Meriden, Conn. — The red brick city hall, trimmed in white, sits neatly atop a long hill in the center of this small New England town. Its aloofness makes it an obvious landmark and represents a quiet, assumed stability.
But during the past year this stability has been jarred. Last March white-robed members of the Ku Klux Klan clashed with anti-Klan demonstrators behind City Hall. It was the first incident of Klan-associated violence in New England for decades. Few in Meriden expected the March rally to escalate in o a rock-throwing melee, in which 20 people were injured.
''Meriden was a sleepy-eyed town,'' says local NAACP president Leroy Watson, ''before the Klan came.''
The Klan came back: In July they staged a more visible, though less violent, encore. During the summer and fall, they held rallies and cross-burnings across the state. On March 20, they have vowed to return to Meriden for ''White Christian Solidarity Day.'' (At this writing, the Klan's parade permithad been revoked, but Klan spokesmen said they planned to make an appearance in the city anyway.)
The reemergence of the Klan in Connecticut corresponds to a general rise of racist and radical right-wing groups throughout the country during the past decade. But in the North, the Klan's newly paraded nonviolence and its flirtation with electoral politics (Tom Metzger, a California Klan leader, won a Democratic congressional primary in 1980) presents an enigma to groups monitoring Klan activities. They say the ''new'' Klan is merely a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Klansmen charge their beliefs and tactics are misrepresented. ''We just want what everyone else wants,'' says James Farrands, leader of the Connecticut chapter of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. ''We're against busing, affirmative action, welfare, and crime. We're conservatives. Some people in the government - like Ronald Reagan - are sympathetic to our goals.''
Mr. Farrands claims the Invisible Empire is the only true KKK and is frequently mistaken for other so-called Klans. ''There are other Klan groups we associate with, but some give us a bad name. We don't condone illegal acts, and we don't take criminals (as members).''
Mr. Farrands says his group continues to don white robes and hoods, long symbols of violence, because ''we have a right to call ourselves what we want. . . . Our goals have been the same for the past 100 years.''
The Ku Klux Klan began after the Civil War as a secret band of former owners of slaves and former Confederate soldiers. Using violence and intimidation, the Klan played a key role in turning thg tables on Reconstruction legislation and in influencing elections. From 1866-75 the Klan murdered an estimated 3,500 blacks. Historians concur that the Klan helped establish the then white-supremacist Democratic Party and oust the reformist Republicans. Among the Klan membership, which grew to a peak of 4 million to 5 million in the mid-1920s , were doctors, attorneys, sheriffs, judges, and other leading members of white society.
''We forget that the Klan raped black women, castrated and lynched black males,'' says Greg Haskins, director of the Meriden Community Action Center, a local civil-rights group. Citing the Klan's fascination with guns and the often volatile rhetoric of Imperial Wizard Bill Wilkinson, he points out that the Klan's ''new'' tactics may not be any different from before.
According to the recent report of the Southern Poverty Law Center's (SPLC) Klanwatch program, the most comprehensive in the country, ''For the Klan . . . 1981 has been one of the most active years since the mid-1960s. Not since then has there been a comparable nationwide outbreak of violence, intimidation, and harassment by racists.''
Statistics recently relyx the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL) indicate a sharp increase in racist and anti-Semitic slogans, graffiti, and threats in the Northeast. New York state tops the country with 326 such incidents, almost triple the 1980 figure. Massachussetts, fourth on the list, reported 59.
Leonard Zakim, the ADL's New England civil-rights director, does not attribute many of the acts to organized groups. ''The figures are important, though. They reveal the existence of stereotypes and attitudes. . . . It's not the Klan that's the main problem, it's your next-door neighbor.''
With only between 200 and 300 members in Connecticut, the Klan has stirred up much more commotion than its numbers would justify, according to some observers.
To the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), the main teachers' union in the state, ''the Klan is only the tip of the iceberg, the most visible and obvious manifestation of the entrenched racism in our society.'' This comes in the introduction to a curriculum booklet developed by the CEA and its parent organization, the National Education Association.
Dr. Robbins Barstow, research director for the CEA in Hartford, Conn., says the NEA curriculum material came about when students began asking questions about the Klan after the highly publicized rallies and the appearance of recruitment literature for the ''Klan Youth Corps.''
''We had little factual knowledge about the Klan,'' says Dr. Barstow. ''It was the first time we felt this great a need for instructional materials for teachers to use in the classroom.''
The Klan is ''perversely attractive,'' and demands the attention of students, he says. With the Klan, teachers can begin with a concrete manifestation of racism and move to the sublter forms, he explains.
Other organizations have also published curricula recently. The American Federation of Teachers released a guide with suggestions for classroom discussion and background information on the Klan in late January. Just before this, the Klanwatch Project issued a special report on the history and current activities of the Klan.
Scholars and analysts still debate why the Klan is on the rise in Connecticut. Some feel the unorganized brand of racism represented by graffiti and vandalism is connected to economic conditions: Minorities and new immigrants become scapegoats when there is high unemployment. But Irvin Suall, head of ADL's fact-finding department, hesitates to attribute increased membership in extremist organizations to a slumping economy. He says when Klan membership peaked in the 1920s, the economy was generally considered healthy. The Klan thrives, he explains, when there is a breakdown of traditional values.
''The Klan exploits the same issues as the Moral Majority,'' he says, '' - drugs, pornography,'the breakdown of the family.''
Mr. Suall, like others, says the Klan is encouraged by politics in Washington , such as the recent decision to grant tax-exempt status to segregationist schools and the administration's opposition to the House version of the Voting Rights Act. Riding the conservative tide allows radical right-wing groups to appear less extremist and controversial, these observers note.
According to Mike Vahala and Randall Williams, coordinators of the SPLC's Klanwatch program, the Klan has traditionally been stronger in the South.
This is partly attributable to the ''outpouring of sentiment against the Klan in Northern states,'' says Mr. Williams. Churches and public leaders in the North are quicker to condemn the Klan and seize the opportunity to denounce racism, they say.
The Klan opposition was quick to respond after the rally last March. In Meriden, an ad hoc committee against racism was foroed. The Rev. Charles Herrick , pastor of the Unitarian-Universalist church, says the committee's present goals are to examine the CEA teaching materials and make a positive recommendation to the Meriden Board of Education and to organize an ecumenical church service the evening before this Saturday's Klan rally. The committee has already collected a ''Puge amount of money,'' Mr. Herrick says, to run ads denouncing the Klan, and to purchase 46 books about the history of the Klan for schools and public libraries. ''We've made some progress,'' says Mr. Herrick, ''but not enough.''
The ADL has been active in holding seminars to promote racial and ethnic understanding, such as the ''Conference on Prejudice'' to be held in Boston this spring, and in developing school curricula. After Klan recruiting material and anti-Semitic incidents were reported at Boston area high schools, the ADL offered workshops on how teachers and administrators could best deal with the problem.
The organization has also written model legislation that would increase the penalty for ethnic intimidation and ''institutional vandalism'' -- desecration of religious property. The bill passed in Rhode Island last year and Mr. Zakim is confident Massachusetts and Connecticut will soon follow suit.
The Connecticut ADL also supported a bill to ban paramilitary training camps. Connecticut was the first state to pass the ban after Klan and other right-wing extremist groups opened camps in Texas and elsewhere during the past two years. The legislation followed on the heels of the Meriden incident last March and the Klan's increasing presence in the state.
Dana Miller, the Meriden city manager, says while much that is positive has transpired over the year, ''the Klan got what they wanted - they appeared to be on the side of law and order.''
Connecticut Klan members take a defensive posture about the violence at the rallies. They argue they were only attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights and were attacked by anti-Klan groups, notably, the New York-based International Committee Against Racism. Local member Tobias Schwartz, a University of Connecticut professor of biology, says ''You can't say 'please stop' to these people. They are nothing but Nazi storm troopers and must be treated this way. They must be stopped in any way possible.''
But Professor Schwartz admits the violence at Klan rallies can cloud important issues; the media tends to focus on the merely sensational aspects of violence rather than on the Klan's message and motivation.
The Klan's original reason for rallying in Meriden was lost in the hubbub, according to Mr. Haskins, the Meriden Community Action Center director. The Klan came to express support for a white policeman who was being investigated for shooting a black youth.
''The whole thing became a black-white issue,'' he says with some exasperation. Concern about the0incident - the death of the youth - was overshadowed by the rallies, he says. ''The issue is not the KKK, but is much more serious.''
When Klan statements are not swiftly and categorically denied, their views find their way into mainstream politics, Mr. Vahala says. ''When you have a Klan leader saying that it looks like the Klan wrote the 1980 Republican Party platform, without strong refutation from the very top,'' he says, ''then the Klan gains respectability."
''The centerpiece of the current Klan resurgence,'' Mr. Vahala continues, ''is the attempt to make racism respectable. In some ways, they have succeeded in doing this.''
Connecticut Klan leader Mr. Farrands is a tool and die maker who lives in an upper-middle-class suburb of Shelton, Conn. He was a Boy Scout leader before he was appointed Grand Titan of the Invisible Empire in Connecticut and is still convinced there is not much difference between the ideas and goals of the two groups. Soon after he was ousted from the Scouts, he said, ''The Boy Scouts are a real right-wing organization. They believe in patriotism and are against communism . . . the same things I believe in.''
While Farrands says ''communism is our big thing,'' his rhetoric is mostly racist: ''We believe that blacks are inferior culturally and intellectually. The environment isn't that important -- it's genetic.'' He claims scientific tests support his view.
''If blacks are inferior,'' he continues, ''then it's to their advantage to be segregated. Then they won't have to fight prejudice.''
John Dillon, the Kleagle (local Klan leader) for western Connecticut, says the Klan advocates sending blacks to Africa. ''But there's a difference from what we'd like to do and what we can do.''
Both Klan leaders criticize press coverage of their views. ''Reporters won't say, 'the Klan will live peaceably with niggers,' '' Farrands says. ''If a nigger has enough money to buy a home on my street, OK. Forced integration is what we're against.''
The Klan may have scored a victory, albeit unwitting, against integration and affirmative action as a result of last March's Meriden rally.
Public Safety Commissioner Donald E. Long, who initiated and expanded affirmative action programs during his two years as police chief, was relieved of his control over the state police a few months after the incident.
Ostensibly he was charged with refusing to respond to requests by the Meriden police for state police reinforcements. Underlying this, some observers say, was disagreement with his affirmative action and minority recruitment policies.
During his two-year stint as police chief, Long changed a tradition of using examinations as the sole criterion for departmental promotions. Considering other criteria like past performance and motivation, the commisssioner promoted blacks and other minorities with lower test scores.
Long also hired a minority recruitment officer to help change the state police's negative image in minority communities. The officer, Kenneth Wilso , says he doubled the number of minorities and women in the department.
''The police union accused me of promoting friends,'' says Commissioner Long, ''But it is clear to me that they were reacting to hiring and promoting females and blacks.''Others besides Long feel he was made the scapegoat.
''This is one very interesting example of how bigotry works in state government,'' says Connecticut Civil Liberties Union director William Olds. Mr. Olds says he is persuaded that Commissioner Long was relieved of his responsibilities because of his strong affirmative action policies.
Others disagree with this version of events.
''We were not after him on affirmative action,'' asserts Gary Kerskowitz, president of the policemen's union, which has led the criticism of the former police chief. ''We were against minimum patrol.''
Mr. Kerskowitz says under Long, the state police were cut from 911 to 650 patrolmen, and as a consequence, traffic fatalities increased. ''Our men did not feel safe,'' he adds.
He claims Long's policies created resentment among members of the state police. ''None of the guys wanted to take the exams any more,'' Mr. Kerskowitz says, ''they were so disgusted.''
But since the time that Commissioner Long was demoted, the state police department has failed to get a program for redressing racial discrimination approved by the state's human rights commission. Mr. Olds says the civil liberties union will likely take legal action against the state police for not formulating an acceptable plan.
Minorities now compose only 3 percent of the police department. There is about twice that percentage in other state offices. But even this, as Olds points out, is substantially less than the percentage of minorities living in Connecticut -- about 12 percent.
Olds and others familiar with Connecticut politics say this is only one example of racism in the state. They say that attitudes in Washington and cuts in federal programs that promote desegregation are just beginning to filter down to the state level. In the future, things may become worse.
''When public officials give tacit approval to the separation of the races,'' Mr. Olds testified to the US Commission on Civil Rights in September, ''it's no wonder that overt racist acts occur. . . . It's acceptable to join the Elks Club or the Moose Club which bar blacks. . . . All these forms of acceptable exclusion contribute to the kind of public atmosphere which makes it easier to commit overt acts. Until we're willing to deal with the more sophisticated forms of racism, those overt acts are going to continue.''
Meanwhile, the Klan is preparing for the March 20 rally. Grand Titan Farrands and his Klansmen claim that on some nights the Klan's phone ''rings off the hook'' with requests for information and pledges of support.
''For every Klansman in a robe,'' Farrands claims, ''there's 20 to 30 people behind us. . . .
''Now,'' he continues, ''do we look dangerous?''
Klansman Richard Guerrera stands by Farrands's side, his pistol protruding from his belt. He crosses his arms and looks straight ahead without smiling.