The day antifa came to town
It’s hard to miss a Nazi flag — a death-black swastika inside a pure-white circle in the center of a blood-red banner — but even harder to miss a Nazi flag when the owner of a ladies’ clothing store on the town square in Jefferson unfurls one for display in her shop window.
That really happened, in the spring of 1944, when one of the Harding sisters rearranged the window of the Harding Shop to prominently feature the flag of Nazi Germany.
While not a major news story, and quickly forgotten, the reaction it provoked does deserve mention, 76 years later, because of the mere presence back then on our fair sidewalks of what can only be deemed antifa.
We’ve heard a lot in recent years about antifa — or ANTIFA, as President Donald Trump always types in his tweets, equating it to an underworld organization on par with SPECTRE in the James Bond movies.
Following days of unrest in cities across the nation — a visceral reaction to the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd, one black man too many, by a white police officer in Minneapolis — the president and his admirers hoped to pin it all, not on a system that enables bad cops to hide behind their badges, but on some shadowy group of evil-doers known as ANTIFA.
Trump on May 31 tweeted that the U.S. would be designating ANTIFA a terrorist organization. (How that might happen, in absence of a domestic terrorism law, remains to be seen.)
ANTIFA sounds sinister enough, but it’s not quite on par with ISIS, al-Qaida or the Legion of Doom. It’s not even an organization, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which considers “antifa” to be a loose-knit protest movement against white supremacy.
Antifa is merely short for antifascist, giving the movement something in common with Marvel Comics’ Captain America and the Army Rangers who landed at Omaha Beach.
Now, this counterprotest movement — which has been in the U.S. since the 1970s — is undeniably violent, and most civil rights organizations see their tactics in meeting the far-right with aggression as not only dangerous, but counterproductive, according to the ADL.
The core belief, according to the ADL, comes down to this: today’s antifascists believe that the Nazi Party never would have come to power in Germany had people fought them more aggressively in the ’20s and ’30s.
It’s interesting to ponder, no doubt, and evokes that timeless question: If you could go back in time to 1925, and had a chance to kill Hitler, would you?
When antifa (er, ANTIFA) shows up at a rally or demonstration to confront neo-Nazis, the KKK or other white supremacists — as was the case three summers ago in Charlottesville, Va. — the likelihood of violence increases, according to the ADL.
But (and this is key) the ADL says it’s important to “reject attempts to claim equivalence between the antifa and the white supremacist groups they oppose.”
The ADL notes there have been no known antifa-related murders.
And therein lies our current problem.
The president’s first statement following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville — at which a white supremacist rammed his car into counterprotestors, killing one and injuring 19 — was a condemnation of “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
Mr. Trump then followed that up with his now-infamous observation that “both sides” contain some “very fine people.”
But only one — and it ain’t the KKK — is now in the running to be named a terrorist organization.
In that sense, Trump is kind of like the school principal who turns around just as a kid finally punches the bully who has been tormenting him. You know who usually gets in trouble.
Well, either that, or the left’s worst fears about Trump are true.
It wasn’t ANTIFA this past March that planned to blow up a hospital treating coronavirus patients in suburban Kansas City.
It was a white supremacist who mulled a few potential targets — including an elementary school with a large number of black students, a synagogue and a mosque — before settling on a hospital because he disdained a local stay-at-home order.
He ultimately killed himself during a shootout with FBI agents.
The ADL is concerned that the “antifa” label could be applied to all counterprotestors — a fear that came true last week when Trump questioned whether a 75-year-old man seen on video being shoved to the ground by police in Buffalo, N.Y., during a day of protest “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.”
By all accounts, police pushed a 75-year-old Catholic peace activist.
And that brings us back to Jefferson on a March night in 1944.
A crowd was gathering on the Square outside the Harding Shop, a popular ladies’ clothing store, and they were becoming angrier by the second at the Nazi flag on display in the window.
One fellow, the Herald reported, was overheard saying that with a couple of drinks under his belt, he would be likely to throw a brick through the window and take the flag down.
The Jefferson, Iowa, chapter of ANTIFA had officially arrived.
Police Chief Mick Parr, who had a key to the shop, decided it best to go in and take down the flag himself to prevent any violence.
Parr, it should be noted, was a great cop. At the time of his retirement in 1963 after more than 20 years as chief, he was heralded as a “symbol of respect for the law to both our adults and our youngsters” and, quite simply, “one of the best.”
Come to find out, the Nazi flag in the window of the Harding Shop wasn’t intended as a show of support for the Third Reich.
Rather, it was intended as an exhibit of souvenirs brought back from North Africa, Sicily and Italy by Lt. Col. Russell Moses, an occasional resident of Jefferson and the brother-in-law of Billie Harding and her husband, then-Mayor Dale Harding.
The mayor’s two unmarried sisters — Winnifred and Bess — ran a successful ladies’ clothing shop from 1923 to 1955.
Among other items, the window display also featured a pistol, an Italian mess kit and an armband taken off a German soldier in Sicily with the Panzer division personally named for Nazi official/war criminal/drug addict Hermann Goering.
But when the Nazi flag went up in the window, residents saw red.
“Now Miss Harding is in a quandary,” the Herald reported. “So far as she is concerned, the window display is merely to show Jefferson folks the equipment the warriors in the Mediterranean are using, and she certainly had no idea of flaunting the Nazi flag before Greene County folks. Now she’s wondering what folks thought who saw the flag before it was lowered.”
It’s easy to see why the flag caused such immediate outrage in 1944 — we were actively fighting a war against the Nazis.
That war is long over, but not every American is done fighting.
The Anti-Defamation League reported in May that antisemitic incidents last year were at their highest level in the U.S. since the organization began keeping track in 1979, with more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment in 2019.
The issue that led white supremacists to rally in Charlottesville in 2017 — the removal of statues glorifying the Confederacy, another former enemy — is once again a major issue following George Floyd’s death.
Interestingly enough, there are no memorials or statues in Germany dedicated to the Nazi regime.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, of Utah, commented, “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”
Violence of any kind is unacceptable, but the quickest way to rid our world of ANTIFA is to rid our planet of racism and the fascism that often accompanies it.
If that’s too much to ask, then we truly are doomed to repeat history.