In Violence We Trust: The Ku Klux Klan and the First Amendment

By Connie Kwong Source: abc7NY

Throughout its 150-year history, the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan has established itself as the United States’ most notorious hate group with its nativist, anti-Catholic, and racist demagoguery. Even if we consider that today’s KKK is no longer the large, influential, and monolithic group of self-described vigilantes that it was at the peak of Jim Crow and has since become a loosely affiliated network of small local chapters embracing the white supremacy brand, the Klan has not been silenced once and for all. Perhaps the most damning recent evidence is that on Saturday, Feb. 27, the KKK’s largest remaining faction, the West Coast-based Loyal White Knights, hosted an anti-immigration rally at Anaheim’s Pearson Park. A violent scuffle broke out between klansmen and counter-protesters, ending in three counter-protesters stabbed and 13 arrested (five protesters, eight counter-protesters including the three stabbed).

It’s no surprise that the Anaheim protest – dressed in Confederate flags, “White Lives Matter” posters, and bigoted sentiments – provoked anger, pain, and fear. Nevertheless, one might ask if this inflammatory protest was still protected speech under the First Amendment. At least, that’s what Sgt. Daron Wyatt of the Anaheim Police Department contends.    

The First Amendment protects the right to express unpopular and even hateful opinions as long as they aren’t phrased as libel, slander, obscenity, or threats. A police statement released Sunday echoed this argument when it declared, “Regardless of an individual or groups' beliefs or ideologies, they are entitled to live without the fear of physical violence and have the right, under the law, to defend themselves when attacked.”

While the Anaheim police issued a notice on Friday, Feb. 26 about the KKK’s protest stating that they would be "monitoring the situation for any violations of law,” their conduct last Saturday warrants criticism. According to witness Brian Levin, there were no police officers at the site when the violence began. Levin, who serves as director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, even posted a video on the Center’s Facebook page showing officers arriving at the scene minutes after several counter-protesters attacked klan members.

Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait countered that police were actually present when fighting broke out, and some of those were plainclothes officers. In fact, Sgt. Wyatt added that the department deliberately chose not to have a visible presence to avoid provoking potential anti-police sentiments among protesters.

“It is a balance act. We don’t want to look like we are taking anyone's side,” he explained. “It does appear to be self-defense and defense of another."

It’s true that authorities can’t suppress protests or demonstrations simply because they fear that the audience will be hostile to the speaker’s message, and they can’t punish demonstrators for the audience’s animosity or violence. But they can and should use reasonable crowd-control measures like creating buffer zones between extremists and counter-protesters to protect both parties. When we think about last Saturday’s melee within the greater context of the Klan’s 150-year history of exceptionally hateful and violent acts, it’s difficult to think of the protest as a self-contained event without any symbolic value or potential for violence. Considering that police often show up to demonstrations for other causes (extremist and non-extremist alike) such as anti-abortion, economic inequality, or environmentalism, the Anaheim episode wasn’t an exception. The police had every reason to maintain a strong presence to protect both extremists and counter-protesters for the sake of public safety.

The other problem with Wyatt’s words is that by reducing the incident to a case of injurers versus the injured, he’s unfairly and inaccurately dichotomized the protesters versus the counter-protesters. Let’s not overlook that several dozen counter-protesters arrived at Pearson Park around 10 a.m., over three hours before the protest was scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m., and used the time to speak out peacefully about police brutality, racial inequality and other social issues while denouncing the klan's message. It was only a smaller group of counter-protesters that remained off to the side and discussed hurting the klansmen.

Even if we acknowledge that several counter-protesters were fighting, we still have little grounds to think of this episode as only a “balance act.” It wrongfully implies that good governance faces a moral trade-off between protecting extremists and oppressed minorities. And while trying to understand this incident through constitutional interpretation may be helpful to some degree, the formalist nature of such an approach ultimately inhibits us from truly broaching the more salient problem: systematic racism.

In fact, Orange County itself has a troubled history with the KKK. Up until the mid-1920s, the klansmen were a political dominant force in Anaheim, with nearly 300 active members calling the city home and patrolling its streets in robes and masks. The Klan held four out of five City Council seats until a recall election forced them out of office in 1925. And the troubles are hardly far in the past. Last summer, at least 100 residents of neighboring cities Whittier and Fullerton found packets containing KKK fliers with racist rhetoric in their driveways. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of the same year, they distributed fliers denouncing King in Santa Ana neighborhoods.

Yes, distributed literature is one of the primary mediums that are protected under the First Amendment, regardless of its political content. But with racial tensions currently a major talking point in American political discourse, Orange County’s past with the KKK and last Saturday’s episode are unfortunate reminders that perhaps the extremists aren’t so “extreme” after all. Because if we’re prone to think of the Anaheim KKK rally as an isolated incident by assuming that we live in a post-racial society, the real question is what standard of race relations does the United States hold itself to?

Is it a high standard? Is it a high standard if we consider that more than just a few of our Founding Fathers were rich, white slave-owners? Is it a high standard if the KKK was founded from the ashes of the former Confederacy in the aftermath of the Civil War? Is it a high standard if blacks are the overwhelming victims of systematic police brutality, if Latinos are stopped on the street and questioned because of the stigma against undocumented immigrants, or Middle Easterners are stereotyped as terrorists? And is it a high standard if a current leading presidential candidate is campaigning on an anti-immigration platform?

Last Saturday’s protest wasn’t an isolated incident, but a product of the ingrained racism of the United States. It was indeed violent, but physical violence is hardly the only existing form of violence. Racism is social violence. And if it’s such a normalized and pervasive aspect of American culture, we ought to recognize that it’s a historical violence that defines our past and our future. As much as we’d like to believe that the race-neutral language of laws like the First Amendment declares all citizens free and equal, we’d be wise to consider how the societal consequences of applying the law are often anything but neutral in a pluralistic, multiracial society like the United States. If we truly want to achieve a more just and ethical society, perhaps we’re better off (or have no other choice but to) completely rethinking how social stratifications complicate the laws and liberties we take for granted.