By Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin / Memphis Black Autonomy Federation
To grasp what happened at the March 30, 2013 Klan demonstration, you need to understand what led up to everything. The Klan said it came to Memphis to protest the renaming of the racist Memphis Confederate Parks system. Of course, all police preparations and media reporting claimed that the cops “had” to create a downtown police security zone of 10-12 square blocks to “keep the peace”, and not repeat the so-called anti-Klan “riot” of 1998, which was blamed on protesters then, but actually was a police riot as a result of an order by then-Mayor Willie Herenton to gas and beat protesters because they were approaching the Klan through breaks in the police line.
So, using that mantra of “preventing a riot”, and also the media propaganda that this was a “new” Klan group, in response to critics who asked why the Klan was being allowed to protest at all, they put together a police army of 600 cops, 4 military armored cars with machine guns, a chain link fence to separate protesters from Klan, and confined the residents of Memphis behind a line of paramilitary riot police to “protect” the Klan from the people. Of course, the obvious reflection was that this happened over 15 years ago and that the anti-Klan protest movement was “new” as well, did not penetrate the prevailing myth circulated by the cops and the lapdog media.
Our movement, the Memphis Black Autonomy Federation, had created a broad-based group called the Ida B. Wells Coalition Against Racism and Police Brutality to bring out Memphis residents, but also anti-fascist activists from throughout the Southern and Midwestern regions. We tried at first to have a meeting at city hall, but this was refused by a groups of businessmen, then the city permit office refused a permit for the same area as the Klan, which was at the courthouse itself, just a few hours before. Then, the cops wanted to not allow any more than 100 people from the community come to the event, but we fought that, and they apparently allowed everyone to go in, including white supremacist supporters and anti-Klan activists. This latter decision was a recipe for disaster, we felt, and we did not initially feel that it would be safe to go inside. If someone got to fighting a Klan supporter, they could be shot and we all would have been in danger. We decided to press on anyway.
If we had not applied for the city parade permit, no one would have been allowed to protest at all, and we would not have even known of their security plans at all. Only because we kept prodding the city to back off on at least some of its security precautions, did they agree to allow the protest. They then issued the permit at the last minute, and the lapdog media dutifully reported it, including the city’s denial that it had ever denied our permits. This little media report would prove to be the undoing of the city’s plans for total denial of the event, and its plans of discouraging any protest through media saturation by the Mayor and government officials who time and again tried to frighten, scold, and intimidate people from coming down to an anti-Klan event. Just the fact that people knew that there was going to be a protest made them come down to the event, even if they were totally unfamiliar with our movement.
The day before the event we were concerned about being pushed into a “protest pit” as was done at many other events in other cities and was used to crush the anti-globalization movement, and because the original plan called for us all to be shoved into a small space on the side of the courthouse itself, we decided that it would be a threat to our security to go in that space, and we called for an activist General Assembly at a nearby park, which was outside the police protest zone, to discuss options. So about 150 of us met at Court Square park, and talked about going to the Forrest Park and attacking the statute itself, but then the cops came up and told us that we “had” to go to the “security zone”, and we feigned going there, but in fact we had prepared a number of signs saying “Cops Stifle Free Speech!” and about 150 of us marched down to police lines and protested the police state methods of controlling the protest.
The cops were perplexed, and a small number of them tried to chase us around or steer us into the barbed wire area, but we refused to go. It was a standoff, but they did not arrest anybody or beat us up. It was clear that they did not want to break their ranks to try to arrest all of us, so we took advantage of the moment and kept protesting. Then we moved towards the park, but there was a split between those who wanted to go inside the police lines, and those who did not. The group started splintering. After much soul searching, we decided we would go inside. So we headed for the entrance, and many followed us. The cops had everybody head through TSA style metal detectors, empty our pockets, and searched us. They seized all papers, pamphlets, protest signs, and denied you entry if you were wearing “radical” t-shirts of Che Guevara or Huey Newton, but also Jefferson Davis or N.B. Forrest attire. They seized our bullhorns, but returned one of them as we were entering the event.
When we got inside, everyone seemed subdued, and there was no chanting or screaming, everyone was just looking for signs of the Klan to show. The Klan was kept 2-3 football fields away from us, who were behind barbed wire. There was a long line of riot police inside arrayed as a gauntlet we had to pass, then there were police snipers on the roof, and a line of police standing across from us, about five deep and then others on horseback. They never moved for five hours, just stared ahead at us in military formation.
What made us feel good about going inside is that there was in fact a large number of people already inside waiting on us. They kept streaming in. These were not the usual white middle class activists or the old civil rights deadheads, these were working class Black people of every age. They were angry as hell because the Mayor had brought these “Ku Klux Kowards” to town, and had put us behind barbed wire and coddled the Klan. The Klan came on special city buses, only about 60 of them, which contained riot police and a special security wing of Memphis police and Shelby County Sheriffs.