Ku Klux Klowns
Meet the face of the New Racism--if you can find it amid all the counterdemonstrators.

The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, October 26, 1999

NEW YORK--"The Birth of a Nation" it wasn't.

The Ku Klux Klan's much-publicized Manhattan rally drew 16 Klansmen to Foley Square Saturday afternoon, far short of the 50 to 80 the Klan had promised. Hardly anyone heard what they had to say, for the men in their traditional white robes and dunce caps did not have a loudspeaker permit and were kept apart from curiosity-seekers by hundreds of cops manning barricades and thousands of counterdemonstrators.

The anti-Klan protesters, by contrast, had no trouble making their voices heard. "The capitalists around the world are our enemies!" a speaker bellowed in the parking lot that was the site of the smaller and more comical of two counterrallies. "We must fight to defend Cuba and North Korea!"

Later Scott M.X. Turner took the stage. "I'd like to sing a song about white culture and its shortcomings," declared Mr. Turner, a white man who sings and plays guitar for the punk rock band Devil's Advocates. The song's refrain:

You're so white
You're so trite
The grass, it ain't greener
On the other side
But at least it ain't white

This counterrally was sponsored by the Partisan Defense Committee, an arm of the Spartacist League, a self-described Trotskyite organization. Signs and banners supporting Mumia Abu-Jamal, murderer of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner, were almost as numerous as those denouncing the Klan. Other signs attacked the organizers of the bigger counterrally, some of whom didn't share the Spartacists' view that Klansmen have no First Amendment protection.

One such placard read: "Sharpton/ACLU defend Klan 'rights'!" And indeed, in the inevitable court battle that preceded Saturday's events, the KKK had the support of both the local ACLU chapter and the Rev. Al Sharpton, New York's best-known racial arsonist, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the Klan's behalf. The Klan went to court when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani refused a permit for the rally, citing a law against wearing masks in public. Judge Harold Baer ordered the city to let the Klansmen wear their masks, but on Friday the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled Judge Baer, so the Klansters were forced to show their faces. They wore hoods and robes but no masks. (Mr. Sharpton was quoted as saying that he backed the Klan only because he was "against the mayor.")

A New York Times editorial sniffed that the Second Circuit's decision was "a low moment for the First Amendment." But really, the whole tale was a reassuringly familiar ritual of contemporary American democracy. Each of the players made his didactic point: The counterdemonstrators taught us that old-fashioned bigotry is beyond the pale; the ACLU, that the Constitution applies not only within the pale; the mayor, that free speech isn't absolute; the courts, that rights and responsibilities can be balanced. And of course the Spartacists proved that America doesn't discriminate in its toleration of crackpots.

As for the Klansmen at the center of this civic circus, they taught us by their inferior numbers that they are not a serious force in 1999. A perfect foil for everyone else, they put on a preposterous show and subjected themselves to the city's ridicule. How could anyone have persuaded them to endure such humiliation? Strangely enough, it was their own idea.

Instead of masks, they should have worn colorful makeup and big red noses. For even with their faces unadorned, they looked like nothing more than Ku Klux Klowns.

Next article: I, the Jury (New York Press, 12/8/99)

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