By SHIRLEY PASHOLK
CLEVELAND – For over a month, the local media focused on a Ku Klux Klan rally planned here for Aug. 21. Political posturing by Mayor Michael White, Cleveland NAACP President George Forbes, and the police department turned this into a long-running summer soap opera. But lost in this media circus was the potential for building a truly massive mobilization to oppose the Klan.
As details of Mayor White’s security plan for Aug. 21 leaked into the media, NAACP President Forbes accused the mayor of coddling the Klan.
White’s plan included opening a private police garage as a changing room for the Klan and ordering cops to drive the Klansmen from their cars to the rally site and back. Most Clevelanders joined Forbes in expressing outrage over this misuse of tax dollars.
Forbes vowed to take the issue to the 90th national NAACP convention, which opened in New York City July 10. He said he would ask for support for a resolution opposing giving the Klan exclusive use of a government building and called for a large turn-out in opposition to the Klan.
Despite the national NAACP’s long-stated position of opposing such direct confrontations with the Klan, it is likely such an appeal would have received a positive response from many of the 20,000 convention attendees. However, organizing a massive protest to the Aug. 21 Klan rally never reached the convention floor.
Forbes said he withdrew his request for help because the many Clevelanders calling the local NAACP office showed a sizable turn-out could be built locally. Nevertheless, although Forbes said he would still ask other Ohio NAACP chapters for support, he failed to follow through. He never asked anti-racists throughout Ohio to join the Cleveland NAACP in opposing the Klan.
Meanwhile, an all-out media blitz urged Clevelanders to stay away from the demonstration against the Klan. On Aug. 2, Mayor White met with 150 community leaders asking for their help in staging “unity” events far removed from the Klan rally.
Religious leaders organized interfaith prayer services the week before the rally. At these services, they urged worshippers to avoid a direct confrontation with the Klan.
A number of “alternative” events, from free admission to a special multi-cultural program at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to a march and rally in the suburb of Cleveland Heights were widely promoted as a way to protest the Klan without attending the counter-demonstration.
Former NAACP President Mervin McMickle summed up this position: “I firmly agree with those who say that the presence of the KKK must be protested. But while we must protest the fact of their presence, we do not need to do it in their presence.”
The NAACP requested a permit for a concert near the Klan rally site, promising a march from this concert to the rally. Most observers viewed this as part of Forbes’s on-going feud with the mayor, since it was obvious their permit request would be denied.
The city countered by offering several more distant venues for the concert. The NAACP rejected these, citing the importance of being within walking distance of the Klan rally for their planned march. Once the concert permit was denied, the NAACP made no further attempt to mobilize the massive anti-Klan sentiment into an effective protest.
On Aug. 18, the Plain Dealer editorialized, “The city has made ample provision at the rally site for those who deplore the Klan’s views to make their own voices heard.”
Actually, the city’s so-called security measures were an attack on the civil liberties of those wishing to protest the Klan, of the media, and of all Clevelanders.
Bus shelters and newspaper vending machines wore removed from downtown streets. From 6 p.m. Friday until 4 p.m. Saturday, parking, driving, and pedestrian traffic was banned from a four-square-block area of downtown Cleveland. This area encompassed the county jail, where family members are normally allowed to visit on weekends.
Complaints by affected residents and small businesses were ignored. On Saturday, the parking ban was extended to encompass most of the downtown area.
Those wishing to attend the counter-demonstration had to negotiate their way through these traffic restrictions. Once they reached the rally site, they had to go through a metal detector and a full-body pat-down.
Counter-demonstrators were only permitted to take one piece of identification and one key into the demonstration. Items specifically forbidden included “bags, purses, drinks, backpacks, cameras, cell phones, pagers, pens, pencils, pocket change, and anything that can be used as a projectile.”
Protesters were denied admission for wearing a watch, having a wallet, or carrying more than one key.
An estimated 40 Klansmen and 30 supporters showed up. This is considerably more than those attending other recent Ohio Klan rallies. The larger number probably resulted from the special favors granted by the city.
The anti-Klan demonstration was estimated at 300. This included 100 NAACP supporters who had marched to the rally. Members of this NAACP contingent reported that it took them 35 minutes to go through the security check-point. Even their hats and shoes were searched.
The turn-out was lower than at similar recent Ohio anti-Klan demonstrations. Undoubtedly, the obstacles to reaching the rally and gaining entry cut into the turn out.
A six-foot chain-link fence separated Klan supporters, opponents, and the media. The members of the media, who numbered over 100, were told they could not circulate freely among the protesters. They were prohibited from bringing cameras, tape recorders, note pads, pens, or pencils onto the scene.
While most media observers applauded the mayor’s security measures,which included 600 police and an armored vehicle for “preventing violence,” a few have begun to question the wisdom of shutting down the city while spending tax dollars to make the Klan’s stay as pleasant as possible.
A Plain Dealer photo captured the inconvenience to ordinary Clevelanders. It showed a flower girl standing outside a downtown church. Next to this child was a cop in full riot gear.
Over 5000 people attended the so-called unity events here. This showed the potential that existed for organizing an effective anti-racist counter-mobilization to the Klan.