York, Pa. - Word rocketed through the throngs of federal, state and local police shortly before 11 a.m. yesterday that members of the Aryan Nations had arrived, as expected, to celebrate the 113th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birth in front of the county courthouse.
Hundreds of police in riot gear snapped down their shields and pulled on their gloves. Spectators leaned as far as police barricades and orange mesh fencing would allow. More than a dozen photographers and television cameramen aimed their lenses down the street.
And 14 white supremacists - including the Aryan Nations' ailing founder, 84-year-old Richard Butler - shuffled through, unfurled their Nazi flags and stood their ground for only 20 minutes of the hour they were allotted by city officials. Although Butler made remarks, his voice was completely drowned out by the shouts of a local street preacher and the drone of a hovering police helicopter.
"That's it? It's over?" York native Terri Banks asked as she and her sister came upon the heavily policed intersection after a trip to the market. "And all these [police] still need to get paid? There go my taxes. Cheerleaders could have handled this."
That police had so overwhelmed and outnumbered the white supremacists and anti-racist protesters was good news to city officials, who went on the offensive Thursday, holding a prayer service and a unity rally on the steps of City Hall to make clear that white supremacists who have made this blue-collar Pennsylvania town their staging ground in recent months are not welcome.
"We were prepared. We expected the worst," Mayor John Brenner said in an interview as police made final sweeps through the city to ensure that all was calm. "We get reports from some of these groups about how many people they think they'll be bringing, and that's all we can go on. I'd rather be over-prepared than get caught off-guard by their shenanigans."
White supremacist groups began targeting York last year after nine white men - including then-Mayor Charlie Robertson - were arrested and charged with the murder of a black minister's daughter, Lillie Belle Allen, killed in a torrent of gunfire as she and her family unknowingly drove into a hostile white neighborhood at the height of 10 days of racial violence in 1969.
Six months after Robertson's arrest, two black men were charged with fatally shooting a white York police officer three days before Allen died. Trial dates have not been set in either case.
Shortly after Robertson's arrest in May, members of a group called the National Alliance sneaked into town one night and covered downtown street signs, telephone poles and benches with more than 300 orange stickers urging passers-by to preserve what the group called "Earth's most endangered species: the white race."
In January, two dozen people were arrested when more than 350 demonstrators gathered to support or protest a visit by white supremacist leader Matt Hale of the World Church of the Creator. Hundreds of police in riot gear, rooftop snipers and a police helicopter kept confrontations to a minimum. The heavy police presence cost city taxpayers more than $25,000.
Police credited an apparent splintering within the Aryan Nations' hierarchy and demonstrations in Washington with keeping the numbers down in York yesterday.
York County Sheriff William Hose also suggested there might have been a touch of divine intervention - or, at least, Murphy's Law.
The neo-Nazi leader who organized yesterday's appearance in York never made it to Pennsylvania. Aryan Nations staff leader Shaun Winkler, a York native who lives on the group's Idaho compound, was stranded in Minnesota with car trouble.
Also, when Butler, the group's founder, arrived Friday at the Harrisburg International Airport, his luggage had been lost, the rental car company did not have his reservation, and a black cab driver - upon discovering the identity of his passenger and why he was visiting York - refused to drive him to his hotel.
"I think the good Lord pulled a couple of strings on him," Hose said of Butler's travel inconveniences. "I heard thunder and lightning this morning, and I was hoping the weather would hold off until they got here so then we could really rain on their parade."