Picking Up the Pieces
The Klan invasion ends with counter-demonstrators getting the
worst of it.
by Jackson Baker
kay, I went to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse.
The devil didnt make me do it. Mayor Willie Herenton did.
I was peacefully auditing a Democratic campaign workshop Saturday
when Herenton rushed in as a special luncheon speaker irresistibly
coaxed, he said, by his good friend Mark Yates (the Shelby County
Democratic chairman as well as chief of staff for U.S. Representative
Harold Ford Jr., a sometime political rival and frequent thorn
in the mayors side).
The mayor quickly let it be known that he couldnt tarry and would
have to head back downtown, where, he said, he had major problems.
Ive got the Klan to deal with, Ive got skinheads, Ive got
gang bangers. All these groups were converging on the county
courthouse at Adams and Third, and things had got to the point,
said the mayor, of requiring his hands-on attention.
Up to this point, quite frankly, I had regarded the influx of
a few Ku Klux Klan crackpots from out of state as a fairly minor
annoyance, a breach of manners and taste as much as anything else,
since these losers had chosen the Martin Luther King holiday weekend
for their intrusion. A teapot tempest. Thats how much I knew.
|PHOTO BY JACKSON BAKER
Looking pleased with himself, a counterdemonstrator at Saturdays
Ku Klux Klan rally is led off to jail.
But Mayor Herenton had communicated a sense of urgency that whetted
my interest. Fact is, I had already been struck by several of
his previous statements concerning the pending visit of Indiana
Klansmen to the city. People dont lose their constitutional
rights when they come to Memphis, he had said of his determination
to afford police protection to the Klan rally on the courthouse
steps. And he had let it be known that he was looking as much
to brothers in the inner city as a source of trouble as he was
to the hooded provocateurs themselves.
This mayor has an underrated capacity for defining a situations
narrative character in advance, casting roles for himself and
others in it, and then acting out the drama and/or letting it
unfold. In a sense, thats what he had done with the Chapter 98
controversy. And it was clear that, both as actor and as critic,
he had a scenario in mind for the situation Saturday.
To cut to the chase, I had lunch with the Democrats and then went
downtown to see this movie for myself.
At about one oclock, the Klan rally had already started, and
the police, clad in riot gear, were deployed strategically at
all of the surrounding intersections to prevent any further expansion
of the crowd of anti-Klan protesters and rubberneckers, already
numbering several hundred in the couple of blocks west of the
courthouse. Here and there the cops were being baited sometimes
crudely and accused of sympathizing with the Klansmen whose
rally, true to the mayors commitment to Constitutional guarantees,
they were protecting.
But at this stage there was still an element of good humor to
the situation. At one of the impromptu barricades, an angry young
black man ceased taunting the police long enough to ask with mock-innocence,
Say, how many of you are getting time and a half for this? The
grim-looking policemen, standing guard with their billyclubs,
couldnt help cracking smiles.
Free-lance photographer John Haley and I and several other latecomers
with media credentials were eventually admitted into the crowd
scene proper at the intersection of Main and Adams. Inside was
a jumble of types: ranging from peace-and-love pacifists to street
dudes looking for somebody to holler insults at. That turned out
to be either the police, engaged in providing a cordon between
the Klan rally and its protesters, or the behooded ones themselves,
who were alternating various rants (hard to discern at that middle
distance, but apparently employing the n-word with some frequency)
with goofy-looking left-armed Nazi-style salutes. These were answered
with one-fingered salutes from the protesters.
In retrospect, there were only two plainly visible events that
could have been pretexts for the chaos that followed. At one point,
to chants of Burn that shit, some protesters set fire to a Confederate
flag. (That symbolism, together with the panoply of rebel standards
so prominent on the courthouse steps, surely put a certain hard-core
Ole Miss emblem at further short-term risk.)
The other precursor event was more ominous. A skinhead type in
the middle of the predominantly African-American crowd donned
a Klan armband and was soon being pummeled on all sides. The crowd
parted like a wave as he and his pursuers made their way up to
Main Street where he fell to the pavement bleeding, and the police,
before picking him up and hauling him off to one of several waiting
paddy wagons, stood guard around him.
Some five minutes later, with 15 minutes left to go before the
Klansmen were due to finish up with their mischief, board their
buses, and go, and with there having been literally no warning,
verbal or otherwise, tear-gas canisters were suddenly fired into
the crowd, and the police simultaneously charged, clearly determined
to clear out our own little Memphis-style version of Tiananmen
Square. Astonishment at the enforced stampede for safety was fairly
general, with several people, weeping from the effects of the
gas, pausing to point angrily at the still visible and still
undisturbed Klansmen. This is our city. We have a right to
be here. They dont! someone shouted.
Two men bearing red-and-black flags had a different attitude.
Checking out a second wave of police emitting gas from what are
now locally famous as leaf-blower guns, these self-professed
anarchists grinned, and one of them said, Hey, those guns are
What wasnt cool to those who got in the way, of course, was the
contents of those weapons. Tear gas and pepper gas, both of which
were apparently put into play, do have an unpleasant and highly
conspicuous effect on those of your glands northward of the neck.
Having sampled both varieties, I am now prepared to become the
Fredric Koeppel of crowd control toxins.
At one point, seeing a TV crew some further into the vacated zone
and deciding to try to join them, I flashed my press card to an
intervening officer named L. Hamilton, who informed me, Youre
trying to start a riot! Me, the gassee? Not him, the gassor?
Well, who was at fault? Mayor Herenton would hold a press conference
on Tuesday at which he professed gratitude that no serious injury
or loss of life occurred. He commended those citizens who had
chosen to ignore the Klan rally and condemned the young bucks
whom he adjudged to have been prominent in the counterdemonstration.
The mayor asked not to be second-guessed and said, We should
avoid blaming and begin to demonstrate that Memphis is not a city
torn by prejudice and racial violence. Herenton defended his
actions and those of the police and pointedly had city attorney
Robert Spence cite a portion of the Constitution guaranteeing
Americans the right of assembly.
If the mayor was nursing a consciousness of any ironies involved
in this final act, this post-mortem on the weekends dramatics,
he kept it to himself.
For the record, he played it straight. n
Little by little, Democrats are coming out of the woodwork to
consider challenges to prominent Republican office-holders. Theres
apparently no candidate yet for county mayor to take on GOP incumbent
Jim Rout, but another Republican, District Attorney General Bill
Gibbons, may draw an opponent.
Ready? The prospect is maverick attorney and University of Memphis
law professor Mike Roberts, whose appointment by Criminal Court
Judge John Colton last year as an investigative special master
in the James Earl Ray case was successfully challenged by the
D.A.s office before the state Court of Criminal Appeals.
Roberts has considered several previous races under a variety
of political labels. He was director of a city panel on lottery
legislation some years back and was agent for the late former
Governor Ray Blantons efforts to rehabilitate himself legally.
Criminal Court Clerk Bill Key has picked up some Democratic
opposition in the person of the Rev. Ralph White, pastor of Bloomfield
Baptist Church and a figure in several political campaigns in
recent years usually in support of African-American candidates
operating independently of the established Ford political organization.
Sheriff A.C. Gilless, who intends to run for reelection as a
Republican and who already has one opponent, Democratic Melvin
Burgess, the citys former police director, may draw another in
Novella Smith Arnold, the AIDS activist who has been a persistent
advocate of intervention programs in the Shelby County jail. Arnold,
who in essence has been banned by Gilless from conducting further
activities in the jail, might possibly use the campaign as a bully
pulpit for her issues. n
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