Kicking out the Klan in N.C.

May 31, 2012

Trish Kahle reports on the fight against far-right racism in North Carolina.

NORTH CAROLINA activists scored a much-needed win on May 26, when grassroots pressure forced the Ku Klux Klan to move a publicized cross-burning out of the state. Alongside the victory, organizing for the event also provided many important lessons for organizers.

The Klan is an ever-present threat, if subterranean, in the state. In my five years here, I have heard King, N.C.--a small town in the Stokes County foothills--described as "the Klan capital of the state" several times. Friends from the rural counties have told me stories of racist intimidation, particularly those in interracial relationships.

One of my Black neighbors recounted a particularly terrifying incident in which she and her mother were driving through the rural northern piedmont on a winter night when a Klan member tried to stop their car as a cross burned back in the woods.

Klan activity this spring, however, has escalated beyond closed weekly meetings and isolated incidents of intimidation and terror. The Klan held a public demonstration in Eden, a town of about 16,000 people, the second weekend in May. The May 26 demonstration was supposed to be held in rural Iredell County, in a town called Harmony with a population of 600.

The Klan sees these demonstrations not only as a way to instill fear in rural communities, but also as a recruitment opportunity. Unemployment rates in North Carolina are above the national average, and within the state, rural counties are disproportionately affected, with some counties reporting unemployment rates as high as 18.5 percent.

Activists first learned about the KKK's planned hate demonstration on May 21 after several state papers reported that residents in rural areas of the North Carolina central piedmont and Appalachian foothills had received fliers from the Klan. Organizers set a statewide conference call to plan a response.

Most of the rural organizers involved in the early planning against the KKK were students at state universities and were involved in the NC Defend Education Coalition or were organizers with All of Us NC in the fight against anti-marriage equality Amendment 1. The media portrayed them as "outsiders" in their own county, and Harmony's mayor tried to exploit the idea of a division between urban and rural organizers.

The mayor may not have wanted the Klan rally in her town, but she didn't want us there either. Residents who met with her the day before the rally were told to "be respectful" and "polite" and were asked to demonstrate silently. The mayor's attempts to tone down the protest won initial support because of people's fear that protesters would begin a confrontation with the Klan. This fear was not unwarranted.

The Klan are armed thugs and have engaged in nearly a century of racist violence without repercussions. During the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, five Communist Workers Party members were murdered at a march only a week after putting the Klan on the run at another demonstration in Union Grove. The Klansmen were acquitted in two criminal trials by all-white juries. This history weighed heavily on everyone's minds in the lead-up to Saturday's demonstration.

ON THE night before, activists heard rumors that the Klan had decided to move its demonstration to southern Virginia. But people in the town reported seeing known Klan members in the area, so we were unsure what to expect when we arrived on Saturday afternoon.

About 100 people gathered in Harmony. While some 40 people from around the state traveled to the remote location, which is 45 minutes from the nearest city, some 60 people were from Harmony itself--that's about 10 percent of the town's population.

One longtime Harmony resident who asked to remain anonymous expressed anger at the Statesville News and Record, which uncritically published a response claiming the KKK had done "a lot of good things" for North Carolina. "I've yet to see one good thing the Klan has done," she said. "If anything, diversity isn't protected enough, not stood up for enough. We've got to stand up."

While the Klan is most often associated with violence against Black people, Saturday's rally also recognized that the Klan targets all people of color, and especially immigrants, as well as women and LGBT people. Ann Marie Dooley, an immigration lawyer in Greensboro who attended the rally, drew the connections: "Anti-immigrant, anti-gay sentiments--they're all connected. That's why we all have to work against them together."

More community members were supportive but stayed away because of safety concerns. The town store opened its parking lot to demonstrators as a sign of support. Almost every car driving by honked in solidarity as we chanted anti-racist and anti-Klan slogans. After a couple of hours, we got confirmation that the Klan had indeed moved the rally to Virginia, leaving people feeling empowered.

As ecstatic as we were to have achieved our goal, organizers had to recognize some challenges we will face going forward--and these are of immediate concern, since there are murmurs of a Klan march in Greensboro this September. A section of protesters, within minutes of arriving at the rally site, suggested we "take the streets" and confront the police watching from a distance. Neither of these adventurous and counterproductive actions would have aided our goal of setting the groundwork for future multiracial rural organizing.

In addition, they were masked throughout the rally to "hide their faces from police and make fun of the Klan," but the result was confusion among many new activists at the protest. One woman asked, "Are they on our side or the Klan's?" In addition, they carried misogynistic signs like "Black women are sexy."

As we prepare for future protests, we have to make sure that our politics are clearly presented and differentiated from these politics, which are a dead-end in terms of movement building.

Overall, the rally was a much-needed success after the defeats activists have suffered--particularly from the passage of Amendment 1 earlier this month. We know the Klan hasn't gone away for good, but the confidence gained this weekend, coupled with the strengthened ties between urban and rural organizers, will put us in a stronger position for the next round.

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