A Klu Klux Klan member in Montana is starting his own racially-inclusive branch of the Klan in order to help improve its image and shake off the label of hate group.
John Abarr, 44, is forming a group called the Rocky Mountain Knights to act as a more inclusive version of the Klan, of which he has been a member since he was 18.
"I don't really foresee a whole lot of nonwhites wanting to join, but I think by allowing them to join if they want to it should get the fact out there we don't hate other races," he told VICE News.
Abarr said his views on the Klan evolved through his friendship with people of other races and during a meeting he organized between the Klan and the NAACP that took place in 2013, where he realized that one strength of the NAACP was its openness to people of all races.
"I came away from there wishing it were more inclusive," he said.
He was criticized by the United Klans of America for holding the "peace conference," which took place in Casper, Wyoming. Abarr said that in his view, the KKK is not about hating other races. It is instead about the preservation of the white race and tangential issues, including preventing a New World Order and international government, as well as protecting citizens from government spying, he said.
"We're not white supremacists, we're here to look out for the white race. It's just like the NAACP. It wasn't like that before and now I can safely say it's pretty much the same," he said.
But still, he said, his chapter remains part of "the same old Klan." Some of his local members have decided to join his new effort to help give the Klan a better image, he said, while others decided to remain a part of the traditional KKK for reasons Abarr didn't want to discuss. The Rocky Mountain Knights will be open to anyone over 18 living in the Pacific Northwest, he said.
In addition to organizing the meeting with the NAACP in 2013, Abarr has run for congressional office in Montana in 2011 but ultimately withdrew from the race. He says he hopes to organize another peace summit in the summer of 2015 to gather people of different races and religions together.
Jimmy Simmons, the president of the local NAACP chapter that met with Abarr last year, told the Great Falls Tribune in Montana that he believed Abarr was sincere in his effort to change, and that Simmons would take a "strong look" at joining the organization, though he said "The use of the letters KKK instills fear in people." Simmons could not be reached for comment by VICE News.
Still, many are more skeptical about whether any group associated with the KKK could be about anything other than hate.
"We've seen the press reports about Abarr, and it's absolutely absurd on its face to have a non-racist Klan," said Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "The only purpose of the Klan ever was to stand for a white nation with no minorities in it, so I don't know if this is just a publicity stunt. I'm not really sure why any minority of any kind would want to join."
Beirech said the SPLC would take a hard look at Abarr's group when it creates its annual hate group watch list in February of 2015.
" There was a Klan group in Alabama a couple of years ago that claimed to be a non-racist Klan, and that of course was total BS," she said. "So this is the second group I know of that's tried to take this path and basically I think it's ridiculous… He's clearly just trying to draw attention to himself."
Beirech said there are some 150 to 200 Klan groups that have been active in the US in recent years, but that mainly they just squabble with one another.
Officials at the Montana Human Rights organization, which monitors hate groups specifically in Montana, told the Tribune that if Abarr was serious about his intention he would drop any association with the KKK. They did not return phone calls from VICE News.
"They know that their beliefs aren't popular, so they try to appear moderate. I think it's just a farce," Rachel Carroll-Rivas, co-director of MHRN, told the newspaper.
The United Klans of America did not return calls seeking comment.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @CurryColleen
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