Scary afternoon? Depends on who you talked to

C.T. Kruger
Todd Gorny and friends had a front-yard view of the neo-Nazi rally and counter protest from his home just south of West Alls City Hall on 76th Street.
Published on: 9/6/2011

West Allis - The owner of West Allis Auto Sales gazed out through Saturday's rain at his empty lot while drum beats and chants from a peace demonstration drifted over from a block away.

He knew he would sell no cars that day. Ty, who did not want his last name used for fear of reprisals, had driven all his cars mile away so that they would not become targets in case the neo-Nazi rally that was about to start turned ugly.

"There were idiots hanging out here," Ty said, who told one demonstrator to leave the car lot and in return got an obscene gesture and a dare for him to call police before the man moved on.

More than 30 supporters of the National Socialist Movement held a rally at the West Allis City Hall, 7525 W. Greenfield Ave., to protest three incidents of black-on-white violence this year. The third happened the first night of the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis. The other incidents happened at Mayfair Mall and on July 3 when white people were beaten in Riverwest after watching fireworks.

Police estimated that about 2,000 counter-demonstrators surrounded the neo-Nazis, who were inside the temporarily fenced-in City Hall courtyard. Lines of police in riot gear enforced a buffer zone between the two.

Fewer residential fears

While Ty and many other Greenfield Avenue business owners with big showroom windows and employees at risk were tense, residents seemed more relaxed.

Neighbor after neighbor said they felt reassured by the massive police presence. That included officers not only from West Allis, but from Greenfield, Wauwatosa, Milwaukee, the Wisconson State Patrol, Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office, the State Fair police, mounted officers and an armor-plated tactical vehicle with an opening for a runner on the roof.

Todd Gorny and his family live nearly directly across 76th street from the neo-Nazi demonstration. The crowds, the street being closed off and police everywhere were just "a little inconvenient," he said.

There were so many police to keep the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators apart that he and his neighbors felt safe, Gorny said.

Still he had gotten prepared.

"We cleaned up our front as police requested," he said, specifically clearing away away flower pots that could become missiles.

Gorny said he and some friends were out front not only because it was interesting to watch but to make sure nothing happened.

John Fisher lives a block away from City Hall at 77th and Orchard streets said, "There's no reason to be fearful."

"I was hoping people would ignore them and not come," he said. "If people would ignore them, hopefully they would go away."

Raymond Miller, who lives less than a block north of Greenfield Avenue, took a half day off of work to protect his family and home, if needed. But he and wife, Tina, also were relieved at all the police presence and they felt they and their children were safe.

On 77th Street across the street from the fair, Jim and Teresa Reichow worked in the front yard before the demonstrations began.

"We're going to make sure our children are in the house," Jim Reichow said. Their children are 7 and 10.

While the couple didn't agree with any neo-Nazi hate speech, they shared their frustrations about the violence cited by the group. Only two doors south, black youths beat up a white man the first night of the fair.

"You always have some who act out," Jim Reichow said.

It's frustrating because so few have been punished, despite there being three major incidents this summer, Teresa Reichow said.

Del Paeske, who lives nearly two blocks north of Greenfield on 76th St., could hear the chanting, said he felt the action was far enough away, if trouble broke out.

"I'm figuring whatever occurs will be centered over there," he said, indicating Greenfield Avenue.

Barbara and John Kronenburg, who have been married 49 years and have lived on 75th Street for 40 years, have never seen anything like the neo-Nazi rally and the counter-rally.

"I'm praying a lot," said Barbara Kronenburg, also acknowledging relief because of the police presence. "We don't need all this."

But the couple went to the rallies, anyway.

A neighbor said he was staying on his porch, "so, they know I'm watching," if any troublemakers come by.

"I don't like West Allis getting a bad name," said Dennis Gritzmacher, who lives on 76th Street within a block of the demonstrations. "Inside the house, I'm OK, but I'm trying to stay away from there."

Not business as usual

By contrast, business owners were not only more tense but were more outwardly prepared for the worst.

The BP gas station/convenience store across 76th Street from City Hall was not only closed, but boarded up. That station had been looted the first night of the State Fair.

It also was near the BP that the only tense moments happened. Neo-Nazi supporters and counter-demonstrators got into a heated exchange that was broken up by Milwaukee police officers, who moved in on horses.

Papa John's directly across Greenfield Avenue from the City Hall was closed for the afternoon, though it planned to reopen after the rallies.

A sign on the door read: "This business does not support hate." Inside, employee Jeff Klippel and the store manager were there to keep an eye on the place.

But the business didn't plan to take chances. If anything happens, Klippel said, "We were told to hit the emergency button and go and hide."

Some other Greenfield Avenue businesses closed early for a Saturday.

One of them was Catholic Books & Gifts at 74th Street, where employees let customers in through the locked door even before the 1 p.m. closing that day. The store usually closes at 4 p.m. Co-owner Alice Formolo had a lot of employees in the store all afternoon cleaning carpets.

Even though the demonstrations proved peaceful, the store lost money, pulling in as little about a fifth the amount of a normal Saturday. bring in $300 to $500, she said.

Nearby at Van's Shoe Shop, manager Larry Reese said kept the store in a holding pattern.

"The plan is to stay open with lights on and someone on the sales floor so they are visible from the sidewalk until the crowds have dissipated," Reese said.

Otherwise, it had been a normal morning for a holiday weekend.

So was Hawkins Brass & Clocks & Bar Rails at 73rd and Greenfield.

"Customers keep coming," said owner Earl Hawkins.

Closer to City Hall, nervous and curious people gathered at the entrance of Mis Suenos Mexican/American restaurant, a newcomer to downtown. Inside the crowd was a little smaller than usual, said Jolino Ramirez, an owner, who could feel the tension.

"It's weird because everybody's waiting for something to happen," he said.