Walking home on the Upper East Side on Wednesday night, I saw a cluster of ten policemen and two patrol cars. It seemed quite unusual for a customarily innocuous and quiet block. They were standing at the door to a church, one that is respected in the community for its school and other activities. "What's going on?" I asked. The officer pointed across the street. There was a small group of people with signs. "Demonstration," he announced. "We got a 911 call."
I crossed over to get a better look at their posters. "NO TO NAZIS." "What's going on?" I inquired. "David Irving, the Holocaust denier, is in that church giving a lecture. We're here to say he's unwelcome," replied a woman. "Who is we?" I asked. "We're here as individuals," she said, "but we're part of a broader anti-racist action group. We confront all neo-Nazis and all Fascists."
No one was eager to give their names. Once identified, they can be "harassed by neo-Nazi groups." Another woman gave me her take on how Irving ended up at this particular location. "They rented him the space, after another church found out who he was and cancelled his appearance."
A conversation with the congregation's Pastor on Thursday revealed a far more complex story. He told me that a young man had come into their church as a "representative of a small book club." He wanted to rent space for a meeting of about 25 people. When asked by a staff member if there was any political content involved he said, "No." The church was more than a little surprised when a crowd of 50-60 people showed up. An FBI task force specializing in "extremist groups" joined the NYPD, and advised the church that it was too late to get the people out. The pastor was visibly upset when I spoke to him. "I'm outraged," he told me. "This goes against everything we stand for. They're feeding people that already have a lot of anger."
Apparently, Irving has been traveling around the east coast giving talks. One of the demonstrators told me, "The way our government seems to be moving to the right, his thinking paves the way for ... His voice trailed off and he started a new line of thought. "Irving's politics advocate genocide. He is against people of color, Jews, gays, communists, and socialists. The neo-Nazis are always at anti-immigration rallies," he informed me. He handed me a flyer. A woman walking by with her dog stopped to listen. "What's going on?' she asked, in what was quickly becoming the mantra for the night. When told of Irving's presence and background, her eyes widened. "What the hell is he doing in there?"
I crossed back to the church. A man with a briefcase was talking to the police. He gave me a handout about David Irving. I read both leaflets while waiting for the lecture to end. The Irving piece was printed on glossy stock with large cap letters declaring, "The World's Leading Expert on World War Two." It featured credits for his appearances on Good Morning America and the Today show. It had quotes from journalist Christopher Hitchens and Mr. Justice Gray (who presided over Irving's libel lawsuit against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books).
On white stock paper, with an acknowledgement at the bottom -- "labor donated" -- the Anti-Racist Action Points of Unity were outlined. They included, "We go where they [Fascists] go; We don't rely on the cops or courts to do our work for us; Non-Sectarian defense of other Anti-Fascists" ... and "We Intend to Win!" Their banner phrase was, "Shut down the Holocaust revisionism industry; Stand up to Holocaust revisionist David Irving."
Attendees started to file out at approximately 9:30pm. Very few were anxious to talk. Most walked past me, ignoring my question, "Can you tell me about the lecture?" An African-American man stopped to speak with me. He told me that he didn't see any neo-Nazis and that he didn't feel uncomfortable as a person of color (based on allegations that Irving was a racist). "I was interested in hearing Irving's story. He talked about his time in prison."
A woman who had traveled from Brooklyn to hear Irving was at first hesitant to speak, but then became quite willing to share her thoughts. "I wanted to hear another point-of-view," she said. "I'm tired of the PC crap." When I asked her to clarify she said, "The six million Jews ... no way that many were killed." I asked her how many she thought had died. "Under two million," she said flatly. "Listen," she continued, "Look at the numbers that came crawling forward looking for their lost land and art, seeking restitution." She then expounded on some of her other ideas. "This whole thing with Anne Frank ... she wasn't shot or gassed. She died of typhus." When I suggested that it might have been the result of being imprisoned in a concentration camp she responded, "She wasn't even there that long." In an effort to be clear she emphasized, "I'm a lover of history, all history. I want people to just report the facts ... and this man has a lot of facts." She gave her background as German-Irish, 53 years old, and made it unambiguous that she was not an anti-Semite. "My first friend was a Jew. I even work for them. This is about me wanting to know the facts."
As she walked off, a man who had been standing outside the church approached me. He was a science and technology writer. He gave me his insights. "After World War II, between 100 - 140,000,000 people were killed by the Communists. Many of these communities have received zero attention about their losses."
I looked up from my notepad, and noticed that the protestors were gone and the police were leaving. When I got home, I turned on my computer to Google all the players. There was plenty to explore, especially on YouTube. My inbox chirped to let me know that I had five messages. Four were from friends wanting to know what I thought about the New Yorker illustration. The fifth asked me to sign a petition to the magazine asking for a retraction of the cover (from the website and newsstands) and an apology. It urged the editors to "stop peddling racism and religious intolerance in their magazine."
My head was spinning. Perception vs. authenticity. Satire vs. defamation. The right to free speech vs. the right to protest.
No wonder it's getting harder to keep a sense of humor.