Detroit chief: Nazis wanted 'Charlottesville 2.0' at Detroit gay pride event

George Hunter
The Detroit News
A group from Delta walks in Motor City Pride Parade on Griswold Street in Detroit on June 9, 2019.

Detroit — Police thwarted a plan by a neo-Nazi group to spark "Charlottesville 2.0" at a gay pride festival in downtown Detroit this weekend, police chief James Craig said Monday.

Motor City Pride, an annual LGBT Pride street festival, was held Saturday and Sunday at Hart Plaza. Police had advance notice the Nazi group planned to protest the event.

Craig said the white supremacists had hoped to spark a riot that was worse than the Aug. 12, 2017, incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a car was deliberately driven into a crowd of people who were protesting the Unite the Right rally, killing one and injuring 28. James Fields Jr., 20, was convicted in the killing and sentenced to life in prison.

"They wanted something even more substantive than Charlottesville," Craig said following a press conference Monday at Public Safety Headquarters. "That's according to credible intelligence we received." 

Motor City Pride chairman Dave Wait said: "It's too bad that 10-12 people, mostly from out of town, who talk with hate came to an event to try to damper what 50,000 others are looking for: A quality time, and a true positive celebration."

Members of the Nazi group were openly carrying firearms — which is legal in Michigan — while they traded barbs with counter-protesters described by Craig as "an Antifa group."

The chief said Detroit officers were successfully able to keep the two groups apart, "and no one got hurt," he said.

"When (the Nazis) arrived, five of their members were armed; two with long guns and three with handguns," Craig said. "They were open-carrying.

"I'm told through our intelligence sources (the Nazis) wanted (Charlottesville 2.0)," Craig said. "We knew we wanted to be properly staffed, and we were.

"Both groups were taunting our officers with racial epithets," Craig said, adding there were about 15 Nazis and "15-20" counter-protesters who were "masked-up and referring to our African American officers inappropriately."

"The one group (the Nazis) was armed," Craig said. "We didn't want the opposing group to assault them and respond in a way that would be violent." 

Detroit police have received criticism for appearing to escort members of the Nazi group from the scene, but Craig said the officers were merely trying to keep the peace.

"We took no sides; we communicated with both groups, and we didn't have an uprising," the chief said.

Wait said he was happy with the police response.

"I feel the police did a good job," he said. "Their goal was to keep our festival patrons safe to make sure the two groups didn't interact. I appreciate the support of the police.

"It's unusual; haven't had protests like this in the past," Wait said. "But there are always a few haters out there."

Craig said members of the Nazi group threatened to burn a rainbow flag that's emblematic of the LGBT community.

"They were told, 'if you do, you'll be arrested,'" Craig said. "They did tear the flag."

The Nazis also desecrated an Israeli flag, according to video of the rally posted online.

Craig added since the flag was their property, they were within their rights to destroy it, as long as they didn't set it on fire.

"(The Nazis) had their attorney present, and they had cameras," Craig said. "According to our intelligence, they were hoping because of open carry (laws) they were frankly trying to bait this police department and bait the other side," Craig said.

"The opposing group was trying to bait our officers as well," Craig said. "Both groups were wrong.

"Everyone has a right to free speech, but you don’t have a right to engage in unlawful conduct," Craig said. "I applaud the Detroit Police Department for keeping the peace."

Wait said the Nazis "failed at everything they tried to do."

"They failed to get into our event," he said. "They failed to disrupt our event. Everyone had a great time, so they failed."

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN