No cause was too leftist. No statement too extreme. No outfit too outrageous. The rally of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan lured them all.
A group of spirited karate kids bounced down Franz Pastorius Boulevard dressed like Teletubbies, Rugrats, and Disney characters. On Euclid Avenue, a loud group of protesters bemused idle workers at Magic Nails as they marched past the storefront window. A few staggering drunks joined the parade, cheering incoherently all the way to the police checkpoint near the Marriott. Other groups urged the television cameras to free Mumia, find Jesus, and love gays.
For anyone hoping to see the Klansters run out of town with their sheets draped over their heads in shame, Saturday's rally was a disappointment. The boos and hoots from the three-hundred-strong anti-Klan protest pit was no match for the Kluckers' ear-bleeding sound system, which filled several city blocks with invectives for everyone from "niggers" to the Boy Scouts. The hooded ones rambled on for more than an hour, too far removed from protesters to read the T-shirts urging them to fuck off.
The twitchiest moment for the Klansmen happened even before they faced their opponents through a double wall of chain-link fences and a human shield of 250 police officers. Shortly after they were led into the bowels of the Justice Center, the lights went out. The power failure affected much of downtown but it seemed more pointed to the Klansmen, who knew the police had fought to keep them from dressing in their garage. They also knew that George Forbes, the hotheaded leader of the Cleveland NAACP, had reportedly thrown a coffeepot at the mayor over that issue the day before. No doubt Forbes's earlier warning to the mayor echoed in their minds in the darkness: "Get the paddy wagons ready."
It was an ironic scene indeed: Thirty-odd Klan members, accustomed to plotting in the dark, shakily donning their hoods and robes in jittery pools of hand-held light.
The day was filled with irony. Classical music blared near the well-patrolled checkpoints, as if filling spectators' ears with Debussy would keep their fists from flying. The elaborate security measures in place to guarantee the Klan's right to free speech required that all newspaper boxes be removed from several blocks surrounding the Justice Center. Freedom of the press took another knock in the form of a mandate preventing reporters from taking their pens, notepads, cameras, and microphones into the protest areas.
Not surprisingly, the anti-Klan side drew the largest crowd, including a well-organized NAACP group that marched over from the Black Family Expo wearing black shirts with the words "The Struggle Continues." Some protesters waited for twenty minutes to go through metal detectors, only to have police officers deny them access to the public event because they had pagers, jewelery, or inhalers.
Veteran rally-goers like Kelly from Euclid knew the score. She wore a shirt that said "Nazi Punks Fuck Off," but left the steel-toed boots at home. They set off the metal detectors at the last Klan rally she attended, so this time she opted for more peaceful footwear.
Others were less well-informed. Melissa Skora was refused entry into the anti-Klan area because of her wheelchair and the removable electronic keyboard she uses to speak. A group of anti-racists started shouting "Let her in," while Skora pecked laboriously at her keys. "I am a person!" insisted the mechanical voice. As her frustration mounted, Skora typed "Fuck the pigs." Sadly, that did not help her cause. She was booted back to the noisy, sign-carrying throng outside the checkpoint.
The loudest voice there belonged to Martha Grevatt of the Cleveland Stop the Klan Committee, who yelled "Cops and Klan go hand in hand!" No fights broke out, but there were some interesting verbal exchanges between born-agains and champions of lesbian rights. That was topped, however, by Stop the Klan organizer Steve Hamilton, who had some choice words for Mayor Michael White, overseeing the event from atop a parking garage. Hamilton yelled that only two of the four metal detectors were working, clogging up the checkpoints. White moved away once Hamilton and others started chanting "Liar, liar!"
Matters on the pro-Klan side went much more smoothly, largely because there were less than thirty people there. About twenty minutes before the rally, Ron Johnson dawdled with two scuzzily dressed cohorts outside the pro-Klan gate, telling reporters that he came to the rally for "the sheer hate of it all." Through a waft of hard-to-escape body odor, he explained, "I just came to see if it's going to be like a live Jerry Springer show."
The meager group inside the pro-Klan area included only two hard-core supporters tattooed with likenesses of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a bald demon who clapped and occasionally yelled "white power!"
The Klan itself was an unimpressive crew; far and away the brightest thing about them was their robes. Some who didn't wear hoods sported the classic sunglasses-and-bedsheet look, quite the rage at summer Klan rallies. Others wore bandannas around their faces. One Klanswoman was so large around the middle that her robe strained at the buttons.
The "Lady Dragon" of Indiana railed on about racial purity, insisting that all interracial children are condemned to hell at the moment of conception. Another Klansman insisted that "If it wasn't for the Second Amendment, you wouldn't have the First Amendment." Ohio Grand Dragon James Hogg proclaimed, "I'm your hometown hero today."
Hogg also had a message for Cleveland cops: "I'll shove those badges up their asses." This is the same Hogg who, just a day earlier, wouldn't compromise police security arrangements by disclosing the suburban location where the Klan was meeting its police escorts, citing personal safety concerns.
After about ten minutes of the rally, no one paid much attention to Hogg and his cronies. When they weren't flocking like lemmings to the pro- and anti- sides of the media cage, reporters and cameramen rolled their eyes and cracked jokes about the Klansmen, like it was all one big social hour.
Nor was anyone ruffled by the Klan's closing threat: "We'll be back!" In fact, the day's rally was so uneventful, the next one may not attract anyone but cops.
And probably the Free Mumia crowd.