The day I ran hunting for the Ku Klux Klan | Dave Eggers

Following Trumps win, one KKK chapter announced plans for a victory parade in North Carolina. But where was it going to be, and who might turn up? Dave Eggers joined the protestors playing cat-and-mouse with white supremacists

No one knew much, but the crowd was growing. We were at the rest stop off Highway 29 between Eden and Pelham, where North Carolina meets Virginia, and everyone was looking for the Ku Klux Klan. It was 8.40am.

The day after the election of Donald Trump, the Loyal White Knights of Pelham, a chapter of the KKK with a suitably unhinged website, had announced that they would be holding a victory parade on 3 December. In the weeks since, there had been no word on the Knights website or anywhere else about when or where the parade would be.

But the initial declaration was perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of what we might call the New Emboldening a coast-to-coast rise in everyday American racism and bigotry spurred by the rhetoric and election of a billionaire who had taken swipes at certain Mexican-Americans and all Mexicans, certain women and all women, certain Muslim-Americans and all Muslims, all African Americans and all immigrants.

In the month after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center had tracked more than 900 incidents targeting non-whites. A Muslim college student in Ann Arbor had been told, by a young white man, to remove her hijab or he would light her on fire. At a Utah high school, two Mexican-American sisters were told by their white classmates, You get a free trip back to Mexico. You should be happy.

The idea of a Klan rally in this kind of atmosphere was potentially explosive. The KKK had demonstrated a year earlier, in Columbia, South Carolina, and the results had been ugly. Three hundred Klan members had been there. The New Black Panthers had countered with 400 of their own members. In all, there were 2,000 protesters. There were cops in body armour. Ripped Confederate flags. A grandmother with a bloody nose. A Klan member, trying to flee in his vehicle, ran into a lamppost.

This 3 December parade, then, coming after Trumps election and during this New Emboldening, had the potential to be far worse. The promise that the parade was coming was a blight on the soul of the nation; the vast majority of the country, whether they supported Trump or not, dreaded it. There is no more wretched and horrifying segment of the American people or history than the Klan, who in their darkest years had lynched black men and women and had terrorised anyone who wasnt white or Christian. At their height, in 1924, the Klans membership was 4 million. In 2016, estimates put their strength at no more than 8,000.

Two
Two masked Ku Klux Klansmen giving an interview on a rural backroad near Pelham, North Carolina on the night of 2 December. Photograph: Jay Reeves/AP

But Trump, like a snake charmer, had coaxed the rise of the alt-right, who embodied the spirit of the Klan, but in different robes and with better social media. And because the depth of Trumps support so much of it invisible to polls and data had shocked much of the nation, there existed the possibility that the Klan, too, would emerge with far greater numbers than anyone thought possible.

But for a month, no one knew where the rally would take place. Activists marked it on their calendars but had no clue where to go, other than Pelham, North Carolina a tiny town of 3,592 souls, with no central business district through which to parade. The night before, Id driven around Pelham and found nowhere a potential parade might happen. Guessing the Klan might be gathering at the home of Amanda and Christopher Barker, the only Knights listed on their website, I drove past the home listed as their address. It was a humble clapboard house in nearby Eden. There were no cars parked outside, no sign of an assembling of regional racists.

Then, late on the night of 2 December, an article appeared on the website of the Times-News of Burlington, North Carolina. A reporter there, Natalie Janicello, spoke with a Loyal White Knights representative who called himself the chapters exalted cyclops. He confirmed that the Klan would indeed parade. Probably at 9am, he said, and in the vicinity of Pelham.

So here we were, at the rest stop, waiting for word. The sky was grey and the temperature hovered at 40F. Cars continued to arrive, and their passengers disembarked to use the facilities. Most were young and dressed in black boots, pants, hoodies and sunglasses. A few were wearing bandanas to cover their faces. These were black-bloc activists some anarchist, some communist, some apolitical in general more willing to engage in confrontation and property damage (thus the efforts to anonymise themselves). There were six of them. Then 10. Then 20. Thirty. They made up the largest group of the assembling activists, but there were also members of the International Workers of the World (IWW), a few people with Black Lives Matter signs, and a smattering of unaffiliateds men and women, most of them under 30, standing in the cold, waiting for word of when and where. But 9am was fast approaching and there was no update.

I befriended a trio of activists who seemed to have the most up-to-date information. Megan Squire, a red-haired professor of computing sciences at nearby Elon University, was earnest and funny and determined to confront the Klan. She was with her husband, Tony Crider, a professor of physics, who, in Ray-Bans and a leather jacket, was a bit more detached and sceptical (for reasons that would become clear later). With them was Sugelema Lynch, a bright-eyed second-grade teacher from nearby Alamance County.

Im more of a tag-along, she said. She was wearing a lime-green scarf and teal-coloured sneakers, and had an enormous camera around her neck. I just want to get a couple cool photos and tell my kids, Look what I did this weekend! She had moved from California five years earlier, when shed married a man who grew up nearby. She was still getting used to this once-Confederate state, whose Latino population had grown from 76,000 in 1990 to 800,000 in 2016.

When I first moved here, she said, living in the Burlington area, you just felt the tension. As a Hispanic woman, just walking around felt awkward. She is one of two Latino teachers at her elementary school, where most of the students are the children of Latino immigrants. Its not really a surprise to hear about the Klan here. Things dont ever just go away. But Im not offended just looking at the Confederate flag. I grew up watching The Dukes of Hazzard, too.

Megan was periodically checking in with the IWW and black-bloc groups, and returned with news. OK, she said. The rumour now is that the Klan is organising itself, planning to go to Danville via Highway 29. Everyones trying to find someone who might have a car shitty enough to block the highway.

Black
Black bloc protesters some anarchist, some communist, some apolitical who formed a large part of the turnout against the KKK march. Photograph: Carol Guzy/Photoshot/Avalon

Danville was a city of 43,000, just over the Virginia border. It had been on the list of possible sites for the Klan march.As we waited, Tony told a story of a recent Trump-fuelled incident on the Elon campus. The day after the election, he had arrived at his classroom to find the words Bye bye Latinos. Hasta la Vista written in large letters on his whiteboard. There had been recent activity in the area by another neo-white supremacist group called Actbac (Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County), and Tony thought this might have something to do with them. Deciding to make it a teachable moment, he took a picture of the board and posted it on his Facebook account.

When his first class arrived that morning, he left the words up. He asked the students to write down their thoughts on the election and drop them in a bin, so each students opinion would remain anonymous. (He planned to read them aloud a week later, when they had some distance.) He taught the class as planned, then went back to his office, closed the door, and cried.

Meanwhile, his photo had been shared with a student reporter at Elon, who tweeted it. That tweet was retweeted 2,000 times, and by the next day, it had been reported in the Daily Mail and the Associated Press. It was referenced all over the world.

Then we found out it was a hoax, Tony said. It turned out that a Latino student at Elon had written it. The student considered it satire.

Now the assembled protesters gathered around Greg Williams, an organiser from the IWW. With long dark hair and a beard, he was calm and in control. He introduced the protesters to four men and women wearing bright green baseball caps. They were from the National Lawyers Guild, he said if anyone got arrested, they would be available. He provided one of their phone numbers. It had a San Francisco area code. The activists passed around a black marker and wrote it on their arms.

Anyone with a smartphone that can be opened with your fingerprints should disable that function, Megan said. If youre arrested, she explained, police cant make you give up your password, but they can compel you to use your fingerprint. The heads of the assembled protesters bent downward as they busily made adjustments to their phones.

Finally, Williams instructed the protesters to think about your positionality. White protesters should, he said, try to keep at least two of them (white protesters) between the Klan and any protesters of colour. Speak for yourself, a black protester said, and there were laughs. The bottom line, Williams said, is look after each other.

A parking attendant had been making her way through, marking tires. The police would soon have reason to move the group, so everyone got in their cars and caravanned to the Pelham Community Center just across the highway. A sign out front promised a visit from Santa Claus later that week.

Behind the community centre was a dirt road with a narrow stretch of grass running alongside it. The area was flanked by a high wire fence on one side and a dense forest on another. Everyone parked their cars, got out and waited. The protesters milled and talked and looked at each others placards. RAPIST PRESIDENT read one. NO HATE IN OUR STATE read another. A white man in shorts held a sign declaring that The Worst Thing to Ever Come Out of a Vagina Was a WHITE MAN. Another white man demonstrating every protests struggle to keep focus had a sign pushing for a $15 minimum wage.

Word was that the parade would happen at 11am. Now the black bloc got serious. Baseball bats were removed from car trunks. Masks were adjusted. One man wore a leather jacket covered with silver studs. Another put on a motorcycle helmet. The scene began to have the look of troops assembling before battle.

More members of the media appeared. There were about a dozen small video crews and an equal number of journalists walking around with notebooks and tape recorders. They roamed among the assembled and waiting protesters, and, with nothing else to do, pretty much every journalist and photographer interviewed and photographed pretty much every protester. A trio of young activists with hand-drawn signs were photographed at least 10 times in precisely the same pose. Sugelema took a picture, too. What the hell, she said.

An SUV with tinted windows arrived. Two men emerged wearing identical outfits fleece jackets, khaki pants, sunglasses and hats. Security contractors with a group called ESG, they were there to protect a TV newscaster, an older gentleman, well-tanned, who emerged from the SUV with a cameraman in tow. His security detail followed.

Two young men removed two crates from their car trunk, one full of bottled water, the other Red Bull, and distributed them. The mood was upbeat. The current joke, Megan said, is that were just a bunch of goth kids playing Pokmon Go.

With an hour to kill before the Klan parade, there was general anxiety that some faction of the protesters would start a drum circle. The anarchists dont like drum circles, Megan noted. Sugelema pointed to a man with a red drum at his feet. Two other men were carrying cymbals. Another man with an elaborate moustache appeared with a saxophone. A few days before, at the Standing Rock protests, Sioux tribal leaders had asked the white people, arriving in great numbers and in festive spirit, not to treat the protests like Burning Man.

Megan checked in with Natalie Janicello, the reporter who had the trust of the Loyal White Knights. Janicello happened to have been a student of Megans at Elon University. She conveyed the latest: the Loyal White Knights had pushed their parade back to 3pm. The theory circulated that the Klan had been scared off by the size of the counter-protest, and had postponed their rally to gather a comparable volume of paraders of their own. One woman with hair dyed blue carried around a sign, newly made, that said Big Bad KKK: 2 Scared 2 March.

Anti-KKK
Protesters in Danville after the theory circulated that the Klan had been scared off and had postponed their rally. Photograph: Carol Guzy/Photoshot/Avalon

Sugelema and I went to get snacks. At the local mini-mart, where the staff and customers were all black, there was no awareness at all of the parade and counter-rally happening down the road. Next door, three young African American men were offering car washes. It was business as usual. We drove through Danville, quiet as a tomb.

They used to make socks here, Sugelema noted. A wide river, the Dan, cut through the town, and there were abandoned factories decomposing alongside its grey water. Around this part of North Carolina, there had been textile factories specialising in hosiery. In 1951, two local manufacturers, the Riverside Cotton Mill and Schoolfield, merged and became the largest single-unit textile mill in the world. But the plant closed in 2006. Now the city looked like the kind of place that might see its red-brick warehouses turned into lofts, and its riverside factories transformed by non-profits. But this kind of revival had yet to arrive in Danville.

Sugelemas parents were migrant farmworkers from Mexico. We moved every couple months, she said, following harvests up and down the Pacific coast. They picked apples in Washington and Oregon, melon and strawberries in Californias central valley. Thats where she was born, between harvests, and was given an unprecedented name.

Its Estonian. In the hospital, my mom didnt know what to name me, so the nurse suggested Sugelema, making her name at birth Sugelema Guadalupe Gonzalez probably the only person with that name the world has ever known. As an adult, Sugelema had looked up the meaning of her first name. According to the internet, in Estonian her name means itchy.

Of the 17 students in her classroom this year, 14 are from immigrant families, most of them from Mexico. Since Trumps election, some of the families were worried, fearing that he would follow through on promises to deport millions of people, but Sugelema had not rushed to judgment. Growing up, her parents had admired another Republican, Ronald Reagan. With the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Reagan had granted amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants, including many seasonal agricultural workers like her parents. It was Reagan who allowed us stay in the US, she said.

Her parents found a small town in Oregon and settled down. Sugelema and her older brother were sent to a public school where most of the kids were white. Later, her brother joined the marines and became a successful IT specialist, with most of his contracts coming from the US military. He now lives in San Diego, where Sugelemas mother is comfortably retired. Sugelema went to college and is the mother of five. Her oldest son is on the local football team.

The American dream is not perfect, but it is real. Sugelemas parents arrived in the 1970s from Mexico with nothing. They worked the fields, and now their daughter is a teacher and an indie-rock singer-songwriter. This I learned on the drive. Later, Sugelema showed me one of the music videos she had made with her husband. The song was called All Things Considered, and the video has the manic energy and lurid colours of 1980s MTV. In it, Sugelema wears Tweety Bird pyjamas as a cast of costumed partygoers dances around her. Megan is dressed in lederhosen; Tony wears the mask of a devil. In the centre of the frame, Sugelema sings, not quite awake and not quite asleep.

We returned from the convenience store to find that the protesters had decided to have an impromptu march down the dirt road. The Caswell County sheriff had blocked off one entrance, so we went around to the other, parked, and arrived in time to see the march in full swing. The photographers dutifully took pictures and the videographers filmed. In every way it had the look of a real protest, and any close-cropped photo would imply a rousing demonstration in favour of equality and diversity.

But there was no Klan and there were no spectators. It was about 60 activists marching for about 100ft on a road in the woods. After a few minutes, the group stopped marching and went back to waiting. It was not quite noon.

Soon there was news. Apparently there was a group of white supremacists demonstrating in nearby Danville. Sugelema and I had just come back from there, and had seen nothing of the kind. I think we should head out there! Williams roared, and the crowd cheered. Someone started drumming. The saxophonist played a ditty as everyone ran to their cars. Saxman, youre my hero, someone yelled.

We followed the 30 cars back on to Highway 29. There was one catch: no one had an address. There had been some mention of the centre of town. Someone else had heard the word Sutherlin. Megan sleuthed that this might be the Sutherlin home in downtown Danville. During the waning days of the civil war, when Union troops had overrun and burned Richmond to the ground, the home of Major WT Sutherin in Danville had become the last capital of the Confederacy. For a week at least 3-10 April 1865. It was now a museum.

There
There was no Klan and there were no spectators anti-KKK protesters march outside Danville, Virginia. Photograph: MWAA/ZDS/WENN.com

We raced into Danville and were the first to find the building. It was a grand, red-stone home in the Italian villa style, on a hilltop, with a wide lawn and a stone obelisk on which were engraved the words Guarding Our Future by Preserving Our Past. The property occupied an entire city block, and would have been a fitting site for any demonstration. But there was no one there. No white supremacists. No one at all.

We drove through Danville and soon found the ESG Security SUV in a parking lot on the edge of Danvilles downtown. Theyd found something. The white-haired newscaster stood outside, flanked by his private security guards, talking to a tall man with a wild grey beard. He wore a black leather cowboy hat and a denim jacket bearing at least 10 Confederate flag patches. There were two trucks nearby. One bore the Virginia license plate CNFEDRT.

The bearded mans was named George Randall. He and the two women with him were bewildered, like Custer caught in an ambush. Were not part of the Klan, Randall said. They were part of a group called the Virginia Flaggers, whose motto was Heritage, not hate. Periodically they held rallies to preserve Southern heritage and fly the Southern flag. He said he hadnt heard anything about a Klan rally, and hated getting confused with the Klan. This kind of mix-up, he said, was the fault of the media. And the young people. And the liberals. He monologued for a time, at one point complaining about a woman hed seen on the internet defecating on a picture of Trump. While he was speaking two more cars, carrying activists and journalists, pulled into the parking lot. Randall looked alarmed.

We better get out of here, said one of the women in the CNFEDRT truck. Randall jumped in and they took off.

Back at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, a handful of black-bloc activists stood on the corner. Passing motorists, most of them African American, gawked and pointed. Thought experiment: what would the reaction have been in a reciprocal situation? If 30 or so young black people, most of them men, showed up in a small predominantly white town, wearing masks and carrying baseball bats, what might happen?

Megans phone dinged. The activists were headed back to the rest stop where we had started the day almost five hours earlier. Sugelema and I left Danville and got on the highway. When we got to the rest stop, the 30 cars were leaving. They were going back to the Danville Museum. Theyd heard that a different Confederate group was about to demonstrate. We tried to convince them that we had just come from Danville and that nothing was happening there, but it was too late. They were gone. We followed. It was a lot like high school, where dozens of cars roamed the same few suburban miles, looking for a party, stopping at the mini-mart, getting a Slurpee, exchanging specious information and driving off only to repeat the whole process half an hour later.

We arrived at the museum to find a few disappointed black-bloc members. No Klan, no Confederates, no neo-Confederates. Megan and Tony arrived with news. Tony had seen some police cars a few blocks away, parked near a playground. He thought it might be the protest, or at least a protest. We raced to the park, but there were no Klansmen there, no black bloc. Instead, about 25 Danville residents, most of them African American, had assembled before a video camera, in rows, as if posing for a school picture. Put down the guns! they all said in unison. The gathering had nothing to do with white supremacists or Trump. It was about ending a recent cycle of violence in Danville.

David L Wilson, who split his time between selling life insurance and working at a tyre-manufacturing plant, explained. Weve had a lot of shootings in our city. Weve had 14 murders recently. Even last night, a young lady here had a gunshots outside of her house. He took the arm of an older man next to him; he had tired eyes. This was the idea of this man, Gerald Holmes, Wilson said. Holmes had organised a movement called 434 Lives Matter, named for the local area code.

We have to change the mindset of the people, Wilson said. We cant do it from a top-down position. We cant do it just with the police. If we dont change the mindset of the people in the community, and change the way theyre dealing with each other in terms of conflict resolution, were going to continue to see this robbing and shooting and killing.

The members of 434 Lives Matter planned to go canvassing that day, door to door, in the neighbourhoods affected by the violence. For a moment, what the rest of us had been doing all day seemed hopelessly irrelevant. A mass of interlopers, many of whom were in costume, were chasing the Klan like it was some urban scavenger hunt. Meanwhile, the actual residents of the town were trying to figure out why their young men were shooting each other.

Sometimes they do things out of their character, Wilson said. But theyre doing what they think they have to do in order to survive. Theyre trying to do what they can to make ends meet, to take care of their families. Our main thing is listening now. We have to listen to what peoples hurts are.

We left the park. Megans phone went off again. The protesters were marching in downtown Danville. Apparently they were tired of waiting for the Klan. We raced to Main Street and found them. It was happening. And their numbers had grown there were now about 100 people marching. There were more locals. There were parents with their children. It was loud and it was real. No hate! No Fear! The KKKs not welcome here! they chanted. Leading the march were the black bloc, their baseball bats dragging on the pavement. Minutes before, I had felt like whatever the anti-KKK activists were doing had no tangible meaning, but now, seeing it happen, it seemed vital and necessary. The last vestiges of the Ku Klux Klan must be met with this kind of demonstration of resistance.

Trailing the marchers were three Danville police cars, their lights spinning brightly. They had sanctioned the march and were ensuring that it had the run of the road. All of which was remarkable. The police had allowed the protest on incredibly short notice, and were OK with dozens of black-clad protesters marching down their street with bats. It was a model of accommodation and restraint.

But because it was a Saturday, and because the stretch of road they marched was not a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, and because the march had been organized in the last half-hour, there were only a few people to watch it. A beautician peeked out the window of her shop, but otherwise the witnesses to the march were entirely members of the media.

After a few blocks, the protesters gathered in a parking lot. Williams spoke first. We shut shit down! he said, and the crowd repeated it: We shut shit down! they roared. The mood was ebullient. We shut shit down, they roared again and again, their baseball bats hammering the pavement. Then, in the call-and-response style he had used earlier, Williams added a coda.

One more good piece of news before you go, he said.

One more good piece of news before you go, the crowd repeated.

We just heard from folks, he said.

We just heard from folks, the crowd repeated.

Who are watching the Twitter account, he said.

Who are watching the Twitter account, the crowd repeated.

Of the official spokesperson, he said.

Of the official spokesperson, the crowd repeated.

Of the Loyal White Knights, he said.

Of the Loyal White Knights, the crowd repeated.

Who says they fucking cancelled their march.

One more good piece of news before you go, he said. We just heard from folks who are watching the Twitter account of the official spokesperson of the Loyal White Knights who says they fucking cancelled their march.

The crowd erupted. Megan was ecstatic. The Klan, she and the activists had deduced, had been scared off by the strength of the counter-protests. Maybe the Loyal White Knights were really only two people Amanda and Chris Barker. And maybe they had been trying to gather enough people all day to make their parade worthwhile, and had failed. It seemed like a suitably pathetic end to a hateful but powerless cabal. There was still the alt-right, and David Duke was running for office again, but at least the KKK, or this head of the serpent, was dead.

Since the Loyal White Knights announcement of the rally, there had been much debate about what to do. There was a school of thought that said paying the Klan any attention at all was only encouraging them. There were those elsewhere in North Carolina, from Greensboro to Raleigh to Charlotte who preferred to hold counter-rallies, focusing on inclusion and featuring speakers and songs, far away from any confrontation. But the people in Danville believed it would be a terrible thing, in 2016, if a Klan rally happened, and happened uncontested. Slightly better would be a Klan rally that was vociferously confronted. Best of all, though, would be a Klan rally cancelled in the face of opposition. And this is what had just happened. And even though this was a modest counter-protest in a modest city, it mattered just as Birmingham had mattered in 1963, and Ferguson had mattered in 2014. Maybe it mattered more because it was Danville, the last home of the Confederacy.

Terrell Simmons was feeling good. A tall African American man wearing combat boots and a red bandana, he had led some of the post-march chants. The Klan dont have the people, so they dont have the power! he had yelled. The establishment dont have the people, so they dont have the power! He was a high school test-prep teacher from Mobile, Alabama, and had driven 12 hours to confront the Klan. Now he was basking in the victory and planning what would come next. Were going to have a lot of cohesion between the groups that have been divided, he said. Were going to see that we cant build this country without one another. A lot of the things that have held us up in the past are going to go away. Reality is going to set in that without actually meeting the needs of the poor people, the sick people, this nation is doomed to fail.

He walked away smiling, joining the black bloc, whose members were taking off their masks and disbanding. Soon there were only a few people left on Main Street. Tony and Sugelema were looking for a place to get a beer. Shit, Megan said. In the parking lot, now nearly empty, she was reading her phone. Natalie Janicello had just posted a tweet. ITS HAPPENING, she wrote. KKK just came through Roxboro. Battle flags and shouting WHITE POWER.

Natalie A. Janicello (@natalie_allison)

IT’S HAPPENING. KKK just came through Roxboro. Battle flags & shouting “WHITE POWER!” pic.twitter.com/rcjHbmUUiR

December 3, 2016

While the anti-Klan protesters marched through Danville, the Klan had paraded through a different town, 45 minutes away. Janicello had embedded film of it into her Twitter feed.

In the video, about 20 vehicles speed through an intersection. Some of the cars have Confederate flags flapping from their windows. Some cars are unadorned just gray sedans driving down the street. No spectators are visible. None of the drivers are visible. A woman in one of the cars yells White power from a window. Then its over.

Megan was despondent. Not just because the Klan had trolled the protesters and had pulled off their parade. But there was the matter of her former student, Natalie Janicello, who must have known about the location of the parade, and had opted not to tell any of the protesters or members of the media. She was the only media member, and maybe the only person, who saw it.

The next day brought one last twist. A Klan member named Richard Dillon, who had made the trip from Indiana, was in the hospital with multiple stab wounds to the chest. Two other Klansmen, Chris Barker and William Ernest Hagen of California, were charged with the crime. Apparently, in the early morning before the planned parade, the Klan had assembled at the Barkers house. Drinks were drunk. Dillon had hassled Hagen about a Klan rally Hagen had put on in Orange County, where the Klansmen had been beaten up by counter-protesters. Hagen didnt much appreciate that, so he stabbed Dillon repeatedly, while Barker blocked the door. Bleeding profusely, Dillon managed to escape, drove to Danville, went to the hospital and told the doctors on duty what had happened.

Police arrested Barker and Hagen that morning. So they didnt get to see the parade, either.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

What do you think?

0 points

Total votes: 0

Upvotes: 0

Upvotes percentage: 0.000000%

Downvotes: 0

Downvotes percentage: 0.000000%

Leave a Reply