Social Justice

Why We Protested Brooklyn Commons

An event organizer explains what happened that night. Read More

By / September 9, 2016

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“What the fuck?”

That’s what slipped out as I scrolled through my Facebook feed Monday night. I had just got back from a busy Labor Day weekend, and was under the weather as a result. I wanted to look at cute puppies while I moaned about how sick I felt, not deal with some neo-Nazi nonsense.

And yet, there it was, plain as day. Apparently booked for months, since July, no one in my progressive, activist New York circle had realised a “Truther” (someone who doubts the actual facts of 9/11, and insists it was an inside job) had booked the usually Progressive-friendly Brooklyn Commons for a talk. And worse, the man in question, Christopher Bollyn, was a dyed-in-the wool antisemite, with ties to neo-Nazis and friendly relations with David Duke, Grand Wizard of the KKK. A real mensch! Introducing his talk was another dyed-in-the-wool antisemitic conspiracy theories, Randy Dent. Randy is an African-American, but apparently anti-Semitism was the glue that held the bond between a black man and a neo-Nazi together. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Now, just days before the event, set for Wednesday, September 7, the Internet was going crazy. Folks were ringing up the Commons, emailing owner Melissa Ennen, who had insisted that she “didn’t know” the truth of Bollyn’s views. Considering how easy they are to find on his own website, this is very hard to believe, and is shockingly irresponsible for a business owner. She refused to cancel the event. Then she dropped a jaw-droppingly tone-deaf letter where she used “free speech” as a defense. (The letter has since been erased from the website, only two days after she put it up; hence my use of the WayBack Machine. Remember, the Internet is forever!) She both said she wanted the Commons to be a safe space – but not all the time; not that safe; not for Jews. If the letter doesn’t make sense on the third go-round, don’t blame yourself. It’s an incoherent mess that is more indicative of her cognitive dissonance than anything actually worth saying.

Some Internet sleuths did their thing and revealed that Ennen herself is a “truther.” So it isn’t about “free speech” or even “keeping the lights on” as she also had claimed – as Ennen is independently wealthy, which is how she came to own and run the Commons in the first place. Less so now though; a great many progressive movements, meetings, and groups condemned her choice and divested from the space. Which, as David Schraub noted, is a very good first step.

But with all of this going on, and Bollyn going on as planned, no one had planned a protest, or any other sort of action. Surely that can’t be right, I thought. I wasn’t as active “in the scene” as some of my peers, but usually people plan actions to speak against such things. And yet, the more I looked around, the more I saw people asking “Is there an action? Where is it? Is there one? I’ll go if there is.” But there wasn’t. No one had planned anything.

So I did.

I had one day, and I had never done this before. I’ve attended some, sure, but I’ve never organized a protest on my own. Study groups, Shabbat dinners, panels, talks, okay, sure, but not this. I didn’t even know how to begin. I was running a fever and made stupid spelling and administrative errors, which didn’t help. I asked for help and advice. I asked some friends to co-host, to signal boost, to show up. Some of them did. I’m grateful.

Soon after the event page went public on Wednesday morning, the day of the event, another progressive reached out to me. He told me he had been trying to get someone to bottomline – a term that means take some responsibility and do some work, apparently. He didn’t want to do it all himself. But we combined forces, swapped notes, and the crowd that showed up is in no small part thanks to his networking, organizing skills, and passion.

I made it clear from the start, and stated it multiple times: I wanted things calm, peaceful, and legal. No police involvement, no one gets in a fight, no one breaks the law. Everyone goes home with their limbs and sanity intact. My goal was, and is, to show that neo-Nazis will not go unchallenged. My goal was not to land in jail, or others land in jail because of me. (Some activist groups actually deliberately wish to get arrested when they attend actions, to send a powerful message. That’s fine, and their right, but that was not this.)

Miriam, an activist, street medic, and personal friend continued to give me advice and warnings throughout the day. She also showed up with her medkit and gave the crowd advice about what to do if the cops showed up and we were arrested. The point was not to get arrested, but white supremacists and their ilk aren’t exactly known for dealing with Jews peacefully – and nearly everyone who was there was Jewish. Best to be prepared.

For most of the time we were there, a total of over three hours, things were calm and peaceful, even quiet. Brad Lander, a New York City Council member, was with us for about an hour, and told us he was more inspired by the group outside than inflamed by the bigot giving his racist talk within. That was heartening to hear. The protest group was about 30-some-odd in total. While many were young professionals, we also had quite a number who were middle-aged. Most of us were white or white-passing; only a few were (visibly) Jews of Color. There were only a few gentiles who stood with us, excluding the reporters (and of the three or four of them, at least two were Jewish). Many of the young professionals were anti-Zionist, but some were Zionists. Many of the older protesters were liberal Zionists, not anti-Zionists. This didn’t seem to matter, for once: we were all there to tell Nazis to fuck off, something every Jew can agree on!

Brad Lander, in the blue tie, with protestors.

I mention the demographic breakdown for a number of reasons. While it is clear that this issue matters across generations, it is not so clear it resonates across all political lines. Both Jewish groups and the Left in general are notorious for in-fighting. We are a fractious lot. But this was put aside when it came to this issue. That is good. But that unity seems to have only extended as far as our own ethno-religious group. The lack of gentile support might have been because this was done on such short notice; after all, many groups did divest from the Commons, at personal expense and hardship to themselves. Still, I am not so sure.

I say that for most of the time, things were quiet. This is true, but there were three violent incidents, and more of verbal aggression. The first was when a protester, who had gone inside the event, started challenging Bollyn, and shouting at him. He was violently shoved out of the premises – thrown, really, – and Ennen nearly snatched his phone away. “But I have it,” he told me.

Another started when a blonde white woman walked by, and inquiring what we are protesting about, we tell her about Bollyn, Dent, and their noxious material. “Fuck that!” she said, and strode inside. Soon after, she was physically shoved out the door. The manager, a white Jewish man wearing a red shirt, had called her “bitch” and “fatass.” He told her she was banned from the premises. She had been a regular there. She hadn’t even gone into the event room, but she was violently expelled from the premise nonethless.

She looked visibly shaken. I gave her a hug. She stayed with us for a while, long enough for the Commons employee to knock off his shift and come outside. Folks started yelling at him, he shouted back. He started walking away, then turned back, walked back to the middle of the crowd, and started shouting at us, really trying to rile everyone up. I guess it worked, because one protester spat, which prompted the barista to take a swing at him in return. They barely got any blows in – the spitter was tackled by no less than three men, including a large, burly security guard in Bollyn’s employ. They were quickly separated. The employee said he would like to press charges, and soon after that, the cops arrived. Some said Ennen called the cops; others say it was someone else. I am still not sure. I don’t think it matters.

Someone seemed to have informed the police that there was a “forty person fight” going on. Instead, they found a bunch of Jews quietly milling around on the street. I think they thought this was normal. They were slow to do much of anything, and remained chill for most of the night. Some tried to chit-chat with us. They were nicer than the attendee who shouted at us about 9/11 being an inside job, and that the Zionists were behind it. They shouted less, at any rate, which I found surprising and impressive.

One fellow protester associated with JFREJ (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice) remarked with me how of course it’s two guys who start slugging each other that get the cops involved. Because of course it is. She was holding a sign that said “Yet another antizionist Jew against antisemitism.” I stood next to her with a more sarcastic sign that read “Proud member of ZOG” (The “Zionist Occupation Government” conspiracy). I enjoyed the joke, even if Nazis are notorious for lacking a sense of humour.

The last incident came shortly after 9 p.m., when Bollyn’s two-hour talk was due to end. Some protesters entered the Commons, and they were violently shoved out by Bollyn’s security thugs. The cops quickly separated everyone, took statements, including one from a visibly shaken Melissa Ennen, and stationed themselves by the entrance, whereas before they had been casually milling around. “Make a hole!” one bellowed. Legally, we are allowed to stay on the sidewalk so long as there is an accessible path to the building, and an accessible path past us. We have to keep half the sidewalk clear. Herding protesters is much like herding cats except more so, so it took us a few minutes.

The cops remained present for the rest of the evening. It wasn’t a big deal, but we didn’t want them there. Some of us were anti-police as part of our politics. On a more practical side of things, the police being present increased the chances of one or more of us being arrested, something I was keen to avoid. Police can arrest you even if you aren’t breaking the law. Later in the evening, they did just that, when one protester named Joel swore at an officer. (I, and most of the protesters, had quit the scene before this.) Swearing at police is not against the law, but he was taken into custody anyway, and later released at just before 2 a.m.

A few times, Rudy Dent came out to engage with the crowd, pushing past the huge, almost comically intimidating body guard he had placed at the door. Speaking to a reporter, he said “Everyone here [gesturing to the protesters] has pre-conceived ideas that are not true,“ he said. “What I see here is big signs with hatred… based on fallacies and fictition [sic].” Our signs read “Bigots not welcome” and “Nazi scum fuck off.”

Brendan O’Connor, a reporter from Jezebel, asked me why I didn’t plan for us all to go inside and challenge Bollyn and Dent head on. Entry fee was $10, and as I told him, “I’m not giving money to a fucking Nazi.” But I also didn’t want us to be in violation of trespassing. Even if we all paid the entry fee, as soon as Ennen or her employees told us to vacate, refusal to comply would put us in violation of the law. We could easily be arrested. I thought it best to avoid such an easy trap.

Ennen seems to be unwilling to come to terms with the fact that her actions have consequences. She moaned to O’Connor that her friends had abandoned her and that she was “under attack” because she “refuses to censor” and “stands by freedom of speech.” She seemed focused on the fact that “not all Jews are Zionists,” as if that is at all relevant to a white supremacist relying on tropes copied from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, blaming 9/11, the War on Terror, and a whole mess of ills on the “Zionist cabal” that controls the United States. Listening to the recording of his interview with her, I was utterly unimpressed. Not only are comparisons of neo-Nazis to Tea-Party platforms ridiculous, it’s disingenuous. Genocide denial and incitement to violence are worlds away from shitty politics. It isn’t in the same universe. “He definitely goes overboard,” Ennen said of Bollyn. And that’s as far as she is willing to go, flat out denying his easily-found and documented antisemitism and Holocaust denial.

“If they want to ….they can come in and ask in the Q and A!” she said of us protesting outside. “But they won’t come in.”

“But they won’t let people come in,” O’Connor reminds her. She contradicts him. He doesn’t point out the violent ejection of those who were within who dared to challenge… or even enter the space.

Moreover, Ennen seems not have learnt the basic lesson that friendship requires commitment, honour, and integrity. Above all, it requires work. “She told me she can’t be my friend anymore,” she said, speaking of a JFREJ member protesting with us outside. “It makes me very sad, this disagreement with my friends, who are no longer my friends… I find it astonishing.” But if Ennen wanted to keep her Jewish and progressive friends, she shouldn’t have given a platform to a pair of wildly racist antisemitic bigots. If Ennen wanted people not to divest from the Brooklyn Commons, she should have done basic due diligence and quickly Googled who it was who was renting the space – and I do not believe her when she says that she didn’t know. It is my opinion that that is a cowardly lie, and a shockingly irresponsible one at that. But pretending that she is honest, she was still made to know by many people, so many that they crashed her servers through emailing. And having been made to know, she could have and should have taken responsibility. She did not. It might seem like a no-brainer, but to Ennen, cloaked in entitlement, privilege, and willful ignorance, was a rude shock. Too bad.

It is clear that without a sincere apology and some serious self-reflection and deep structural changes, the Brooklyn Commons is no place for us to gather. By us, I do not just mean Jews, or Liberals, or Progressives. I mean any person possessing of decent moral fiber.

Bollyn and Dent are entitled, under the First Amendment, to spout whatever gutter filth they please. That does not mean we are obligated to give them a platform – or support those who do.

Photo credits Gabriela Geselowitz