Saturday’s story of hundreds of counter-protesters showing up to in Cazenovia Park to drown out the voice of what wound up being only a single white supremacist might have sounded familiar to anyone who was paying attention to Buffalo headlines 35 years ago.
Late 1980 was already a tension-filled time in race relations in Buffalo. Six black men were killed by what was assumed to be a single white man, who became known as “The .22-Caliber killer.”
In December 1980, a man who identified himself as a former member of the Ku Klux Klan and a member of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Party of America applied for and received a permit for a rally in Niagara Square on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday: Jan. 15, 1981.
The organizer was Karl Hand Jr. — the same man who was the only white supremacist to show up to the Caz Park rally. On the permit application, he said he expected more than 100 neo-Nazi sympathizers to join him on Martin Luther King Day.
He sent around pamphlets asking for “100 White Men with Guts.” A pamphlet was created in reaction asking for “1,000 Black Men with Guns.”
Buffalo’s Common Council voted unanimously to search for a legal way to stop the rally. Meanwhile, Buffalo Police Commissioner James Cunningham begged for a “low-key approach” from the media covering the event. He promised that extra police manpower would be on display all around the city with the hope that “nothing will come of it.”
Buses from Baltimore, Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland were slated to bring anti-Nazi protesters to Buffalo, as another group organized a rally in remembrance of King nearby as well.
U.S. District Court Judge John Elvin allowed the protest to go on but urged that city officials keep tight controls over the crowds at the three different rallies.
Organizer Hand received a death threat that was investigated by the FBI. Governor Hugh Carey called the affair “repulsive.” He urged New Yorkers to treat the Nazi rally with “the indifference it deserves,” but he was also worried about the possibility of violence.
When the day came, 500 counter-protesters filled Niagara Square, while Hand was joined by only two other people. Following the rally, Hand was arrested on weapons charges after being caught with a shotgun while under felony indictment. Federal officials found the gun after Hand told a reporter that he had one for protection.
Buffalo Police brass credited cool heads and 350 officers on the scene with no arrests, no injuries and no violence. Others called the whole imbroglio a media-created event. Mayor James D. Griffin dismissed Hand as “a flake.” He said had the media done so, too, there wouldn’t have been such a spectacle.
Only days after the rally, Hand was in a New Jersey courtroom, charged with firing rifle shots at a black family.