Skokie: Invaded But Not Conquered (2013)

I spent an hour and a half on an online chat module last night with a Verizon guy named Sandeep, desperately trying to restore some suspiciously evaporated TV channels to my service. We did the typical dance around the issue for some time before actually starting in on solving it, and the overly-formal customer service lingo that obviously came off of a laminated index card really only extended the process. Our conversation ended as follows:

Sandeep: You are a valued customer.

Me: Thank you.

Sandeep: I sincerely hope your sirvice [sic] is now satisfactory.

Me: Thank you.

Sandeep: Do you have any further questions?

Me: Have you seen the new Star Wars trailer?

The other reason this took so long was that most of my attention was on Skokie: Invaded But Not Conquered, the documentary airing on one of the channels that didn’t decide to spontaneously vanish. I’m ashamed to say I really had never heard of the fanatic Frank Collin or the “Skokie Affair”, despite any knowledge of American neo-Nazi groups and other various followers of the American Nazi Party’s George Lincoln Rockwell. Collin was partly that — a follower of Rockwell’s — and partly an attention-seeking egomaniac with a knack for societal parasitism. In Skokie, Illinois, he found what he perceived to be the ideal host.

Invaded But Not Conquered is evidence to the claim that a documentary can be engaging if the subject is engaging, regardless of the way in which that subject is presented. Collin founded the National Socialist Party of America in 1970 in Chicago and spent much of the decade demonstrating loudly in neighborhoods that had once been “white neighborhoods”. Though headquartered in Chicago’s Marquette Park, the NSPA’s proposal of a march through the suburb of Skokie in 1977 was the impetus for a landmark freedom of speech legal battle and the pivot point on which racial tensions hinged. In Skokie, a large suburb bordering the city, one in six residents was a Holocaust survivor. It was at the time the largest concentration of such a population in the whole of the United States, and thus Collin sought to push as many buttons as possible with a single demonstration.

The community erupted in riots, counterprotests and violence at the mere thought of Collin’s NSPA asserting the ideologies of Nazism in their own backyard, and soon opinions from across the nation were weighing in. Matters were further complicated by the fact that a Jewish lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union represented Collin in the ensuing case, asserting that any disagreement with the (im)morals of Nazism did not preclude the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. National Socialist Party v. Village of Skokie went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Collin and Co. actually won the right to march in Skokie. Pandemonium ensued.

Part of the kicker to all of this is that Collin’s NSPA never numbered more than fifteen members. The impact they made was understandably far greater, and that’s where Invaded But Not Conquered succeeds in providing a portrait of Frank Collin. He relished media appearances and used any violence directed at him to spur further controversy. He paraded around with his members in full regalia, swastikas armbands and all, but was careful to never step outside the bounds of that freedom of speech amendment.

To traumatized concentration camp survivors in Skokie, the First Amendment issue was a distant second or a mere clouding of the real problem. As the unfortunately-named Chicago Tribune writer Howard Reich states:

The issue was much simpler than that: The Nazis were back and promising to continue their quest. As then-village counsel Harvey Schwartz once told me, “When someone wants to come marching into your town, with the announced intention to kill you, there was hardly anything left to discuss.”

The interviews with residents in Skokie: Invaded But Not Conquered all support this point of view. It’s these painful, heartfelt testimonials paired with the convincing portrait of Collin as something more than just a troublemaker that make the film so engrossing; the structure of S:IBNC, which is all over the place and peppered with PowerPoint-style graphics and commentary that approaches unprofessionalism on more than one occasion, leaves a bit to be desired. Again, though, that’s a nitpicky complaint in light of the fact that the Skokie Affair is now given the attention it properly deserves.

And for that matter, maybe I’m the only naïve one in this equation. A 1981 dramatization of the trial called Skokie, starring Danny Kaye and Eli Wallach, is only one of a thousand such commentaries on the events of that small town in Illinois in the late-’70s. Remember this scene from The Blues Brothers?

The similarities are simply absurd, and Blues Brothers director John Landis even appears in S:IBNC for an interview. He claims that the speech was taken almost word-for-word from the answering machine of the Chicago NSPA, which concluded naturally with “please leave a message after the tone.” Landis also mentions that he left a message and never heard back.

Skokie: Invaded But Not Conquered certainly isn’t the most well-constructed documentary about the effects of American neo-Nazism, but it’s well worth a watch for the interviews and historical footage. It’s not easy viewing — apart from that Blue Brothers interlude — but there are a few silver linings worth highlighting. First is that Collin and the NSPA never actually marched in Skokie, despite all of the hullabaloo they caused and despite all of the pain they dredged. The residents of Skokie never faltered in their refusal to allow such a thing to occur in their home, and even though they won the court case the NSPA more or less turned tail and went back to Chicago. Second is that Skokie, today, is home to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, missioned toward the awareness that groups such as Collin’s still exist. It’s one of the finest of its kind in the world, and it’s a symbol to those groups that no one has forgotten.

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