Caution: Graphic descriptions and images.
I participated in a counter-protest for a Ku Klux Klan rally at Pearson Park last weekend, just a few miles from The Happiest Place on Earth. I’d come to help eradicate racism at its roots, armed only with a camera and a hand-lettered protest sign.
Some reports said the KKK had scheduled their permitted march for 10:00 a.m. The Anaheim police, however, said the rally was scheduled for 1:30.
The counter-protest was equally confusing. Someone suggested we’d be gathering on the corner of Harbor and Sycamore at 9 a.m., but that area was already occupied by Jehovah’s Witnesses. A nearby display table was blanketed with Watchtowers, free for the taking.
A stone’s throw away, a cluster of men slouched across metal benches, wooden crosses standing sentry as a street preacher read admonitions to them from his Bible. Under the pavilion, his wife spooned shredded meat into bowls; but when counter-protesters wandered into their encampment, she smiled but told them firmly that the food was “just for the men.”
At long last, I spotted our group. Multi-ethnic and cross-generational, we stood in a loose-knit circle around a picnic table, scrawling slogans on tag board as we shared condensed versions of our life stories. Olivia, the unofficial, one-woman welcome committee, wore a rainbow flag like a shawl. “I’ve done all the things,” she told us, “incarceration, rehab, you name it.” Now, however, she spends her off-hours tending to the needs of the homeless in the north Orange County area, and shielding the most vulnerable from harassment. “I show up for them,” she said, “because I want to make our community a safe haven for everyone.”
Martin scanned the park’s perimeter as he talked about the punk rock concerts he orchestrated, in order to feed and buy clothes for disadvantaged children in his neighborhood. “This is our home,” he said. “We’ve gotta look out for each other, you know?”
I’d come to Anaheim that day to confront racism–to link arms with people like Martin and Olivia–good souls who’ve watched it slither through their neighborhoods, who see Donald Trump’s threats as very real, and who worry that their voices are being muted. Those were the words that I carried in my heart to Pearson Park, but they seemed too highbrow for our first meeting. So I told them instead that while I live at a distance, I want to join ranks with them against racism.
“There you go,” Olivia said, “Community means everybody.”
But as it turned out, “community” is a fractured concept when it comes to this kind of battle. I witnessed an outpouring of generosity from unexpected quarters, but I also experienced deafening silence on the part of those whose microphones have the broadest reach. Violence, too, brought about by self-proclaimed peacekeepers. And as for the police officers–whose primary job is to remain vigilant in its protection of citizens, all of them equally–they didn’t show up at all, until it was almost too late.
As soon as the news broke about the planned KKK rally, I’d contacted every candidate for political office in California District 46 (Anaheim/Santa Ana), including Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, who is currently running for U.S. Senate. In my emails, website contacts, and tweets, I linked the OC Weekly story that first brought the KKK rally to my attention and asked each candidate if they planned to speak or otherwise respond to community concerns.
Who knows? Maybe every tweet, email and website message–theirs and mine–got lost in the ether. All I know for sure is that my queries went unanswered.
“I’m not surprised,” said the guy wearing dreads and an InLeague Press t-shirt. “There aren’t any cops here, either.”
Heads nodded. We’d noticed.
He floated a theory: Perhaps the conflicting timelines for the KKK rally were intentional. (See OC Weekly update, here). Maybe the police wanted to dissuade people from also participating in a commemorative march for Ernesto Canepa, an unarmed citizen who was gunned down by a Santa Ana policeman in early 2015. The accused officer was quietly absolved of any charges this past January, and no surprise, the community was angry. “I mean, just think about it,” he said, before he wandered off to join another group.
However sketchy the timeline, my best guess is that 75-100 counter-protesters had assembled in the park before lunchtime. The Jehovah’s Witnesses had long since scattered, but the street preacher was heading into overtime. If civic leaders and political candidates were in attendance, they were watching from the margins, blanketed by invisibility cloaks.
It was around 12:30 when the event organizers set up a portable mic. We stood in loose-knit clusters of presumed solidarity. A disembodied voice blasted a call-and-response very similar to this through the loudspeaker:
Any KKK members in our midst?
“No!” The counter-protesters answered.
Any white supremacists?
Well good, because if you’re hiding among us, you’re a chickenshit.
I glanced at my friend Cathy in horror. “That was really, really bad,” I whispered, but when she tried to respond in kind, her voice was muffled by cheering.
At some point, someone held a cardboard sign aloft and pivoted. I zoomed my lens in his direction. There it was: naked hatred, sketched with a Magic Marker:
Benny Diaz (President of LULAC-OC) hurried to the microphone. Worry etched into his face, he invoked MLK’s memory and pleaded the case for nonviolent activism. But by that point, the brewing conflict was stirred and frothed to the point where anger was boiling over.
The larger crowd drifted into smaller, more peaceful alliances: hungry, thirsty, and sweat-soaked; brimming with the optimism that’s born of shared causes, accompanied by an undertow of dread.
Cathy and I staked out an empty picnic table and talked quietly among ourselves. Self-appointed vanguards kept watch. If you judged by appearances only, you’d be hard-pressed to tell malignant forces from good.
The street preacher, finished by now with his stemwinder, wandered through the park with a mostly empty box of fundraising chocolates.
“The almond bars are gone, but I still have dark chocolate, crispy milk chocolate…”
I handed him $5.00 for two, and waved away the change.
Just then, a glossy black SUV rounded the corner at Harbor Blvd. As it crawled up Cypress, wary vigilance transformed itself into a kinetic frenzy, and dozens of counter-protesters flooded into the street, pounding on the windshield and obstructing its path. “Come into the park,” they taunted.
In a blur of black shirts, accessorized with KKK-related patches, members of the Klan erupted from the SUV. When they tugged “White Lives Matter” placards and Confederate flags from the back, the counter-protesters pounced. If they had weapons, I didn’t see them, but someone used a flagpole as a spear.
The counter-protesters, on the other hand, wore no uniforms; nor did they share similar philosophies about peaceful protests. Some watched from a “safe” distance, tagboard signs overhead. Still others jumped right into the fray, pummeling the Klan, faces shielded by masks and bandanas.
While unsung heroes tried desperately to keep both the KKK and counter-protesters at bay, bystanders captured the moment with their cell phones.
My hands were trembling, but I was there to bear witness. I kept walking toward the action, kept pressing the shutter button.
Anaheim police officers, however, didn’t make their presence known until a Confederate flag was ditched at the curb, the SUV had sped away, and a stabbing victim was writhing in a spreading pool of blood.
While eyewitness accounts are typically unreliable (and wildly divergent), cameras don’t lie. “I have photographs,” I said to Sergeant Wyatt when the Anaheim police finally arrived on scene. He handed me his card and moved down the street, where wounded counter-protesters were being treated by paramedics and KKK members were being detained for questioning.
Cypress Street was emptied, save for a handful of gawkers and a smattering of counter-protesters. As Cathy and I made our way back to the grassy park, I spied a baseball cap with blood inside the rim. I tucked it behind my protest sign, safe from prying eyes, and signaled to the cops who straddled the yellow line.
“I found something that might be important,” I said when an officer sauntered over. He barely glanced at the cap, stifled a yawn. I couldn’t see behind his aviator glasses, but I felt certain that he was staring past me when I talked. When pressed, he jotted down my contact information and asked me a few questions. He didn’t write anything down. He told me he had a good memory, though, and pointed to the personal camera on his chest. When he looked away, I snapped his picture.
By that point, the elusive SUV was being searched on a side street, my camera battery was almost out of juice, and the untouched chocolate bars were melting into the bottom of my bag. I was heartsick, and more than ready to leave.
Community activism has its place, but this had gone horribly awry. I wanted to watch the sunset with my husband, and to see “our” hummingbird tucked safely in her nest, iridescent feathers gleaming in the evening’s last light. I needed to find peace within my own garden.
Even so, I managed a wan smile for the grizzled old man in the leather vest and bandana headband–the counter-protester who shuffled past me in a daze, muttering to no one in particular, “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”
“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.” What more can be said? “Counter” doesn’t always mean peaceful, obviously and sadly. What a powerful recounting of the event. Thanks for taking part and sharing. I could feel what you were feeling. There is a big lesson to be learned here. What we do with that lesson is on our shoulders.
Very powerful and deeply thoughtful, Melodye. I am glad it wasn’t worse or you could have been hurt. In many areas of the world, groups of “professional” or “hobby” thug protesters turn out just for the fun and danger of the fight. I wonder if this might have been so here. Pre-rally meetings for protesters in this case – organized with pin cards might have allowed the peaceful protesters to identify each other, especially if IDs and group photos are taken. Then you would know who was who was not the peaceful anti- rally people. If these things are not careful prepared for, then it is no,wonder that people wander around unsure what to do – and possibly the thugs who can come to these rallies for a “bust-up” will lose some momentum under tight organizing. Easy to say, but preparation and some clear plans are essential in a rally against a violent hate group. Your article is exceptionally fair and also clearly this puts the police in a very bad light. And no, the yawning cop behind the glasses wasn’t looking at you. But I can see why something negative happened in that other arena yesterday, if you know what I mean… You are so so brave. xxoo
Sorry for the typos and spelling. I tried to edit, but couldn’t for some reason. My iPad keyboard likes to write faster than I do! Lol. Xo
Very interesting piece. You are brave. I would never have stayed, but then again I wouldn’t have gone in the first place. Thank you.
Anyone who shows up to a peaceful protest and hides their face behind a mask is someone that needs to be asked to leave. Only cowards and people seeking violence do that.
You were very brave and thank you for posting this.
You did what you set out to do. Be eyes and ears. But very sad outcome.
The humans get harder and harder to like.
Life is scary. You are brave and bright, my friend. Best we can do is shine that light whenever, wherever possible. And I know you do.
Racial tension is high. Baltimore’s protests are portrayed as riots. The police either do nothing or escalate it as they did here in Baltimore. Who is in charge and who can we trust?
Sorry but some people don’t have the luxury to “peacefully protest” the KKK. The KKK is a violent, racist organization with a long, violent history. Telling them “peacefully” to please stop hating people of color and to love everyone is naive and ahistorical at best. Appealing to the morals of an overtly hateful, bigoted group is ridiculous and will only get you laughed at by them. While you’re telling them “all you need is love,” they’re busy organizing, mobilizing, and gathering the strength to DO violent things to people of color and LGBTQ people. We already KNOW the type of things the KKK like to do when they have enough power and space.
Could you imagine telling Jews to peacefully protest the Nazis? Or telling Native Americans to peacefully protest against cowboys and colonizers? Or telling Syrian and Iraqi Shiites to peacefully protest ISIS?
The only way to stop these kind of groups (and the violence they have planned) is to stomp them while they’re still small and relatively weak. Your vision of “peaceful” protest only enables fascists and violent racists and effectively gives them space to grow in strength and numbers. That may not sound scary to you, but it is definitely a scary and unacceptable outcome for the people who are most likely to be violently victimized by the KKK.
You said it, Max Armand.
For PoC, it’s not academic, it’s life and death.
A truly peaceful counter-protest is as much to show those watching on the sidelines (or via media) a better way of reacting to hate as it is to demonstrate the same to the members of the KKK. Think for a moment about Keisha Thomas, the young African American woman who in 1996 shielded the body of a white supremacist during a KKK rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to protect him from the beatings of the anti-Klan crowd. She was brave enough to act in love in face of danger and her actions created a powerful, lasting impression on many.
Peaceful counter-protests do not encourage hate groups to grow in strength and numbers. There is no research to support that claim whatsoever. (In fact, a 2015 report of the SC KKK shows the group in decline.) However, truly peaceful counter-protests offer members of the hate group (and the world at large) a chance to see the incredible power of courageous compassion. Can we say no KKK member (or curious bystander) has ever thought twice about his/her hateful rhetoric after such an encounter? A truly peaceful counter-protest against a hate group goes a lot deeper than just telling them “all you need is love.” It is a witness to the power of kindness, forgiveness, and another way of being. As to being “laughed at,” why would that even be of passing concern to those who are strong and solid in the conviction of non-violence? Children worry about being laughed at.
Regarding the advice to “stomp them,” this is anti-American. Everyone has the right to free speech. From the ADL website: “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right of freedom of speech to all Americans, even those whose opinions are reprehensible. To place an outright ban on the speech of certain groups would be unconstitutional and contrary to a fundamental tenet of American democracy.” (There is more regarding the KKK and free speech on that website.)
The sad point of Melodye’s article is how so many there to counter-protest were not peaceful but seemed to embrace the idea that stomping them is the way to go. Such an approach does nothing but increase tensions, resentments, hatred, and more violence. It only encourages the KKK to believe they really do have a battle to fight.
Well said! totally agree.
I do not agree with violence as the way to deal with violent hate groups But I can see how frustration at the lack of help from gov’t and their agencies seem to do nothing about hate laws can cause heated responses and even violence. In a country with solid laws, this hate group would not require peaceful protestors or any protesters. Hate laws developed and then acted upon by the gov’t – and acts of hate and group violence should be properly prosecuted and hate groups like this one could be broken down peacefully. And within the law. But this has not been the case. Freedom of speech should never be the “cover” for spewing hatred, especially in cases like protest groups screaming death threats at women and doctors outside of abortion clinics as one example. Peaceful protesting yes. Threats no. Violence no. Active hate mongering should be handled by carefully formed and upheld hate laws. Huge fines against proven and documented hate speech and actions against citizens should be against the law and acted upon. Complicated but still possible to do – if the will is there. Given that any gov’t, who presumably wants hate groups who act out with racist or gender hatred etc. to be disbanded – or made criminally responsible – it needs to clarify what hate crimes are and then act upon them. Bringing up historical atrocities, to me, only emphasizes even more, years and years later, the need for laws that are fair for everyone and which bring the weight of an ACTIVE and upheld law down on citizens who actively and openly spread hatred and violence against fellow citizens. If we can charge people for home invasions that cause harm to the home owner, we can certainly figure out a ways to charge people who invade the very human rights and freedoms of other citizens. If the gov’ts from local levels to the highest courts keep yapping about violent hate groups and do little about it, then people should be writing every gov’t official in DROVES demanding these agencies make changes in the law and act upon those laws.
A hate group must engage in a hate crime to be prosecuted. The KKK has the right, under free speech, to march around with signs with slogans we feel to be despicable, and to say things we find abhorrent. If they shout death threats or physically threaten others or damage property, then they have committed a crime. However, as much as I might hate their views, in the United States, racist and sexist groups have a right to “spread their message.” Go to the ADL page that discusses the KKK and their rights in our country. It’s very enlightening. I do understand the rage felt by those whom the KKK disparage, absolutely. But our nation has solid laws that give the KKK room to speak as they will. They seem to be losing steam and popularity over the years, however. With peaceful actions by others who do not rise to the KKK’s level of nastiness, I do believe they will continue get smaller, because the excitement of confrontation will be gone.
I don’t accept that violence is the way to deal with violent hate groups it only fuels their inner fire. But I can see how frustration at the lack of help from gov’t and their agencies seem to do nothing about hate laws can cause heated responses and even violence. In a country with solid laws, this hate group would not require peaceful protestors or any protesters. Hate laws developed and then acted upon by the gov’t – and acts of hate and group violence should be properly prosecuted and hate groups like this one could be broken down peacefully. And within the law. But this has not been the case. Freedom of speech should never be the “cover” for spewing hatred, especially in cases like protest groups screaming death threats at women and doctors outside of abortion clinics as one example. Peaceful protesting yes. Threats no. Violence no. Active hate mongering should be handled by carefully formed and upheld hate laws. Huge fines against proven and documented hate speech and actions against citizens should be against the law and acted upon. Complicated but still possible to do – if the will is there. Given that any gov’t, who presumably wants hate groups who act out with racist or gender hatred etc. to be disbanded – or made criminally responsible – it needs to clarify what hate crimes are and then act upon them. Bringing up historical atrocities, to me, only emphasizes even more, years and years later, the need for laws that are fair for everyone and which bring the weight of an ACTIVE and upheld law down on citizens who actively and openly spread hatred and violence against fellow citizens. If we can charge people for home invasions that cause harm to the home owner, we can certainly figure out a ways to charge people who invade the very human rights and freedoms of other citizens. If the gov’ts from local levels to the highest courts keep yapping about violent hate groups and do little about it, then people should be writing every gov’t official in DROVES demanding these agencies make changes in the law and act upon those laws.
good grief! three of them! Lol!!! Delete two please!
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