Scenes From a Klan Rally
Black power vs. white power on a sweltering afternoon in Columbia
It’s a little before 1 p.m. Saturday, the crowd already starting to swell on the north side of the State House in Columbia. Two men are having a civil but passionate discussion about race, history, a flag, and the meaning of the South.
One is a white man, a bearded fellow with wire-rimmed glasses and suspenders holding up his jeans. He’s Ray Johnson, a 55-year-old from Columbia, accompanying a young man holding a giant Confederate battle flag—the same kind of flag South Carolina removed a little more than a week ago from the State House grounds.
Johnson’s talking with Mike Scarborough, a 37-year-old black man, also from Columbia. It’s hard to hear them—speakers on the capitol steps are declaiming about inequality and injustice—but here’s the gist of their conversation:
Black man: Do you not understand what that flag represents?
White man: Yes, I do. Heritage.
Johnson says he’s out here with the flag merely to honor the Confederate dead. He says this roughly 50 feet away from a 30-foot-tall, 136-year-old marble monument that honors the Confederate dead.
“It’s a tribute to the people, women, children and animals who died for that cause, whether that cause was right or wrong. And I’ve already told you I think it was wrong,” Johnson tells Scarborough. “Uneducated white people have turned it into a symbol of racism.”
They part amicably. I catch up with Scarborough a few minutes later. “My point to him was, it’s not like you’re carrying photos of the soldiers who died or of a cemetery. You have a symbol of the whole system,” Scarborough tells me. “You can’t separate the two.”
Check out the photo above. That guy with the olive t-shirt and straw hat, standing next to the Seig Heiling skinhead? That’s Ray Johnson, a few hours later during the Klan rally, doing his part to pay tribute to the animals of the Lost Cause.
I was in Columbia to cover a pair of demonstrations for Reuters: one on the north side of the South Carolina State House, organized by a Florida group with ties to the New Black Panther Party; another on the south side, organized by a Pelham, N.C.-based chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Black Panther-affiliated protest would run from noon to 4 p.m. The Klan rally would run from 3 to 5 p.m. Friction was expected, and friction there was: A series of scuffles broke out, and five people ended up arrested. Ambulances took seven people to the hospital, although it wasn’t clear how many were injured and how many were overcome by the midsummer heat.
The stated reasons for the protests were these: the first was to highlight continued racial injustices, despite the recent removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds; the second was to object to the removal. The first presented a series of speakers encouraging black people to educate themselves and act to fight the racist society they live in. The speakers punctuated their remarks with shouts of “Black power!” The second was a collection of about 50 men and women, carrying Confederate flags and the banner of a Detroit neo-Nazi organization, standing on the steps, yelling invective at a crowd that shouted abuse at them, and periodically bellowing, “White power!”
None of this appeared to accomplish anything. We’ve all seen moments of intense grace and stupidity over the last month, since the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, moments when it seemed the nation was making real progress toward some kind of racial reconciliation, other moments when it seemed the nation hadn’t budged a millimeter since the 1960s. Regardless, they’re all signposts in what’s come to be known as “the national dialogue about race,” an enterprise with a nebulous goal and intermittent sessions that always reconvene after one or more black people have been violently killed and go into recess shortly after with no apparent resolution.
This was the dead end of that national dialogue, here at the State House in Columbia. White and black people yelled at each other, yelled among themselves. Some punches were thrown, and some water bottles, and a fragment of cinder block. Individual attempts at conversation and understanding suddenly formed, like eddies off the main current, and vanished just as quickly, leaving the surface as before.
Peace and reconciliation, hell. The best you could hope for was to get out of there unharmed.
Scarborough crosses Gervais Street, which runs along the north edge of the capitol property. At the corner of Main and Gervais, he starts talking with Jenni Soules, a 42-year-old white woman from Charlotte who’s come to see what the commotion is about.
Soules objects to the group of 100 or so waving the red, green, and black Pan-African flag and shouting about black power. Not that she’s a racist. She just doesn’t think it’s right. “If y’all have the right to shout, ‘Black power,’ then I should have the right to yell, ‘White power,’” she says with conviction. “It should be equal.”
Scarborough and a black friend of his don’t bother to tell her that, in an hour or so, a large group of people will arrive at the State House to exercise their right to yell about white power.
The friend (who doesn’t want his name used) tries to tell Soules that the two aren’t equivalent, exactly, since traditionally one of those races has oppressed the other. Doesn’t matter, Soules says. She sees everyone as individuals, regardless of race. “In my mind,” she says. “That’s my personal experience.”
Yeah, Scarborough says, tiring of the conversation. Everyone has a right to be who they want to be. Including, he notes as he points up Main Street, Batman.
And here comes a white guy in a Batman suit, striding toward the State House. He has a smile on his face and a sign in his hands. “I’m Batman,” it reads on one side. “Comic relief,” it reads on the other.
“Oh!” Soules exclaims with delight. “I’m gonna have to take a selfie with Batman.”
The day’s nastiness, of course, cranks up as soon as the Klan arrives. They arrange themselves in a column and march to the south steps between two solid lines of state police. Nobody’s wearing white hoods or sheets. (I’m going to refer to them as “the Klan” as shorthand, but they carried the banner of a Detroit group called the National Socialist Movement Party, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says is “the largest and most prominent neo-Nazi group in the United States.” So they were largely neo-Nazis, technically not the Klan, like it matters.)
A mostly but not exclusively African-American crowd gathers on either side of the cops. They boo and jeer. “Yeah, bring your ass to the ’hood!” yells one young black guy. A young neo-Nazi carrying a rebel flag turns around and responds, “I don’t give a fuck.” Et cetera.
When the column reaches the State House lawn, a scuffle breaks out. People scatter. I’m behind the group, near the Strom Thurmond statue, and I can’t tell exactly who starts what. But there’s an intense commotion in the middle of the group, and the cops rush in to break things up. Not long after, they bring out a white man with a long, gray beard and a Confederate flag tank top. He’s bleeding from a head wound. Police officers hold each arm as they march him past the cheering crowd, which breaks into a chorus of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” and follows him and the cops out.
“All right,” yells another young black man as he walks back toward the State House. “Who’s next?”
The Klan arranges itself on the steps. The demonstrators mostly just stand there with their banners, including one Nazi flag. No speakers. Every once in a while, they break out into group shouts of “white power.” The crowd jeers some more. Some of the Klan people individually taunt back. (“I’ll hang your black ass!,” is a typical exclamation.)
After about an hour of this, the cops reassemble into their protective formations. The Klan’s calling this thing off an hour early. They march off. The crowd follows. The police barrier ends at the edge of the State House grounds, and it’s down to the Klan and a bunch of people they detest, and who detest them.
It’s only a couple of blocks to the parking garage on Park Street, but it’s 4 in the afternoon and 98 degrees. Police still line the streets. But they’re no longer standing in a line to separate the Klansmen from the crowd following them. There’s a sense that something very bad could happen at any second.
The Klan group sticks together and, stripped of its escort, says little. The crowd walking alongside on Pendleton Street keeps taunting them. Someone throws a fountain drink that splatters on the opposite curb. Someone else tosses a fragment of cinder block that skitters on the pavement.
A white man bearing a Confederate flag on a pole of PVC pipe is trying to protect the symbol of his “heritage.” A young black man reaches in, grabs the flag, and rips it off the pole while the man is still holding it. The white man takes a step toward the flag snatcher, a few young black people in the crowd take a step toward him, and for a horrible second it looks like this is the moment, this is where it hits the fan. The cops step in. “Get back! Get back!” a black officer yells at the crowd. The flag snatcher gleefully passes the trophy around to his friends. The black officer hands the PVC pole back to the Klansman, who keeps marching toward the parking garage.
I’m on the east side of Park Street, across from the garage, where a crowd clusters near the entrance. The Klan will not be able to just get in their cars and drive away.
A small, middle-aged white man is standing next to me on the sidewalk. He is wearing—kid you not—a Confederate flag “Cat In the Hat” hat. Someone sells these things, and this gentleman bought one. The man says nothing, just stands there in his felt stovepipe Rebel hat. He looks extremely silly.
A young black man of about 20 approaches him with a Confederate flag; I can’t tell if it’s the same one that was ripped off the pole. “What you think now, huh?” says the black man. “How you like this?” He stomps on the flag, grinding it into the dirt next to the curb. The guy shrugs.
Then one of the flag-stompers’ friends grabs the “Cat In the Hat” hat off the man’s head while he’s not looking and starts passing it around. Again, it looks like some nonsense is going to start. But the cops step in and defuse things, and it all calms down quickly.
The man, hatless, walks away, a forlorn expression on his face.
State police cars line Senate Street, on the north side of the garage, and the Klan manages to drive away with no further incident. Before they leave, though, a man wearing a mock SS uniform tries to get in a last word of sorts. From the safety of the garage’s third floor, he drops his pants and moons the mostly black crowd below, then contributes to the continuing national dialogue on race by turning around and mimicking an ape.