David Duke, America's most easily identified racist, got more than he bargained for last week when he attempted to host an event called the European-American Unity and Rights Conference at Whispering Woods Hotel in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Or maybe the former neo-Nazi, Klansman, and member of the Louisiana legislature got exactly what he wanted when his group was dismissed from two area hotels. He got to look like a political exile forced to lurk in the shadows, dodge the police, and work extra hard to enjoy his First Amendment rights.
"Can you even believe that this is America?" the weary-sounding Duke asked last Thursday, in a suppertime phone call from an undisclosed location. "I can't believe that this is America. I absolutely cannot believe that something like this could be happening right here in the land of the free."
Duke's group had only been kicked out of Whispering Woods at this point, a venue he'd learned about from James Edwards, the Memphis-based host of "The Political Cesspool," a website and radio program popular among white nationalists. Duke hadn't been forced from Bartlett's Drury Inn yet. He hadn't been forced to do his press interviews on public property near an interstate highway. Calls made after the second expulsion were all answered with the same terse, tired, frustrated answer: "Call back in an hour."
Brad Watkins, the organizing coordinator for the Midsouth Peace and Justice Center, had no sympathy for what happened to Duke or his event. "If these guys want to meet and talk in some hidey-hole somewhere, that's fine," he said. "We just wanted the people at Whispering Woods to understand that not everybody in the community thinks it's a good idea to have that kind of event here." The advocacy organization, committed to principles of nonviolence, first revealed the conference's location in a mass e-mail urging like-minded readers to contact Whispering Woods and its manager, Travis Murray, to express their displeasure.
"What do you think would have happened if this had been some black group that had been kicked out?" Duke asked indignantly on the phone. Leaving no time for a response, he said the press had been unfair. He said he was a civil rights leader, and it was wrong to call him a white supremacist or to associate him with the white-power movement.
"I'm about nonviolence," the former Grand Wizard said. "I'm about nonhate. There has never been any kind of incident at any of my events."
The whiter side of the Internet lit up with jokes about the perceived over-reaction in Olive Branch, where an official state of emergency was declared for the duration of Duke's conference. Several online commentaters suggested sending donuts to all the bored cops standing around collecting overtime.
"Why isn't anybody talking about the terrorist threats that were made against the hotel?" Duke demanded. "Why isn't somebody talking about bringing in the FBI to investigate these threats that were made against the hotel and against the manager of the hotel?"
Of course, the allegedly peaceful Duke wasn't the only white celebrity coming to town for "two exciting days of non-stop speeches, music, and media presentations." Don Black, the founder of Stormfront.org, an online social network for the White Nationalist community, was also scheduled to attend. Black, a longtime Duke associate, was convicted in 1981 for the attempted armed overthrow of the Dominican Republic.
By promising speakers that couldn't be announced because "the federal government has sought to prevent entry to leaders of European Rights organizations and political movements," Duke's website all but begged the Department of Homeland Security to get involved.
"Only four days remain until the kickoff of this historic gathering of White people who will stand up and declare that we not go quietly into the night with the prospect of a black radical president of the United States," Duke wrote on his website.
The message seems to have gotten through. Just before he came to Memphis, police thwarted a plot by two Mid-South skinheads to assassinate Barack Obama — and a much more possible-sounding plan to kill black schoolchildren.
But according to Duke, he was the victim. "You know, they've got free speech in Cuba too," Duke said, concluding his Thursday-night phone call. "Just as long as you don't say anything bad about Fidel Castro."
In spite of the setbacks, Duke's conference has since been called a "smashing success" by online commentators and "euphoric" by Edwards.