Under Huge Police Presence, Memphis Uneasily Faces the Klan

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — “Here they come,” someone shouted, standing in the rain in the fenced-in and heavily guarded protest area set up here more than 100 yards from where the Ku Klux Klan was beginning its controversial rally Saturday on the steps of the Shelby County Courthouse.

“I can’t see them,” someone else said, climbing on his tiptoes. “They’re too many cops in the way.”

The police presence was indeed overwhelming and the rain steady as the Klan arrived at the courthouse steps at 2:15, about 45 minutes late on the day before Easter. But from the city-designated protest area it was impossible to hear them and nearly impossible to see them except for the tops of their pointy white hoods.

As soon as they arrived, the multiracial crowd of about 400 anti-Klan demonstrators and onlookers — who were kept in the Best Park parking lot, behind a 6-foot high fence and a phalanx of police officers on foot and horseback — began chanting, “KKK out of Memphis.”

Then a man with a voice as deep as the nearby Mississippi River stepped to the fence and shouted to the Klansmen, “Ku Klux-cowards go to hell.”

All told, according to local media reports, almost 1,300 people passed through the police security checkpoint to protest. But because of the rain many people did not stay long and the number of those inside the protest area at any one time was never more than a few hundred.

Yet they outnumbered the Klansmen by 20 to one. Officials said 61 white supremacists showed up for the rally to protest the city’s decision in early February to rename three Confederate-themed parks, including one honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest (now Health Sciences Park), the wealthy slave trader and ruthless Rebel cavalry officer who later became the first national leader of the KKK. (The others were Confederate Park, now Memphis Park, and Jefferson Davis Park, now Mississippi River Park.) When North Carolina-based Klan leaders first announced the rally a few days after the parks were renamed, they said they would be bringing “thousands of Klansmen’’ to Memphis for “one of the biggest KKK rallies of all time.”

The threat was like a bad flashback for city officials. In 1998, the last time the Klan rallied here, the streets were filled with tear gas and the sound of broken windows as hundreds of anti-Klan demonstrators clashed with police. There were about 25 arrests.

History did not repeat itself Saturday. The Klan was brought in and out of the rally site on city buses, escorted by police. According to media reports, there was one arrest and police “removed” a few people from the protest area, including a teenage boy with a Confederate flag draped over his shoulder. In 1998, there were more than 1,200 anti-Klan demonstrators and onlookers on hand. This time, it appears many potential protesters were drawn away from downtown to a counter-event hastily organized by business leaders and city officials called Heart of Memphis, an all-day gathering held at the fairground with food, music and panels on improving race relations in the city of more than 600,000.

The presence of heavily armed police also played a huge role. “It’s intimidating,’’ admitted JoNina Ervin, an organizer of an anti-Klan protest that drew people from Alabama, Florida and Ohio. “If you protest too loudly, they’ll shoot you. That’s the message they’re sending with all these assault weapons.”

Downtown Memphis did look like an armed camp. Early Saturday morning, streets around the Shelby County Courthouse were already cordoned off with yellow police tape, armored personnel carriers and police cars, their blues lights flashing in a light drizzle that got stronger and stronger as the day went on.

Knots of police officers and sheriff’s deputies outfitted in black from head to toe pulled out protective chest protector body armor from black SUVs and piled heavy-duty zip lock plastic handcuffs on the hoods. The officers were armed with riot guns and semi-automatic rifles. Many carried plastic shields.

The sound of barking police dogs drifted over Main Street.

Still, about 85 anti-Klan demonstrators gathered under a gazebo in a city park a few blocks from the courthouse to get out of the rain and to discuss strategy before the Klan arrived.

Justin Sledge, who helped organize the protest, said he had walked around downtown and saw how heavily armed the police were. He advocated the group not do anything to provoke them.

“I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I haven’t lynched anyone. The Klan causes the trouble. Not us.”

Several people, including Jerry Bellow, a member of Anti-Racist Action for 20 years who drove to Memphis from Ohio, said he did not think it wise to go into the fenced in protest area. “I’ve been to about 500 of these,” Bellow said. “Back in the ’90s, the Klan would send into the protest pen bikers they were friendly with and they start trouble. I’ll give it to them, they could take a punch. But we were the ones who got arrested. It’s a trap.”

As the group was peacefully discussing what to do, half a dozen police officers, dressed in riot gear, marched across the street and up the steps of the gazebo.

“You don’t have a permit,” a lieutenant said. “There are too many of you. You’ll have to leave.”

“But we’re standing in a public park,” someone said. “We’re not doing anything.”

“You’ll have to leave,” she repeated.

The other officers moved in and the protesters moved out, filing past a handwritten sign that read, “The Cops and Klan go hand in hand.”

Meanwhile, the Klan arrived late and left about 40 minutes early. Soon after they were gone, the rain stopped.