Nazi salutes, pepper spray and pistols: Ohio drag event devolves into an extremist melee
Amid the national showdown over drag performances and transgender rights, a storytelling event in a city park in northern Ohio became the latest flashpoint, fueled by demonstrators who waved swastika flags and shouted "Seig heil" before a melee that led to two arrests.
Hundreds of protesters, including armed white supremacists, members of several extremist groups and LGBTQ community supporters descended on Wadsworth, Ohio, a small town outside Akron, for a drag queen storytelling show that had been moved from a private venue.
White supremacist protestors shouted "Heil Hitler" and made Nazi salutes outside the event while pro-LGBTQ counterprotesters chanted, confronted the far-right agitators and wielded rainbow-colored parasols as a sort of shield for attendees.
Toward the end of the four-hour event, two people charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct were arrested after a series of melees involving pepper spray, the violent use of a flag pole as a weapon and a protester who unnerved witnesses who said he pointed a gun at a crowd. (Police said Monday that the weapon is designed to shoot pepper spray and not bullets.)
The face-off fits within a larger national pattern of rhetoric and threats surrounding drag events. They start with unfounded or unproven allegations that drag shows "groom" children for sex abuse and have led to escalating violence and clashes in communities nationwide.
Extremist far-right groups including the Proud Boys, Patriot Front, White Lives Matter and other white supremacists have glommed onto the anti-drag cause over the last couple of years. The weekend's event in Ohio featured a full range of these groups.
Supporters of so-called all-ages drag shows say they're important to help LGBTQ youth realize they're not alone in their communities, noting that transgender youth face much higher risks of death by suicide.
But experts say a combination of right-wing media outrage and local social media activism has driven more groups to confront one another at these events.
“It’s tied back into these more conspiratorial narratives about, ‘They're coming for your kids,’ and is used to stoke outrage and hate towards the LGBT community generally,” Jared Holt, a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told USA TODAY for a special report in December.
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The plans for an event billed as "Rock-n-Roll Humanist Drag Queen Story Hour" had roiled the small town even before Saturday's clash.
A Wadsworth resident promoted the event and secured a city permit to use the public park, he said, after a private venue in the city declined to host it. Aaron Reed said the planned attire and music were appropriate for kids, with profanity edited from some songs.
That's in keeping with all-age drag shows across the country, where performers typically wear age-appropriate clothing and say they carefully choose music that is suitable for children.
The city of Wadsworth in a public statement prior to the event said that "after much discussion and legal review, we have no choice but to let the event take place."
But the city council president, Bob Thurber, called the event inappropriate and said he would be asking the council to pass a law banning future events. Despite the public permitting, Wadsworth Public Safety Director Matt Hiscock and Police Chief Dan Chafin Chafin had sent a letter to residents advising "you, your family and those you know avoid being in the park if at all possible during the time of the event."
Chafin said police lost track of the crowd count at around 200 people.
Police said officers or paramedics from city, county and state departments across the region helped patrol the event.
At the protest
Chafin said the event proceeded as planned. But the situation remained volatile from start to finish with neo-Nazis yelling racial slurs from behind metal barricades and attendees, including parents and children, being followed by protesters into and out of the event.
Protesters against the event far outnumbered supporters.
Far-right groups seen on videos of the crowd appeared to include Patriot Front, a white supremacist organization headquartered in Texas, members of the Proud Boys and a neo-Nazi group familiar to extremism researchers.
White supremacists shouted racist and homophobic slurs at onlookers and others. A group shouted "Sieg heil," captured on video.
Masked protesters, standing with a banner that called for "Weimar solutions," discussed their support for historical accounts of early Nazis attacking transgender people.
"The same stuff is happening today," one said to a video documentarian.
"What would that actually look like?" the documentarian asked. The protester replied: "This."
A few demonstrators yelled, "Nazis, go home" or mocked them.
A reporter from the Akron Beacon Journal, who is Black, left, for his own safety after being called a racial slur several times by protesters.
Video of the event posted by attendees and a documentary filmmaker shows a bald, white man swinging a black flag with a white swastika. Members of the neo-Nazi group point out the few Black people at the event.
"How does it feel being a pedophile?" one man in the white supremacist group says.
"There's a gay (racial profanity) right there," another man replies in the video, which has been viewed millions of times on Twitter.
Protesters carried signs proclaiming "White lives matter" and "Mothers against grooming."
"Grooming" has become a common refrain for opponents of all-age drag shows who, with no evidence, accuse the events of being smokescreens to protect child abuse.
One supporter who attended the event said the goal was "Not to turn children gay but to keep gay children alive."
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Drag performers, the businesses who host them and pro-LGBTQ groups say all-ages drag shows help break down stigmas and serve as a vital lifeline to children experiencing confusion about their gender identity.
The goal with these shows is to express camaraderie: to make an overt display of solidarity by appearing, in person, in the neighborhoods where those children live, those groups say.
White supremacists and white nationalist groups have descended on and disrupted Drag Queen Story Hour events from Boston to California. In December, extremist groups and white supremacists celebrated the cancellation of a show at a public library in Columbus with neo-Nazi slogans and gestures.
Parasol Patrol, a nonprofit organization that travels to support progressive events, came to Wadsworth from Colorado with their rainbow umbrellas to shield parents and children from protesters. Local people attending in support of the LGBTQ community took the group's instruction.
Parasol Patrol co-founder Eli Bazan, who said he was a firearms and close combat instructor in the Marine Corps, said he thought the man with the gun had actually brandished a small .22 caliber pistol and pulled the trigger twice, but the gun did not fire.
"It appeared that he was shooting at somebody right past me. But it would have went through my umbrella," said Bazan.
The man was later arrested for fighting with a supporter.
Videos from the event showed widespread carrying of firearms, with pistols strapped to some protesters' hips.
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No one was injured as a result of violence at the event, Chafin said. One person twisted a knee and another had a seizure. Paramedics treated them both.
Chafin said two people were arrested, one in support of the event and another who was there to protest. Footage of the arrests was posted on social media by a freelance documentarian
Kristopher Anderson, a Republican from Akron who has run for local and state office said he and others had organized a protest at the event that would push for drag queen storytelling to be limited to adults only.
"Around noon, out of our complete shock, we had the white supremacist and white Nazi groups show up," said Anderson. He said his group did not make contact with anyone espousing racist views.
"We were chanting 'don’t groom your kids' and all those other things," said Anderson, who described the overt racist messaging of some groups as a "distraction more than anything."
"We weren’t all on one side," Anderson said of the many groups protesting the event. "These were like factions against an issue."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Drag storyelling in Wadsworth, Ohio, devolves into extremist fight