permit to march through LaGrange. The Toledo police agreed to escort the group on a one-mile march that would start at noon. Saturday morning, a group of 300 counter-protesters, made up of LaGrange residents of various ethnicities, gathered across the street from the neo-Nazi staging area. Scattered along the same side of the street were about 70 people from outside LaGrange, members of organizations that espoused a wide range of beliefs, from anti-war activists to anarchists and skinheads.

Minutes before noon, elements of the crowd, which had grown with the day, began throwing bottles and rocks at the neo-Nazis. Police on horseback then forced the counter-protesters to move back before firing flash bombs into the crowd. "That made people very angry," says Pastor Mansour Bey of the local First Church of God, who was in the crowd and had helped organize the counter-protest. "Why do police protect the Nazis but when five African-Americans are standing around we get questioned and maybe frisked by police?"

Police Chief Mike Navarre decided the march would not be peaceful and ordered the neo-Nazis to return to their cars and leave Toledo. The rain of rocks and bottles continued, however, now directed at the police. Gathered with several other Toledo leaders near the march site, Mayor Jack Ford, the first African-American elected to lead the city, was warned by Navarre that the situation was getting worse and that the only way to restore order was to make mass arrests, probably in a hail of bullets. Mayor Ford said he would try to talk the crowd down, took a bullhorn and walked past a barrier formed by police officers to confront the mob. The mayor, accompanied by Pastor Bey, the fire chief and the city's safety director, were in front of perhaps 600 people who were screaming profanities and armed with rocks. One man within feet of the mayor wore a black ski mask and had a revolver jammed into his waistband. After pleading with the crowd for close to 45 minutes, Ford says he thought their tempers had cooled. But then, people attacked a bar across the street. "That's when I knew in my heart that things were going to get worse," says Pastor Bey, "that we had to get out of there."

Race relations in LaGrange had been tense recently. African-Americans had moved into the historically Polish neighborhood north of downtown Toledo for years without much visible tension. Last year, however, when organizers of the annual Polish Fest required that minors be accompanied by parents, many people noticed that only black kids were turned away while white kids were allowed in by themselves. It was an incident that still upsets many local African-Americans, says Toledo City Councilman Frank Szollosi. This summer, an argument over gang activity erupted when LaGrange resident Thomas Szych, who is white, complained that local African-American children were dealing drugs and made hundreds of calls of complaints to local police. In interviews with Toledo media, Szych described two African-American police officers as "gorillas with guns." But the police found little evidence of gangs in the neighborhood.

Many in LaGrange, including members of the police, now believe Szych may have had something to do with the Roanoke Nazis' deciding to visit Toledo. Szych denies any involvement. But soon after the police cordon began pushing back against the Saturday crowds, sending mobs of people through the neighborhood, one of the first buildings attacked was Szych's house, about three blocks away. Rocks and bricks were hurled through the windows and Szych appeared on his porch, firing warning shots into the air, according to news reports by the Toledo Blade. From there, the disturbance moved east, a gas station was looted, cars were stoned and an ambulance on its way to help the injured was forced to retreat. After the mayor's bullhorn negotiations failed, police marched into the crowd, firing tear gas and arrested 60 people. Ford then declared a city-wide curfew beginning at 8 p.m. "The mood here is still very tense," he said on Saturday night. "I'm going to be out in the neighborhood all night."