When the Klan Comes To Town
COEUR D'ALENE, IDAHO — When the men in white hoods or jack boots come to town, what's the best response? Ignore them? Hold a civil-rights rally? Confront them verbally, maybe physically?
The question is far from academic. White supremacist and neo-Nazi groups are on the rise around the US, according to experts tracking organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations. And increasingly, they are holding rallies and marches to make their point.
Ann Arbor, Mich.; Waukegan, Ill.; Elkhart, Ind.; and Jasper, Texas - where a black man was killed lynch-style last month - are among the most recent. Up here in northern Idaho tomorrow, Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations group he leads from a wooded compound in nearby Hayden Lake are scheduled to march through downtown Coeur d'Alene.
The Northwest is known for attracting militant anti-government and racist individuals. But this region is not alone in seeing public displays by such groups.
"It's a tactic they choose very specifically to get publicity and to draw new members," says Devin Burghart of the Center for New Community, a faith-based community-organizing group in Oak Park, Ill. "In the past year, for instance, the Butler, Ind.-based American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held 39 rallies in 14 states."
"Barely a weekend goes by when they're not holding a rally somewhere," adds Mr. Burghart. "It is an indication that Klan activity is on the rise after a severe decline in the early 1990s."
And its not just activity by the Klan. "Aryan Nations branches in several states have held rallies in the recent past where they have not before, and the National Alliance also seems to be unusually active lately," adds Mark Pitcavage, a historian in Columbus, Ohio, who specializes in right-wing extremist groups and runs the "Militia Watchdog" Web site.
For their part, organizers of such marches and rallies say "it's useful to show we're involved in grass-roots activity," as one put it.
"It helps to put a face with the name, or a hood with the name as it were," says Christopher Johnson, former California state director for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan who now focuses on the group's Web site. "When there are hot spots of racial unrest or instances of government oppression of white folks, that's a useful tool."
Although he refuses to cite numbers, Mr. Johnson says membership in his branch of the KKK has "increased dramatically" during the past few years.
Given the secrecy of such organizations, it is difficult to confirm such assertions. But those monitoring the Klan, the Aryan Nations, and similar groups report that the number of groups is rising, although some may have only a few members.
The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., reported in March that there now are 474 "hate" groups around the country. Even more troubling to human-rights activists, the number of Web sites run by such groups has grown from one three years ago to 163 today.
America Online, the largest e-mail and Internet access provider in the country, recently began pulling the plug on such sites started by its subscribers. While this kind of control may be allowable under law, it is not as easy for local officials to prohibit marches and rallies by the KKK and like-minded groups.
The right to march
The precedent-setting 1978 case involving the American Nazi Party and Skokie, Ill., established the right of any group to apply for and receive parade permits. Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that officials in Boston had illegally banned the Nationalist Movement from holding a march and rally against gay rights.
Human-rights activists are split on how to respond to public displays by the Klan and their brethren in other groups.
Officials here are urging those who wish to demonstrate their opposition to the Aryan Nations march to join a motorcade to Spokane, Wash., (about 35 miles away) to rally and hear speakers at Gonzaga University.
A "Lemonade Campaign" has been organized. Thousands of people, ranging from Idaho Gov. Phil Batt (R) to grade-schoolers, have pledged amounts of money for every minute the Aryan Nations group marches. The money is to go to human rights groups in the state. (The name of the effort, which has been successful in other places, comes from the saying "if all you have is lemons, make lemonade.")
But others say they must confront the marchers. Some will do it peacefully, with signs and song.
"Everyone in law enforcement has discouraged us from doing this, but we just feel we have to exercise our First Amendment rights," says Skip Kuck, who lives in Hayden Lake, where the Aryan Nations is headquartered. "We have to let the Aryans know that we are not intimidated, not accepting of their position."
Others plan to confront the marchers more directly.
Irv Rubin, national director of the militant Jewish Defense League, flew to Spokane from Los Angeles Wednesday. Armed with a bullhorn, he says he intends to gather as many people as he can to face down the Aryan Nations - going directly to their wooded compound if he can.
"I have to come up here to confront an evil that should have been wiped out 60 years ago," he says. "Sometimes you have to use your fists. When you ignore them, they elevate the level of their activity."
All of this can make things difficult for police officials.
"The civil rights movement of the 1960s created the case law and the interpretation of the First Amendment that is allowing the Klan to march," says Mike von Wupperfeld, who has 25 years of experience dealing with protesters as a park police supervisor in Austin, Texas. "We must allow them their rallies, regardless of their political agenda."
"Ideally, the Klan would drive into town to find the streets deserted, all business and public buildings closed," says a police official who tracks such groups in the Pacific Northwest. "I don't think they'd have much interest in playing to an empty house."
But often this is not the case.
"I think the concern on the part of law enforcement is quite appropriate," says Dr. Pitcavage. "Within the past year there has been a great deal of violence initiated by anti-Klan protesters."
This is exactly what officials in Coeur d'Alene hope to avoid.