Maybe it’s just inevitable that when Nazis are in your town, nobody’s going to look very good.

Such was the case last Saturday afternoon, when a couple of dozen screwballs, equipped with their banners, sound system and a permit to demonstrate, popped up on the State Capitol grounds in Raleigh. I say popped up because they’d been spirited in on a bus supplied by the Raleigh police, who feared for their prospects if they’d come in on foot. That’s because 500 other folks were there to show their anti-Nazi sentiments.

So out of the Capitol building the Nazis came, an hour past their scheduled 2 p.m. starting time, spewing hatred. Nothing more need be said about them.

The 500, however, were an interesting mix of black and white, students and gray hairs, liberals in silent protest and paint-drum bangers with their bandanas hiding their faces. (Best in show: Klowns Against the Klan.) A few people, apparently feeling that the way to show you’re against Nazis is to act just like them, chanted such things as, “A rope, a tree, hang a Nazi.” That’s Natz-ee, emphasis on the second syllable. Clever. I asked a black woman who was listening to it, Odessa Priester of Raleigh, what she thought. “I have peace inside of me,” she said quickly. “But I am angry, too, because we don’t need stuff like this”–she gestured at the Nazis off in the distance–“it’d make anybody angry knowing people hate you like that.”

It didn’t help that we 500, most not chanting anything, were nonetheless pinned behind steel barricades and closely guarded by a police line of about a hundred cops. The police were determined to keep the antis–me included–not just off the Capitol itself but also off the streets surrounding it. So here was the tableau, as I viewed it from Fayetteville Mall: Nazis, way up there; state troopers, erect in their black uniforms and plastic body shields (when they marched out of the Capitol, we thought they were the Nazis), guarding the grass; steel barricades along the near sidewalk, guarding the troopers; the Raleigh police, in helmets and brandishing night sticks, guarding the street; more barricades; us, on the opposite sidewalk.

Anyone venturing beyond, or around, the barricade–say, onto Wilmington Street–was immediately confronted by cops who, if they considered us in any way preferable to the Nazis, were absolutely not showing it. A neutral observer, who didn’t know the parties involved, would’ve concluded that we were the problem and those “National Socialists” up by the Capitol, so far away they couldn’t be heard, were perhaps attempting to offer a solution.

Ironic? But, of course, we were the problem, and most of us accepted that a strong police presence was required and nothing wrong with keeping us well away from the screwballs. What wasn’t required was the heavy-handed way the cops went at it, leaning in so hard that they seemed like they wanted to provoke a fight. And what’s up with the guys in plain clothes with the cameras, taking our pictures?

Note to Chief Jane Perlov, who was in command: A lighter touch, please, so if trouble starts, it won’t look so much like your guys probably started it? At one point a smoke bomb of some kind went off a half-block away from me. When I got there, Lee Campbell, a veteran protester out of UNC-Chapel Hill’s UE-150 union local, was convinced a cop fired it. He’d seen the same kind of thing before–it’s not tear gas, but it’s designed to look like it, he said. Around him, heads were nodding.

The police made five arrests, according to spokesman Jim Sughrue. They were for “conduct-related misdemeanors,” including disorderly conduct, resisting or obstructing law enforcement, and illegal possession of pyrotechnics that sounded like maybe it involved smoke bombs. Sughrue didn’t have the details. But he said the police did not fire off any smoke or chemical agents; “We tried to use the minimum amount (of force) needed to maintain good order” while letting both sides have their say.

As for the cameras, Sughrue said the police photograph demonstrations “to document the situation” and for training purposes, not to compile dossiers on individuals.

Nick Shepard, a sophomore at UNC, was the one who told me, right after I got there, that the Nazis’ had come in on a bus, after hiding behind a dumpster in one of the state parking lots. Shepard was one of the students I wrote about in November after they’d been pushed around by the Miami police. They’d gone there to protest the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), but weren’t allowed to get anywhere near them. So I assumed he’d be sympathetic, not to the Nazis, but to their free-speech rights and the police for protecting them.

Never assume.

“They should never have let them come to our city,” Shepard declared. “They’re spending tens of thousands of dollars protecting these people? It’s not a free-speech issue. It’s a terrorism issue. They’re terrorists.”

One of the famous First Amendment cases in American history involved Nazis who wanted to march through Skokie, Ill., a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago, in 1978. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld their right to do so, saying in essence that if the Bill of Rights only protects people with acceptable views, what good is it? Isn’t that the same Bill of Rights that protected him, or should’ve, in Miami?

“I’ve thought about that a lot,” Shepard said. “All I know is the cops consistently come out against the forces of social justice. … These are our streets, and we, not the police, should decide how we’re going to use them.”

Doubly ironic. But it illustrates why that lighter touch–think English bobbies–is called for.

What if the cops hadn’t been there? I asked.

“We’d throw tomatoes and occupy the Capitol grounds ourselves,” Shepard said, laughing. “Peacefully, of course. “