Let's talk about the Ku Klux Klan. Or rather, let's talk about the Ku Klux Klan(s), because at this point, there are dozens of them, a motley heap of warring splinter groups who these days seem mainly occupied with bickering with one another, accusing each other of being FBI agents (as many probably are), and holding the occasional picnic.
The Southern Poverty Law Center writes that there are an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 Klan members left, and that the movement "has been greatly weakened by internal conflicts, court cases, a seemingly endless series of splits and government infiltration." This week, one of those splinter groups has been making some news: Montana's Rocky Mountain Knights, led by a guy named John Abarr, who's claiming he wants to recruit black, Jewish and gay members, and who met last year with the NAACP, a meeting by all accounts wasn't particularly productive.
Abarr's claim that he wants to recruit what he calls "non-traditional" Klan members has predictably grabbed a ton of headlines. But it's both a. total nonsense and b. nothing new.
Klan groups claim they're "open to everyone" all the time, because it's a great way to get publicity. As the SPLC puts it, "While some factions have preserved an openly racist and militant approach, others have tried to enter the mainstream, cloaking their racism as mere 'civil rights for whites.'"
That's what British journalist Jon Ronson discovered when he went to visit Thomas Robb in 2002. Robb, who at that time had an enormous compound in Arkansas' Ozark Mountains, is another Klan leader, a director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which he took over in the 1980s from the far more infamous David Duke. For years, Robb too went around saying he wanted, in Ronson's words, a "kinder, gentler Klan." From the KKK chapter in Ronson's amazing book Them: Adventures with Extremists:
Thom Robb wanted to fit in. He wanted to slide into the mainstream. He wanted his own TV show, he said, with jokes and music, like David Letterman, or Regis and Kelly with him as Regis and his daughter Rachel as Kelly.
That was his number one plan. But first he had to teach his members to stop saying "nigger" when they were in public.
Robb renamed the Knights of the Ku Klax Klan the Knights Party, according to the SPLC, in another unsuccessful bid to appear more mainstream. When that didn't work, he started partnering with some newer, harder line neo-Nazi groups. So much for a kinder, more inclusive Klan.
As for John Abarr, the guy who's making all the news for his purported recruitment drive this week, this is just the latest in his endless bids for attention: before the NAACP meeting in 2013, he made an abortive run for Congress in 2011 on a platform of legalizing marijuana and "saving the white race."
He doesn't have much credibility among his fellow racists: on white power message board Stormfront, one commenter writes, "What can I say? This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of. What next?" Another adds, "One group doesn't speak for all, this is nothing but anti-Klan propaganda and anyone falling for it is a fool."
So no, this is not some mass movement to make the Klan more appealing. But just in case one soft, huggable KKK guy wasn't enough, this week in media we have two: Frank Ancona, an "imperial wizard" with the Traditionalist Knights of the KKK is also making the rounds, appearing on Chris Hayes' show on MSNBC to warn that the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri has "awakened a sleeping giant."
Ancona has been distributing flyers across St. Louis County, which read, in part, "The good people of St. Louis county of all races, colors and creeds will not tolerate your threats of violence against our police officers, their families and our communities...We will use lethal force as provided under Missouri law to defend ourselves."
Ancona says residents of St. Louis are concerned about the possibility of "random attacks on whites," adding, "All these calls are coming to us, people saying, what should we do?"
Let's note here that Ancona is, again, someone who in the past has advocated for a nicer, friendlier Klan, telling CNN in 2012, ""We do not hate anyone. The true Ku Klux Klan is an organization that is looking out for the interests of the white race. It is a fraternal organization, and we do good works." He also condemned the shootings at a Kansas City Jewish center in April which killed three people.
Ancona has been accused by the Aryan Nations Knights of the KKK, yet another warring KKK faction, of being in league with the Southern Poverty Law Center. They circulated a picture of him and a black man who they claimed was employed by the SPLC, and called him "weak, soft and just plain ignorant."
But despite the ridiculousness of these warring Klan factions, Ancona's MSNBC segment is a bit worrying. Not because of Ancona himself, who hasn't exactly built a huge following, but because of what he's advocating: a shoot-first, ask-questions-later policy in the event of any "unrest" in Ferguson. (That in and of itself rests on an outrageously racist assumption. Ferguson residents are awaiting a grand jury decision on whether Darren Wilson, the officer who killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, will be indicted for murder. If he's not indicted, there will likely be protests. But suggesting that Ferguson's black residents will use the opportunity to indiscriminately murder white people is a touch unhinged.)
"You're telling people you're going to arm yourself and advising people of what the law is for being able to shoot someone," Hayes points out. "That seems to everyone seeing this like incitement. It seems like you're attempting to bring about the exact same thing you say you're against."
"No," Ancona replied. "Actually, it's addressing the people who are making these terroristic threats. I'm letting them know the people of Missouri have rights too that are guaranteed under our constitution and this particular law. It's basically educating them on that law. A lot of people are living in fear. You don't have to sit back and throw a Molotov cocktail at you."
To his credit, Hayes gave Ancona exactly the kind of skepticism he deserves, raising an especially fierce eyebrow when Ancona implied that the police of Ferguson have been confiding in him about their fears surrounding the grand jury verdict, namely that the protesters will "go around raping their wives."
Then again, Hayes also had Ancona on the show in the first place. Maybe after this week, the media can take a little break from interviewing these kind, gentle, socially responsible KKK leaders?
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