March 20, 2004 -- In an apparent show of force, San Francisco police officers marched single-file through the middle of a large group of Black Bloc anarchists, who were preparing to start their breakaway protest march. Observing this, I could not help but notice there was a strange air of ritual about it, like Roman gladiators saluting the emperor before the fight.
By leaving their helmets and clubs on their sides and marching single-file straight through the heart of the anarchist crowd, the cops were essentially taunting, daring and disrespecting them. The anarchists were probably aware that touching an officer first would be sufficient grounds for immediate arrest -- which would, no doubt, mean the planned march could be shut down before it got started -- so instead they responded by stepping back to raise their hands in Nazi salutes, showing their contempt for the police in kind.
No one on either side made a sound; the silence of a funeral parlor.
Along with the word fascist, Mussolini and the Nazis also got this gesture from the Romans, who more often used it while swearing an oath of allegiance, which the fascists adapted into a salute.
In 1859 the salute was part of a scene painted by the French artist Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), titled Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant! (Hail Caeser! We who will die salute you!).The scene showed gladiators giving something like this salute to a Roman emperor.