Hate thy neighbor

The most virulent branch of the Ku Klux Klan has come to New England. So what now?

Boston Phoenix/May 13-20, 1999
By Ben Geman

Lowell, Massachusetts, doesn't have much in common with Washington, New Hampshire. The first is a former industrial city of 100,000 with a mix of backgrounds and ethnicities within its borders. The other is a quiet rural town in a part of south-central New Hampshire where road signs are as likely to warn drivers about cattle as about pedestrians.

But in recent weeks, they've shared similar brushes with racial hate. In the first few months of 1999, both Lowell and Washington were plastered with crudely typed fliers declaring that blacks will take your job and that Jews control the government. (A third city, in eastern Massachusetts, has also been postered.) Some of the fliers found in New Hampshire list a Lowell post-office box alongside phone numbers in New Hampshire and Indiana.

Experts on hate-group activity say the message is clear: the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a recently formed and aggressive branch of the notorious hate group, have arrived in New England. And they're recruiting new members.

No public demonstrations or meetings have been reported so far, and there's little to suggest that the group has a strong membership in the area. The Lowell Police Department has downplayed the leafleting; police there say that of the three people they found placing fliers around the city, two were from out of state (police wouldn't divulge where) and the third was from Massachusetts, but not from Lowell.

But hate-group experts say that doesn't mean there's no cause for concern. "If it's the same fliers from the same group and they are showing up in cities in a region, that means someone is organizing," says Chip Berlet, senior analyst with Somerville-based Political Research Associates, which tracks activities on the far right.

Watchdogs say a branch of the KKK already exists on Cape Cod, but that it's nearly dormant, and that the Klan wing of which it's part isn't as militant as the American Knights. At a time when membership in hate groups is rising nationally, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Indiana-based American Knights are growing especially fast. "They came from nothing three years ago," says Mark Potok, editor of the quarterly Intelligence Report, the SPLC publication that covers the radical right. "This group has really exploded onto the American scene and is showing up in some quite surprising places."

The KKK may be the most infamous of American hate groups, but it is no longer the organization of choice for bigots seeking company. At its peak in the 1920s, the Klan boasted millions of members and mainstream status in some communities. But today, of an estimated 100,000 people nationwide who belong to some type of organized hate group -- neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, other Aryan-pride sects -- only an estimated 6000 are members of the Klan.

And today, the face of the KKK is often just that: a face. For many of the dozens of Klan sects, suits have replaced robes and hoods as members try to make hate more palatable. Think David Duke, the former Klansman who recently lost a bid for Congress in Louisiana. "A lot of the Klan over the last 10 or 15 years has tried to take a step back," says the SPLC's Joe Roy. "They are not racist, they are 'racialist.' They are not segregationists, they are 'separatists.' They don't hate anybody -- they just 'love white folks.' " The "new" Klan has engaged in some curious PR efforts. It has fought to join adopt-a-highway programs in several states. In Missouri, a wing of the Klan lost a court battle in its bid to underwrite local National Public Radio broadcasts.

The American Knights, on the other hand, are strictly old school. One member, asked by phone for an interview with the Phoenix, replied that it's rare for anyone other than the "Imperial Wizard" to give interviews. And if one is granted, he said, "The proper security procedure will be followed. You will not see our identity. We will be robed and hooded."

(Calls to the New Hampshire number printed on the fliers and to the American Knights' national office were not returned.)

The American Knights don't temper their message any more than they soften their image. On Martin Luther King weekend in 1998, on the 30th anniversary of King's death, they marched on Memphis, Tennessee, where King was shot. They're known for shouting racial epithets at counter-demonstrators. They march in hoods and robes. "This is not the kinder, gentler Klan," says Potok. "They make no pretense of being some sort of good-guy philanthropic organization for white people." The Southern Poverty Law Center calls them and their leader, Imperial Wizard Jeffrey Berry, "thugs."

They're also the fastest-growing Klan sect nationwide. Founded only four years ago, the American Knights have grown from 18 chapters in 1997 to 27 in 1998, according to the SPLC. And though the Klan is most often associated with the South, the American Knights have grown largely in Rust Belt states.

"There's a constituency out there for whom [Berry] just appears the ballsy Klansman who tells it like it is," says Potok.

The group's undiluted bigotry comes through in the New England fliers, which appeared in Washington in mid-April and in Lowell in late winter and again this spring. One leaflet found in both states declares that the "nigger race war is already starting. Just turn on your Jew tubes and watch the news, and you will see what color 90 percent of the criminals are." Another recruiting flier found in New Hampshire begins with the words "Hello neighbor" and proceeds to inform readers that the writer is merely a hard-working, church-going man who takes his children to ball games. "We are people just like yourself, except for one minor detail," reads the flier, which concludes with the phrase "white power." "We are not afraid to speak the truth about things we believe in."

Traveling New Hampshire's green and winding Route 31, it's easy for outsiders -- or "flatlanders" -- to pass right through downtown Washington without even knowing it. The downtown consists of a general store, the town hall, the police station, a church, and a gazebo set upon a small patch of grass.

It looked a little different on the morning of April 19, when dozens of the Klan fliers were taped to public buildings, signposts, and the general store. Washington police chief Anthony Guthrie believes they were posted at about 11 the night before. "See right here, that's a remnant," he says, pointing to the corner of a white piece of paper still taped to the station's door on Sunday afternoon.

For Guthrie and other townspeople, the fliers were unwelcome not just for their message but also for the publicity they brought. Television crews swarmed into town, which didn't thrill residents. "It made it look like they [Klan members] were here in town with robes and burning crosses," says a man who works in the general store.

"We want to get back to being Mayberry, if you will," Guthrie said Sunday, sitting in the small office he shares with the rest of the force -- i.e., part-time officer Brian Moser. ("You're talking to half the department right now," Guthrie said in an earlier interview. "Not only am I the chief, but I also catch dogs.") Guthrie guesses that maybe three or four town residents are responsible for the postings.

"I'm not aware of anyone in the area who would do something like that or feel that way," says Richard Cilley, another Washington resident. "Once people found out about the fliers, the reaction was, 'We really don't need that type of thing here.' "

The town's response was to hold a free "family concert" on May 8 at Town Hall, billed as "Love Thy Neighbor." Washington officials say it wasn't a direct reaction to the fliers -- the elementary-school principal says it was aimed at hatred and intolerance in general, especially in Kosovo and Littleton, Colorado -- but it's not hard to see the connection.

"It was more of a 'This is a cultural-diversity, family-type town,' " says Guthrie. "It was [about wanting] to express ourselves, because they [the Klan] have had the chance to express themselves, to say 'This is us, this is what we believe in.' "

If there's some reluctance in Washington to talk about the situation, town officials are positively open about it compared to those in Lowell, where the two incidents of postering have not been widely publicized and the police are loath to discuss the issue at all.

"These guys are not getting a lot of play here, and that is exactly the way I would like to keep it," says Lowell police superintendent Edward Davis. "I think we should keep a very close eye on the situation, but I don't want to lend credibility to people acting like this." Adds department spokesman Patrick Cook: "We don't want to validate them."

Fair enough. No doubt the American Knights thrive on the attention generated when they attract angry counter-demonstrators at rallies -- or when Jeffrey Berry, who's been convicted of theft, assaults, and other crimes, appears on The Jerry Springer Show, as he did in 1996. Yet the Lowell Police Department's hush-hush approach has critics among hate-group experts. Although posting the fliers is not a crime and is protected speech, says Chip Berlet, civic leaders should address it immediately and head-on.

"To me, it's a warning sign that says some social, political, and religious leaders in the area need to get together and realize that what may not be appropriate for the police to respond to is appropriate for them to respond to," says Berlet. "You need to inoculate the community against this type of recruiting, and that means public leadership and public denunciation of this racist and anti-Semitic organizing -- because the recruitment is often aimed at young men, and unless there is a public display of denunciation, there is no lesson learned other than that this is another appropriate political tendency."

Berlet has seen the effects firsthand. In the Marquette Park section of Chicago, where he once lived, the Klan and other hate groups organized in the mid 1980s. Local officials, who felt they shouldn't dignify the groups with a reaction, did nothing. Within several years, the damage had been done -- the Klan staged a rally cheered on by hundreds of local youth, and the organizing spurred racial violence. "This is just how it started," Berlet says. "A handful of fliers, people dismissed as just jerks.

"If someone drops a cigarette on the couch," he adds, "you do not wait to see if the couch catches fire."

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