On November 10, 2016, The Loyal White Knights of Pelham, a North Carolina branch of the Ku Klux Klan, announced a “Victory Klavalkade Klan Parade” to take place on Dec. 3rd, 2016. The stated purpose of the march is to celebrate Donald Trump’s victory and the sense of validation they have gained from it.
As of this writing, no location has yet been announced (and this article is being published on the day before the parade is said to be taking place), so it remains to be seen whether the parade will actually happen. Sadly, though, in the context of a post-election spike in hate crimes and with the ‘alt right’ gaining mainstream attention, we are sure to see this kind of thing again.
It is worth noting here that I don’t think that these overtly racist, extremist groups should be the highest priority for those of us working for a more inclusive and egalitarian society. The more subtle and more institutional forms of racism are much more damaging, in the long run, and sometimes the best way to oppose what is wrong is to actively build what is right. Still, an overt statement of hatred and degradation like this one demands that we make conscious decisions about how to respond most productively.
Peace theorist Gene Sharp famously made a list of 198 forms of nonviolent action. If we are going to be creative (and we must), the options are literally unlimited. In general terms, though, there are four basic categories of response to this situation. Let’s look at each:
- Do nothing. Almost every time this discussion comes up, there are some people in the “All they want is attention. We should ignore them.” camp. That sounds like sound logic on first examination, but as I consider it more carefully, I find it lacking.The problem with that line of thinking is that it can leave the people who are being attacked feeling abandoned by the rest of the community. They feel that way because, in fact, they are being abandoned.In the words of Harrison, Arkansas Mayor and anti-racism advocate Thomas Crockett, “It won’t go away, because if we leave it alone, the only voice that gets heard is the voice of the hate group.”I want to clarify, though, that ‘doing nothing’ is very different from an organized freeze out. If you know where the rally is going to be and it is in a contained area, and you have the capacity to reach everyone who is likely to show up and counter-protest, it can be extremely effective to simply deny them an audience. Activist ‘Angels‘ often employ this technique with the infamous hate group Westboro Baptist.The town of Davidson, North Carolina did an impressive job of implementing this strategy in response to a Klan rally in 1986. The Klan announced a rally in the town square, and the community arranged to have a competing event across town, while organizing all of the shop owners to close for the day. The dozen or so Klansmen gathered in an empty square, and didn’t even finish marching across it, because no one was there to see them. Demoralized, they packed up and went home. Freeze outs fit better under #3, below, than here.
- Outshout them — This is a natural response. When people are gathering for the explicit purpose of attacking the humanity, dignity, and safety of your family, people you care about, or yourself, it is neither surprising nor unreasonable to feel rage at that injustice, and to want to meet aggression with aggression.The question, though, is not whether we have a right to that rage. Of course we do. The question is whether unleashing it in this context will actually be productive. Does it move us closer to our goals?Dr. King famously said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I think he was right. But Dr. King did not conceive of love as a soft and malleable thing, but as a powerful and insistent force for positive change. Meeting a hate group rally with more hate only throws fuel on their fire and helps them achieve their goals. That is the response they hope for and expect, and it supports their ‘us against them’ narrative. There are more effective responses.I have come to believe that it is much more effective to surprise them with a creative response that has the capacity to transform the event into something more productive. That also saves our own hearts and souls from the corrosive effect of hatred. It’s important to find a way to work out our emotions, but it’s also wise to be intentional about where and when to do that, and to separate our personal needs from our strategy to move the community forward.
- Creative non-violent resistance — For humans, fight and flight are natural responses to aggression. The natural responses aren’t always the best ones, though. “Transforming initiatives,” to borrow a phrase from Glen Stassen, require creativity, but have the capacity to create outcomes that create space for positive change, rather than simply inflicting more damage, or passively allowing the aggression to stand unopposed.One of my favorite examples of this happened in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2007. A group of KKK members and Neo-Nazis pulled a permit to have a rally downtown, and were met by hundreds of counter-protestors from various groups, with various levels of organization.Some local environmentalists from an organization called Mountain Justice won the day, though, when they formed a group called the Coup Clutz Clowns. The story unfolds from there in the video below, as I later put it to rhyme…This level of street theater and creative action requires planning, rehearsal, props, etc., but it turns out to have been extremely effective. The white supremacists didn’t know what to do with a crowd that was having fun, laughing, and enjoying themselves. That’s simply not in their script. They left an hour and a half early.Others have used the Coup Clutz Clowns’ tactic to respond to other hate group events as well. There are many other wonderful examples of creative responses to organized hatred. Harrison, Arkansas, was once a ‘sundown town’, and continues to be known (inaccurately) as a racist haven because there is a small compound of Klansmen who live just outside of town, led by Thom Robb, national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a position he took over from David Duke.A group of local community leaders decided that they wanted to move past that history and reputation, so they began organizing anti-racism events, actions, and trainings. They kindly invited me to come work with them, leading an event and sharing some ideas about creative resistance, but I think I may have learned more from them than they did from me.My favorite of their many actions is their “funeral for racism,” in which they made clear that while racism is real, both historically and in the present, it is time for it to be consigned to the past.Fight and flight come naturally — but theologian Walter Wink had it right when he argued for what he called “Third Way” responses. They demand creativity precisely because they are not what we naturally go to first. But that’s where their strength lies — by ‘flipping the script’, a space is created where we all have to examine what we’re doing.Part of what I love about both of those examples is that each meets a negative message with a positive one. Significantly, the clowns in the White Flour action didn’t insult or denigrate the Klansmen as people. They simply refused to take their ideas seriously, because those ideas are, in fact, silly. There is an opportunity there — a chance that the Klansmen could actually laugh.
- Alternative Event — In March of 2013, The Klan announced that they would have a massive march in Memphis to protest the renaming of parks that had previously been named for Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest and other Civil War icons. “You’re going to see the largest rally Memphis, Tennessee has ever seen,” said the ‘Exalted Cyclops.’ “It’s not going to be 20 or 30,” he said. “It’s going to be thousands of Klansmen from the whole United States coming to Memphis, Tennessee.” It turned out to be about 60.In that case, a group of local organizers, Memphis United, decided to hold a separate event on the other side of town. They invited speakers, educators, activists, and community members to come together to promote the community building work they do. It was a day of music and arts, panel discussions, training, and kindness, and many of the articles about the Klan’s march mentioned this event as part of the community’s response — organizers used the Klan’s own publicity to draw attention to the competing event. It was well attended and wonderfully energizing.
I end up most interested in the last two of these four options. Turns out that theologian and peace theorist Walter Wink was right – ‘Third way responses’, beyond fight and flight (in his day, and mine, we hadn’t yet noticed and added ‘freeze’), are often much more effective, though less intuitive. What is called for is transformation, and that requires radical creativity. Not just smacking down the bad guys, but creating something new and beautiful that is much more compelling than what they are presenting.
So how do we get started?
Here are a handful of guidelines that I recommend…
- Gather up friends and community who care about what you care about and get together to kick ideas around and support each other. Notice who you are inviting, who has a voice, and try to reach beyond your normal circles. If it’s a Klan march, for instance, be sure to connect with populations that are being marginalized by the hate group in question and ask for their leadership, not just their input.
- Focus on what you are for, not just what you are against. Do some thinking and dreaming together and envision your perfect world. What good could come of your work together.
- Take inventory of your assets. Who brings what? For example, who is good at baking? Does someone have access to sign printing? Who plays music? Who knows how to work with the media? What can you do with those tools that is surprising, newsworthy, creative, and effective?
- Invite and listen to elders who have been at this work a long time, but whether or not they come, make sure to listen to young folks as well, who have new ways of doing things. This is all about creativity. Mentors are good — they can save you from making certain mistakes so that you have the opportunity to make other ones. Fresh ideas are also good, and the vast majority of successful movements for positive change have been carried out by young people.
- Pass a plate around, and chip in what you can, once you have an idea of what you want to do and what the costs of it might be (but not before — it’s reasonable to know what you’re paying for). Helen Prejean once said that money is congealed energy, and just like our efforts, lots of small bits can add up to enough. The act of contributing even a little bit also gives contributors a sense of ownership. This is something we are doing together.
- Explain yourself. Get your message out. Especially if you’re doing something a little nutty, print up an explanation that you can hand to media so that they have a clear understanding of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what you stand for. That will give them lines to quote in an article, making their jobs easier, and will give you a much better chance of not being misquoted. You could also print up small cards to hand out to anyone who is interested. Maybe explain what you’re up to on one side and give them some action steps on the other…? That could even fit on a business card, and those are incredibly cheap to print up.
- Don’t become your enemy. It is so easy to dehumanize people, but that’s what we’re standing against. The worst possible outcome is for us to dehumanize people because they dehumanize people. If you stand for love and against hatred, then those are the boundaries for your actions.My friend Scott Shepherd, an anti-racism activist featured in the new documentary Accidental Courtesy, used to be a Klan leader. I like him and treasure his friendship. He never could have been shouted or insulted or argued into the change he has made in his life. He had to get to know a couple of Black men really well, while going through a rehab program. Love and relationship changed him.
The most productive and practical way forward, it turns out, is to firmly and clearly stand against the actions of White supremacists, while also leaving them room to change and see things differently. That’s the hardest work, but it’s the most practical thing we can do if we really want our society to change for the better.
Thanks for being the kind of person who cares enough about this work to read all the way through to the end of this article. Best of luck in your efforts. Let me know how things go. We will all need to inspire and support each other if we are to meet the challenges before us.
Update: Here is a link to an article from SPLC on how the ‘march’ actually came out.
David LaMotte is the author of Worldchanging 101: Challenging the Myth of Powerlessness, and White Flour. He is also a professional musician, public speaker, dad, husband, and resident of Black Mountain, NC. To inquire about bringing him to your town, please write to booking(at)davidlamotte(dot)com.