It was only a matter of time before the Ku Klux Klan found a way to insert itself into the exceedingly tense situation in Ferguson, Missouri. As the family and supporters of Michael Brown wait anxiously for a grand jury to decide whether it will indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the killing of the unarmed black teen this August, state and local law enforcement are gearing up for the inevitable protests that will take place if Wilson is not brought to trial.
Though Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has made clear that “violence will not be tolerated,” the fact that he's enlisted three different police departments—equipped with plenty of riot gear—to handle the potential demonstrations (not including the National Guard, which will also be available) suggest that violence is expected. Enter the Klan.
The Traditionalist American Knights of the KKK—a Missouri-based branch of the American white supremacist group—have started handing out fliers around St. Louis County threatening to use “lethal force” against demonstrators if protests become violent.
“You have awakened a sleeping giant,” one of the fliers reads. “The good people of St. Louis County of all races, colors and creeds will not tolerate your threats of violence against our police officers, their families and our communities.”
On MSNBC Wednesday night, Traditionalist American Knights Imperial Wizard Frank Ancona told host Chris Hayes that his group has received hundreds of phone calls from people concerned about “random attacks on whites, D.C. sniper-style shootings,” and threats against police officers' families. The fliers, Ancona explained, are meant to educate people on what rights they legally have to use lethal force in self-defense. He claimed people already “feel much better” about their safety now that the Klan is on the case.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ancona gushed to The Riverfront Times about the positive impact the Ferguson fracas is having on his group’s membership numbers.
“These Ferguson protesters are the best recruiters since Obama,” Ancona told the St. Louis weekly. “Normally we might hear from 10 people a week in Missouri, and now we’re hearing from more like 50 people a week. Sometimes, depending on these news stories, we get 100, 200 calls in a day.”
It’s hardly a shock that a branch of the KKK, a group that was founded on the principles of violence and racism, would seize upon such a racially charged moment to further its agenda. However, back in August, Ancona spoke out against a different KKK group, the South Carolina-based New Knights Empire, for hailing Darren Wilson as a hero and throwing a fundraiser in Missouri on behalf of the cop mere weeks after he shot and killed Michael Brown.
““Personally, I think we need to wait until we see all the facts, all the evidence that’s being gathered,” Ancona told The Riverfront Timest the time, insisting that “The Klan has no interest in” the fundraiser for Wilson. “I don’t want to try to gain or exploit his situation,” he said.
Ancona may not have wanted to associate himself with the South Carolina group’s activities this summer, but since then he's apparently decided he’s cool with exploiting the situation, referring to the Ferguson protesters—mostly members of the city’s large black community—as “terrorists.”
The imperial wizard’s change of heart may seem in line with what we’ve come to expect from the Ku Klux Klan, but it’s a bit of a contradiction to the new, supposedly 'non-racist' approach other Klan groups have adopted recently.
Yes, you read that right. In an apparent attempt at rebranding, some KKK groups, such as the newly-formed Rocky Mountain Knights of Montana, are trying to shake their old-school racist reputations, claiming to recruit members of all race to join in the fight against much hipper evils like the New World Order and immigration.
“The KKK is for a strong America,” John Abarr, who founded the Rocky Mountain Knights, told the Great Falls Tribune earlier this month. “White supremacy is the old Klan. This is the new Klan.”
A longtime, well-known white supremacist, Abarr told the Minnesota paper that he was inspired to create a more inclusive Klan following a meeting with members of the NAACP in Wyoming last year. He also said he’s planning to gather with NAACP and other religious groups for a peace summit next summer.
Not all Klan leaders are as ostensibly open-minded as Abarr, but many are attempting to ingratiate themselves with causes important to Americans of all races, seemingly as a means of recruiting new members. Widespread opposition to illegal immigration, for example, has provided Klan groups across the country, from Texas to North Carolina, with the opportunity to organize protests where they can enlist fellow countrymen and women interested in saving American culture from unwanted foreign influences.
So is the reverse whitewash campaign working?
Don Terry, a senior writer at the Southern Poverty Law Center, doubts it. The SPLC tracks hate groups in the U.S., of which it considers the KKK one—a label Terry doesn’t think any Klan group will be able to shake as long as it is still associated with its hooded, cross-burning namesake.
“If they are interested in changing, why do they continue to call themselves the Ku Klux Klan?” Terry asked. “The name 'Klan' evokes so much terror and emotion, I don’t think any black folks or Jews or gay people are really rushing to go out and join them.”
At its height in the 1920s, Terry noted, the Klan wielded real political influence, boasting a membership upwards of four million. Now there are only around 5-6,000 members nationwide, according to the SPLC.
“They’re shrinking before our eyes,” Terry said. “The Klan is a part of our history, a sad history. People who cling to it are clinging to a discredited past.”
Still, while Terry dismisses any notion that the KKK will ever re-emerge as the powerful force it once was—no matter how good a rebranding campaign it runs or how many issues it tries to glom onto for publicity—he warns against underestimating the influence Klan values can have on so-called lone wolves
“The Klan is really old school but racism is still very much with us,” Terry said. “They have zero influence as a group but that doesn’t mean people who harbor animosities, racism, anti-Semitism, aren’t dangerous individually. You never know how a person is going to be inspired by the Klan.”