They call themselves the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. And they're coming to Cleveland.
Just why seems to change every time they give an interview. Like other cities, Cleveland certainly didn't ask to be part of their Summer of Hate Tour. But for the past four years, these gutless brutes with great name recognition have traveled from one set of courthouse steps to the next, eagerly exercising their First Amendment rights at the expense of the public peace.
That's because where the American Knights go, trouble often follows lawsuits, violence, and the huge cost of protecting them, a taxpayer bill that often runs in the tens of thousands of dollars. To minimize the disruption, Klan observers advise city leaders to allow the group to speak freely without a fight, to show solidarity by promoting a "racial unity" event simultaneously in another part of the city, and to resist drawing attention to the Klan.
So far, Cleveland is 0-for-3.
Although City Hall did not deny the Klan a rally permit, other influential members of the community have tried to impede the group. George Forbes, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, invoked his troubled family history with the Klan and savaged Mayor Michael White for allowing the group to dress in a police garage. The Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association filed an injunction to keep the Klan out of its building, and City Council passed a token resolution to stall the rally.
White has worked hard with religious leaders to offer alternatives to the Klan rally. But publicity on those events has paled compared to the controversy generated by Forbes, the police union, and White's unsubstantiated charge that racists are lurking within the Cleveland police department (an assertion the Klan heartily endorses sans proof, of course).
Now, instead of dealing with simply a few dozen social outcasts convinced that blacks, Jews, and other groups are to blame for their own pathetic lives, the city has been plunged into a maelstrom of racial politics. The result has been an unintentional buildup of the Klan, exponentially multiplying the fear factor and attributing far greater significance to the group than it deserves.
Reality check: Soon the Klansmen will arrive in our city, not on horses in the dead of night, but in pickup trucks and rusted beaters. Some will hide behind robes and hoods. Like vitriolic cowards, these champions of ignorance will stand behind a phalanx of police who must protect them, spewing racial hatred into megaphones, trying to turn the crowd that opposes them on itself.
This is not the stuff of history. This is the stuff of Jerry Springer.
With little inventiveness or effort, the Klan causes the undercurrent of racial tension in the cities it visits to bubble to the surface and sometimes boil over, igniting violence that temporarily turns downtowns into war zones. Facing the deep-seated prejudices uprooted by hate groups is never easy or pretty. But it need not be violent. Some cities have realized that they don't have to be used by the Klan. Instead, they can use the Klan as a catalyst for honest discussion and an analysis of racial problems that will eventually lead to greater tolerance.
But first, a community must see the Klan for what it really is a small reactionary movement with no credibility and a membership driven by ignorance and misdirected angst.
The Incorrigible Empire
"How can the word "nigger' that word right there bring violence out?" asks the "Reverend" Jeff Berry, a convicted felon who calls himself an Imperial Wizard. He uses the derogatory term for blacks frequently in both conversation and speeches.
"A nigger," he says, invoking his own definition, "is any dirty, low-down person who scabs off the human race."
Vulgar, antagonistic, and animated in the flowing robes he wears without a hood, Berry is custom-made for the television sound bite, repeating the same few lines over and over in interviews and speeches. His group attracted members from the trashier echelon of society after a 1996 appearance on Jerry Springer.
Similarly unimpressive, Ohio Grand Dragon James Hogg offers his vitals without prompting: "Six-three, three hundred pounds," he says. "My bodyguard's six-five.
"But I'm awful peaceful," he continues. "Just ask the media in Steubenville. We left that rally early, because some nigger jumped our fence. Rather than get the town destroyed, we left early. We'll have to go back there again."
Klan watchers say, if no one challenges Berry and his Klan cohorts at their rallies, these intellectual lightweights usually run out of things to say in about fifteen minutes. Then they stand around flashing white power salutes and playing classic rock to fill the time. Among the subjects Berry is likely to address here:
On the Klan: "We're the oldest neighborhood watch group in existence."
On affirmative action: "The government's afraid of the black race because they know they'll burn their town down if they don't get what they want."
On homosexuality: "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam for Steve."
The Klan's marketing strategy is much more interesting than its rhetoric. This self-professed "racial healing group" wants to come off as a civil rights-conscious Klan, not the KKK of midnight lynchings and George Forbes's grandmother's era. The idea nowadays is to incite others to commit violent acts.
"This is a gang of criminals," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who exposed the American Knights in an Intelligence Report earlier this year. "[They are] a bunch of bully thugs who use every kind of nasty epithet to rile up the crowds."
Given their personal and criminal histories, it's obvious that Berry's American Knights are capable of little else. The group's members consist of street fighters, drug informants, and rip-off artists, a number of whom did their raping and pillaging before joining the Klan, the SPLC revealed. Berry himself was convicted of bilking an elderly neighbor in 1994 and has weathered a series of arrests since then. Hogg, whose real name is reportedly James Murray, was charged with threatening black children last year. Prosecutors dropped the charge after he completed an intervention program.
One of Berry's former leaders was convicted in the gang rape of a college student. Another was sentenced to six years in prison for conspiring to kill his ex-wife. Still another promised a massacre if the group was attacked.
This is a Klan that would make Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first KKK grand wizard, shudder in his grave. Born in the lawless days of Reconstruction in the South, the Invisible Empire became a vigilante force whose goal was to preserve the old Southern ways, including ensuring the subservience of blacks, according to the David M. Chalmers book, Hooded Americanism. But the Klan quickly turned from protector to destroyer. Its members wreaked havoc on blacks and Northerners alike threatening, murdering, and mutilating as they went. Their violent ways prompted Forrest to order the dissolution of the Klan in 1869.
A shifting social order prompted by World War I, new flocks of immigrants, and Prohibition-initiated crime resuscitated the Klan. By 1920, it boasted a membership of more than two million across the country. The group attracted the civic-minded and opportunistic to its ranks, mustering the power to elect mayors, governors, and senators.
Because only about a quarter of Cleveland's population was eligible for Klan membership native-born, white, and Protestant the group never gained a foothold here. But it did forge a formidable presence in the Mahoning Valley, where immigrants and native-born Anglo-Saxon Protestants competed for industrial jobs. There the Klan fought against blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and anyone else considered a threat to traditional white Protestant values.
But the Klan's prominence was once again short-lived. By the start of the Great Depression, violence, divisive politics, and corrupt leaders caused all but about 100,000 members to abandon the group.
The Klan revved up again in the '60s as a reaction to the civil rights struggle, especially political pressures to integrate. The '80s saw another revival "nurtured by social uncertainty, racial change, confrontation, and poor-boy politics," Chalmers writes.
Almost since its inception in the years following the Civil War, historians and sociologists have puzzled over this fringe movement's ability to ignite major flares of fear among select non-WASP groups. Perhaps the best explanation of this was the first, offered by Forrest himself. He explained that the Klan arose from an "insecurity felt by Southern people:
"Many Northern men were coming down there, forming leagues all over the country . . . The Negroes were holding night meetings; were going about; were becoming very insolent; and the Southern people . . . were very much alarmed . . . parties organized themselves so as to be ready in case they were attacked. Ladies were ravished by some of those Negroes . . . There was a great deal of insecurity . . . this organization was got up to protect the weak . . ."
If that seems anachronistic, compare the paranoia and exaggeration of Nathan Bedford Forrest to the paranoia and exaggeration of the less eloquent Hogg:
"I see the NAACP as a hate group," he says. "They're not doing anything to help the white people. There's a lot of white people who was raped by blacks. If [Forbes's] grandmother got raped by a Klansman, it wasn't me. A true Klansman wouldn't do that. It's all going to be gray kids if the blacks and the whites don't get together and fight the filthy Jews."
Absurd as Klan leaders sound once they open their mouths, they continue to attract members who share their paranoia and insecurity. Only this time the culprits are not "Negroes" or "Northern men," but blacks, feminists, immigrants, and gays, among others.
Former Indiana Grand Dragon Brad Thompson was a foundry worker living in a trailer park when he turned to the Klan. His two-year-old son had recently choked to death, and his wife had left him. Although he says he didn't hate any of the groups the Klan rails against, he was attracted to the sense of direction the group offered. Once he joined, Thompson reveled in the power he felt as Berry's chief sidekick. The rallies were as exhilarating as a rock and roll tour. After a while, however, he got tired of spewing empty rhetoric to hate-riled crowds.
"When I realized the Klan is none of those things the Klan and their attorneys like to say it is, that selling trinkets is more important to them than free speech, then I got out," he writes in Under the Hood, a tell-all book authored by Worth Weller. "It doesn't take no really heavy thinker to see the hypocrisy. When you are in, and if your eyes are open, then you see it, believe me."
Berry dismisses Thompson as a drunk he threw out of the Klan and says he hasn't read Weller's book. But Thompson's allegation that Berry is a litigious, media-hungry fraud using the Klan as a money-making scheme has merit. Berry claims that he seldom grants interviews, but it's not hard to find his quotes splayed across the national and local media before and after rallies. The American Knights also like to boast of their chummy relationship with the ACLU and their eagerness to slap a lawsuit on any community that tries to stave them off.
The KKK, however, can be bought. In 1998, Berry agreed to cancel a rally in the Chicago suburb of Cicero for $10,000. The money came from a private citizen concerned that the much-ballyhooed rally would incite violence from nearby gangs. The Klan said it would use the money to distribute informational materials instead. That never happened, according to Weller's book. Berry just kept the money.
Thompson contends that the top Klansman also profits from membership dues, T-shirts, robes he leases for $85 apiece, videos, and other Klan paraphernalia. That was one of the motivations, he says, for doing the Springer show. In Weller's book, Thompson claims he helped negotiate a deal with Springer's producers to flash the Klan's telephone number on the screen, which resulted in more than 6,200 telephone calls. Berry claims the phone still rings all day long.
"There'd only be fifteen or twenty of us up there on the courthouse steps, yet there might be as many as 300 police out there guarding us," Thompson writes. "I think people thought that if we could command that much response from the authorities, then maybe we really could do something for them. 'Course, what they didn't know is that we was just there to get more members, to get more money. There wasn't nothing we could really do for them."
This is why the Klan can't withstand the trials of time: Its leaders, like Berry, become corrupt. Its members, like Thompson, tire of its hollow message. The KKK never coalesces into a real social and political force for long.
Or in the case of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, never at all.
American Knights of Mayhem
Although the American Knights, which formed in Butler, Indiana, in 1995, have earned the SPLC's designation as "the fastest-growing, most active Klan group in the country," it has influenced nothing more than the tempers of protesters. Berry doesn't give out membership figures, but SPLC puts the number of active members in the hundreds. No more than a few dozen ever appear at rallies, although Hogg insists the Klan plants other members in the crowd.
Mark Pitcavage, a Columbus-based historian specializing in right-wing extremism, says overall Klan membership is at very low levels nationally. But recent Klan rallies have attracted organized anti-racist groups determined to be just as disruptive as the Klan, including the New Black Panther Party and Anti-Racist Action. These groups reject the philosophy that, if you ignore the Klan, it will go away. Anti-Racist Action expects to bring "more than a couple hundred" protesters to Cleveland for the rally.
"The Klan wants to recruit, and we want to make it hard for them," says Jerry Bellow, an ARA volunteer in the Columbus office. "We are going to be confrontational. We are going to make it hard for them to get their message out."
Others who share this philosophy have shown up in Memphis, Ann Arbor, and other cities in the last two years. They hold up signs that say things like "Fuck the KKK" and bark incendiary anti-racist comments into megaphones, attempting to drown out the Klan's message.
Klan members typically get the blame for inciting riots at their rallies. But protesters, many of whom have no organizational affiliation or leadership, often throw the first rock, brick, or punch.
"You get a lot of fights and injuries," Pitcavage says. "Usually it's the anti-Klan protesters trying to kick the shit out of the Klan, not the other way around."
That was the case in at least three cities the Knights visited in the past three years:
In Asheville, North Carolina, in 1997, between seven hundred and a thousand protesters gathered for a Klan march and rally marred by violent shoving and protesters throwing eggs, bricks, and rocks.
In Memphis, in January 1998, a riot started when a man wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt tried to hand out racist literature and was beaten in a crowd of five hundred to six hundred protesters. The crowd then broke through the police line, prompting officers to fire tear gas and pepper spray. In the ensuing chaos, protesters broke windows, hurled punches, and even tried to tip over a police car, while Klan members were escorted back to their cars unscathed. In all, 26 protesters were arrested, one man for brandishing a machete.
In Ann Arbor, in May of last year, protesters stormed a fence that separated 37 Klan members from the four-hundred-strong crowd, injuring members of a "Peace Team" and prompting police to use pepper spray. The demonstrators later threw rocks and bottles at police and through the windows of city hall. Two protesters were arrested for rioting and property destruction at the rally, which cost the city $136,000 in damages, according to news reports.
Cleveland is just one stop on the American Knights' packed schedule this summer, and the group has kept its reasons for visiting vague. According to the mayor's office, the American Knights want to protest the new stadium. But on the telephone, Berry was more general ("You've got a lot of violence and drugs"). Grand Dragon Hogg, a Cleveland native who now lives in Old Washington, Ohio, was even more general, hinting at a personal agenda.
"It burns my ass to go back there and see the areas the city and county paid for covered in graffiti," says Hogg, who claims he's been around the Klan all his life. "Or to see people with fur coats paying for steak and ribs with food stamps.
"Look at the Rock and Roll Hall. When tourists come to see that, they don't want to see little kids without shoes and prostitutes on the corner . . . You can take the savage out of the jungle, but you can't take the jungle out of the savage."
Protesting the Past
Annapolis, Maryland, knew how to handle the Klan. Several hundred police officers and buses separated the group from the protesters. A helicopter monitored the situation from the air, while undercover officers roamed the crowd looking for problem areas. Everyone went through metal detectors. A block away, community leaders held a unity rally at a church, which drew hundreds more than the Klan event or the rowdy protest. There was no tear gas. No broken windows. No violence. In all, only three people were arrested, all for disorderly conduct.
The key to a peaceful rally is often a good unity rally, Potok says, noting that counterdemonstrations are counterproductive in all instances. The twisted appeal of Klansmen tends to be heightened when they're surrounded by a horde of protesters, which gives them the appearance of "besieged tough guys." But unity rallies allow communities to voice their distaste for the Klan without giving the group what it wants: Big crowds and media exposure.
Klan watchers believe that a visit from the group can be a positive event, especially if key community and faith-based groups use it as an opportunity to deal frankly with racial issues. In Boyertown, Pennsylvania, for instance, leaders organized Project Lemonade, a "lemons to lemonade campaign," by getting people to pledge money for every minute the Klan rallied. The money went toward anti-racist causes and human rights groups, a formula that has since been copied in other cities.
"It's a shame to see officials at each others' throats when what they should be doing is showing solidarity and organizing a unity plan," Potok says of the Cleveland situation.
Only in the last two weeks have plans for alternative events started to materialize. The call for unity has come, not unexpectedly, from the faith community. Among the scheduled events are several at the time of the Klan rally, including a United We Can function, featuring civil rights leader Reverend C.T. Vivian, at Baldwin-Wallace College from noon to 3 p.m. and a "Walk Against Hate Parade" at Cleveland Heights High School at noon. The Klan is scheduled to rally from 1 to 3 p.m.
All this talk of togetherness has not toned down Forbes's inflammatory rhetoric, however, nor dampened his plan to resist the Klan. He continues to attract support from civil rights groups, organized labor, and others who feel affronted by the Klan's presence at the Justice Center, including a grassroots Anti-Racist Action-affiliated group called the Cleveland Stop the Klan Committee. The mayor has countered by focusing on alternative church-sponsored events as part of his basic Klan-control strategy to keep people away from downtown and tightly control those who do come to the rally, trying to head off any confrontations that might turn ugly.
Regardless of how his pre-rally actions appear to the public, White is quite aware that being criticized for "coddling" the Klan is less damaging to him in the long run than the criticism he will suffer if the rally erupts into violence. The mayor's staff has been working for the past twelve weeks on an elaborate security plan, which White unveiled with dramatic fanfare at a press conference last week. It will segregate the anti-Klan protesters, the media, and Klan supporters into separate stockades, and prohibit demonstrators from bringing anything more than a single key and identification (and certain "soft" signs) into protest areas. The restrictions on the media, described as "draconian" by one reporter at the press conference, arguably enhance security. But if the rally does become violent, they also preclude any objective, firsthand account of how it happened.
Forbes understands the mayor's immediate dilemma. If he had beaten White in the mayoral race ten years ago, he might be faced with it instead. But in spite of a blistering diatribe against White on the radio late last week, Forbes insists he has no personal or political agenda regarding the mayor. He continues to frame the issue as one of longstanding social injustice.
"I don't feel as though it is my job to tell people, "Don't go downtown, so the city will be protected,'" he says. "I say, go there and protest four hundred years of mistreatment."
The American Knights may not be able to muster any political support, but they have become skilled media opportunists in this case doing their best to stoke the mayor's feud with Forbes. When called by a reporter, both Hogg and Berry were quick to side with White, an ideological opponent who at the moment happens to be their protector and ally in the courts.
"Forbes is a fake and a two-face," Berry spews. "Forbes needs to keep his mouth out of this and keep from trying to politically gain from this . . . If Forbes was mayor, he'd do the same thing."
But Forbes isn't the mayor. He's the head of the local chapter of the NAACP. He's also the grandson of a Klansman's rape victim.
When asked about this, Forbes becomes uncharacteristically quiet for a few moments. Then he leans back in his chair and shares some family history, not skimping on the details, but pausing at key points in his story, never quite able to utter the word "rape."
"I'm a Southerner. My roots are in the South. I'm a grandson of a slave. My grandmother had four children, four daughters. Two of my aunts are probably lighter in complexion than you. They looked like white women. My mother is a very dark lady a very, very dark lady. And my youngest aunt is kind of dark-skinned. I always wondered why my Aunt Mary and Aunt Rosy were light-skinned. I never paid any attention to it.
"When I went into the Marine Corps and then I came back, my sisters told me what had happened," he continues. "That she had been . . . That, when my grandfather was . . . [The plantation owner, a Klansman] would just come and go to bed with her. There's a deep personal thing with me on this, and I've never forgotten it."
The Klan is skilled at tapping deep personal wellsprings. No matter what sound bite Berry's American Knights happen to be spouting, they still wear the hoods and robes of hate. They still symbolize the bitter cancer of racism.
In reality, however, they have become nothing more than cheap talk-show entertainment. If hundreds or thousands of people flock to the Justice Center to confront those who wear the white robes, they will be protesting a ghost of a movement, one that thrives only in grainy photographs in history books.
Jacqueline Marino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.