Violence at KKK rally: Is Klan membership rising in the US?

A KKK rally turned violent in southern California Saturday. And while the event may feel to some like chapter from a history book, statistics from 2015 tell a different story. 

Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via AP
A Ku Klux Klansman, left, fights a counter protester for an American flag after members of the KKK tried to start a 'White Lives Matter' rally at Pearson Park in Anaheim on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. The event quickly escalated into violence and at least two people had to be treated at the scene for stab wounds.

A Ku Klux Klan gathering in Anaheim, Calif., ended in violence Saturday with three stabbings and 13 arrests. 

A group of local KKK members planned a rally at Pearson Park for 1:30 pm, but by 12 pm, fighting between Klansmen and protesters had already turned violent. Witnesses tell the Los Angeles Times that protesters kicked the Grand Dragon, the group’s leader, to the ground, before Klansmen began using an American flag pole as a weapon against the protesters. 

Three protesters were stabbed by Klansmen, one with a knife and the other two with an "unidentified" weapon that witnesses claim was the pointed flagpole. Protesters responded with two-by-fours and other weapons, Brian Levin, director of the Cal State San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, who was present at the park, told the LA Times.   

Police responded within minutes to break up the fight. Six Klansmen were arrested, as were seven protesters. 

Saturday’s dramatic violence by KKK members may have been surprising a year ago – but not now.   

“Klan chapters grew from 72 in 2014 to 190 last year, invigorated by the 364 pro-Confederate battle flag rallies that took place after South Carolina took down the battle flag from its Capitol grounds following the June massacre of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist flag enthusiast in Charleston, S.C.,” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok explained earlier this month. 

SPLC says the number of US hate groups was decreasing each year between 2011 and 2014. But in 2015, the overall number of organized hate groups spiked from 784 the year before to 892. And these new groups don't appear to be subject to political boundaries. In 2015, the top five states with the most hate groups were Texas, California, Florida, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania: a combination of red, blue, and middle-of-the-road states. 

Current KKK membership tallies between 5,000 and 8,000 active members. This may seem like a lot – and it is compared with membership numbers in recent years – but proportionally, it is nothing compared to the group’s millions of members during the 1920s.

However, with membership on the recent rise, remaining Klansmen have been trying to redefine their image. 

“We do not hate anyone,” Frank Ancona, the imperial wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the KKK, told CNN. “The true Ku Klux Klan is an organization that is looking out for the interests of the white race. It is a fraternal organization, and we do good works.” 

The International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan applied to “adopt” a highway in Georgia in 2012, which the Georgia Department of Transportation denied. But the American Civil Liberties Union, a group committed to protecting civil liberties, came to the defense of the KKK, arguing that every American is guaranteed freedom of speech. 

“The ACLU swiftly filed a lawsuit on the Klan’s behalf, on the grounds that the group’s right to free speech was violated by the state’s denial,” Kelsey Warner wrote for The Christian Science Monitor. A judge ruled in the ACLU’s favor in November, but the state of Georgia appealed. Just last week, the state’s Supreme Court heard arguments on the case. 

“We are doing all we can to dispel the negative images,” Ancona tells CNN. “We have a thorough screening process to weed out troublemakers. I can only speak for the Traditional Knights, but none of our members are criminals.”

But no amount of PR can change the KKK’s core message of white supremacy, say protesters. 

“I was expecting violence – but it’s disgusting,” 18-year-old Nick Keeton of Anaheim told the LA Times. “I feel like this is 1953 and we’re in Kentucky.” 

Anaheim is actually a notably diverse city – much more diverse than the the state of California as a whole. Whereas about 40 percent of California identifies as Caucasian, the same demographic in Anaheim is closer to 27 percent according to the 2010 US Census. Only 2.8 percent of the city is African American, but almost 15 percent identify as Asian and almost 53 percent of the city is Hispanic or Latino. 

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