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The KKK Stirred Up White-Hot Rage at the South Carolina Statehouse This Weekend

What do you get when you combine the KKK, angry counter-protesters, and a whole lot of Confederate flags?

by James Yeh
Jul 20 2015, 4:00am

Two protesters scuffle during the KKK rally at the South Carolina State House

All photos by Justin Schmitz

On Saturday, the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia played host to a fierce rally organized by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a North Carolina–based group. Coming just weeks after the murder of nine people at a historic African American church in Charleston—and the subsequent removal of the Confederate flag from the Capitol—the event felt like a throwback to the Jim Crow era. It was a spectacle defined by anger, racial tension, Confederate flag burnings, and a wide spectrum of idiosyncratic and not infrequently confusing ideologies.

Media coverage had been thick in the preceding weeks, ratcheted up by a counter-protest organized by the Black Educators for Justice, a Florida-based group led by James Evan Muhammad, a teacher and former education director of the New Black Panthers. As two police snipers stood sentry on the roof of the Statehouse, Muhammad spoke along with other Black Power allies, including Niecee X of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club in Dallas.

Around 3 PM, under heavy protection from state police—many in body armor—a procession of around 60 Klansmen (and Klan women) and supporters filed up the south steps to the Statehouse. They headed toward a barricaded area where they might capitalize on their state-sanctioned right to assemble. Dressed in black shirts adorned with various Klan-related badges and white-supremacist insignias, the group had no microphone, and no podium. The Educators had spoken since noon on the themes of black power and unity and the need for social and systemic change; the Klan offered up an unamplified, archaic message, shouting obscenities and racial slurs and striking taunting poses.

The spectacle had the appearance of some terrible play, or maybe a parking-lot brawl, only instead of actors or drunk teenagers you had what once was America's most feared and dangerous white-supremacist group waving Confederate flags, one Nazi flag, and tearing up the flag of Israel. (Later, when cornered in the parking lot though still protected by police, one of the Klansmen would moon the protesters.) Another supporter, wearing a white tank top and camo pants, pantomimed gorilla gestures at black protesters. It was all a part of a belligerent if somewhat effective middle finger aimed at just about anyone who wasn't white and in favor of the flag.

A KKK supporter en route to the North steps; moments later he would be knocked down by an anti-KKK anarchist.

Turnout was noticeably below the 200 attendees promised by group leader Robert Jones, a.k.a. James Spence, a.k.a. Chris Barker, but total attendance of anti-KKK protesters of all colors, unaffiliated Confederate flag supporters, curious onlookers, journalists, and camera crews numbered as high as 2,000 (as estimated by the South Carolina Department of Public Safety and reported by the New York Times.) This was in spite of pleas by Republican Governor Nikki R. Haley and Columbia Mayor Steven K. Benjamin to ignore the out-of-state hate group's rally.

The stultifying 93-degree heat was matched by the tempers of those in attendance. Over the course of the day, numerous scuffles and confrontations broke out between protesters and counter-protesters as local police rushed in to break things up, their equipment jingling as they hurried through the crowd, ordering people to disperse: "Move, move!" "Step back! Back up!"

Protesters at the New Black Panther rally

"They said that blacks need to be shackled, and I lost it," Chris Daugherty, 32, a former corporal in the US Army, said after he got into a shouting match with the gorilla-mimicking KKK supporter that had to be broken up by police. "I said, 'I went to war for this country. Not for blacks, not for whites, not for Muslims, not for Christians, but for the people. I saw my comrades die. I fought for the people.' He says he's not racist, but see how he talks to anyone who doesn't have pale skin. He wanted to say I was shit from the get-go because of the color of my skin.

"Emotions flare up over racism," continued Daugherty, who was wearing an Iraqi Freedom baseball hat and a CamelBak to stay cool. "Once the nerves hit, then the tensions go from zero to a hundred. They say 'heritage,' but they use that word to hide behind their real intent. If they had it their way, they'd be screaming out the N-word at a microphone."

"Hey man," one white law enforcement officer approaching Daugherty—who is biracial—remarked a few minutes later. "What you said earlier was powerful."

The Klansmen walking up to the Statehouse steps

Confederate flag supporters in the shade during the KKK rally

I then came across a white woman in her 40s who had been in a heated argument with a black woman in her 60s—another dispute broken up by the cops.

"I was trying to take a picture to be fair and document both sides," said the first woman, who was standing with her teenage son wearing a Confederate flag baseball cap. "That racist black lady said, 'Get your smart-ass, white racist...' and she goes, "You don't F-ing start with me." You notice we're not on the KKK side. Just because we're wearing that hat, and I believe in it—my family died in it—it don't mean I'm racist. God knows it really doesn't. But I don't appreciate being called a smart-ass and a racist. She needs to sit down and shut up because she's obviously the racist, not me." A few minutes later, the two women worked it out, and the son came over to apologize.

"Ain't no problem, baby," said the older black woman. "No, you don't have to apologize to me, because you were standing up for your mother."

As the Black Educators continued their rally, I spoke to a middle-aged white man named Billy from Florence, South Carolina. Billy wore a Vietnam-veteran baseball cap, and I asked him about the interracial procession of motorcyclists who had just loudly passed, several of whom wore black bandannas obscuring their faces.

"They're just saying, 'Shut up,'" he told me of the motorcyclists we would later see onstage as part of an anti-racist anarchist group standing in unity with the Black Educators, their signs reading "Fuck the KKK," "Death to 88," and "Burn this Racist System." The Florence resident pointed out the two snipers stationed on the roof of the Statehouse, then told me he disagreed that the flag should have been taken down.

"All I hear is 'racism' and 'slavery,'" Billy said, gesturing toward the North steps, where the Black Educators had been speaking since noon.

I asked about the reforms to the education and legal systems the Black Educators were calling for.

Billy reflected, "Some people hear what they want to hear."

"It might be all people who hear that," I offered.

Just then his wife hurried over with an aggrieved look. "Did he just say we're the enemy?" she asked her husband, about the speaker, whose voice could be overheard carrying aggressive tones. "Is he talking about the people holding the flag, or us?"

"Let's go," she said, pulling him away. "This is racist."

A few minutes before the KKK rally, I saw the couple sitting in the shade, waiting amid a group of flag supporters and anti-KKK protesters, their own allegiances unclear.

Two men from Dillon, South Carolina, at the Benjamin Tillman Monument on the State House grounds. The man wrapped in the flag could be heard screaming, "Hang all y'all!" at the KKK. "They took my flag," he said to me, as one black man in dreads stared him down before walking away. "Fuck the KKK!" someone shouted to the accompaniment of a drum. "Damn right," the man in the flag replied.

An anti-Confederate flag protester shows his opinion of the flag

The events of the day offered a stark departure from the scene in court after the tragedy unleashed on Emanuel African Methodist Church in June by white supremacist Dylann Roof. Some family members of victims unexpectedly forgave the 21-year-old South Carolina native.

"This is not the state it was when you left," Brett Harris, a 20-year-old University of South Carolina political science major, told me the night before the rally as we had dinner at the classic downtown restaurant Yesterdays. Harris, who self-identifies as a libertarian-leaning "liberty" Republican, works as a page at the South Carolina House of Representatives, where he witnessed the 15-hour debate over whether to join the State Senate's 37-3 vote to follow Governor Haley's call to remove the flag.

"I can tell you, it would've been a cold day in hell that that flag came down. It took something of this magnitude to bring it down," Harris told me. When I brought it up, he acknowledged the political convenience, but emphasized our shared home state wasn't famous for bowing to what's politically convenient.

"At the end of the day," he said, "I think that the moral imperative is what really brought it down. The legislature wanted to match the grace that the victims' families showed to Dylann Roof."

As I took in what Harris was telling me over dinner—I was as pleased and surprised and proud as anyone to hear the flag was coming down—I asked him if the large portrait on the wall next to Confederate General Robert E. Lee was Stonewall Jackson, and he confirmed it was. In the bar area hung another portrait of Lee, this time standing in front of a Confederate flag.

Daughters of the Confederacy member Catherine Harris, from Upstate South Carolina

At Saturday's rally, one of the few things everyone seemed united on was a mistrust of the media.

"Are y'all going to report this fairly?" Daughters of the Confederacy member Catherine Harris (unrelated to Brett as far as I could tell) asked a group of citizen journalists. Harris, who waved a large South Carolina Sovereignty flag (the flag used by the state when it seceded from the Union) in front of the African American History Monument, said she had driven from upstate to attend the protest. Harris wore a black veil until police asked her to remove it. When confronted by annoyed black demonstrators asking how she chose to stand at that exact spot, Harris pulled out a paper to deliver an emotional reading of the text from the Confederate soldiers' monument in front of the Statehouse.

"You have people who are scared because of the media," said a Black Educators speaker dressed in camo fatigues and a bulletproof vest with the silhouette of Africa on it.

A white woman in her 20s carried a handwritten sign that read "The MEDIA created the 'Race War'!" When I asked if I could take a photo of her with her sign, she agreed, then became concerned.

"Well, I'm not on either side of this," she said defensively. "I was for taking the flag down, so," she continued in a low voice. "When you read this, you don't think like, in a certain way—"

"Do I think you're a racist for having that sign?" I offered.

"Yeah."

"I don't know. I think you're someone with a strong opinion. I don't know you."

"OK, I just wanted to make sure that you didn't think that," she said.

Plastic water bottles were thrown by protesters and counter-protesters alike.

An anti-Confederate flag protester puts out his cigarette.

"As far as interpersonal relationships, the South has made progress," Chenjerai Kumanyika, an assistant professor at Clemson University, told me Saturday morning before heading to the Statehouse for what he described over email as "a day of hate that shouldn't be missed."

"People will be really polite," added Kumanyika, who is black and had been present at the Statehouse the past two weekends, for the NAACP anti-flag rally on July 4 and then again on July 10, when the flag finally came down. "They'll invite you to church. And then they'll go and vote for policies that will destroy you and your entire category of people."

Kumanyika continued, laughing a bit sadly: "A lot of people who are supporting the Confederate flag, if you came to them with racist things, they'll be like, 'I hate racism!' and be disgusted by it. But they're [also] deeply committed to the Confederate flag."

James Yeh is a South Carolina native, now living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.

Justin Schmitz is currently living in Athens, Georgia, working as the Lamar Dodd School of Art photography fellow.