Mary Cooper, center, and Claire Winold, both of Dayton, talk during small group discussions at an anti-hate community forum on Wednesday. More than 200 people attended the event to discuss responses to a Ku Klux Klan group’s planned rally in downtown Dayton on May 25. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Photo: Chris Stewart
Photo: Chris Stewart

200 people debate how best to counter Klan rally in Dayton

Some of the people at a community meeting to devise a response to a planned May rally by a Ku Klux Klan group said the best tactic is to ignore the Honorable Sacred Knights.

Others said it was far too much to ask of some Daytonians to not show up and fight racism and protect their hard-fought rights.

“People are not going to sit at home and watch it on television because we have a community full of people that have lived history – decades of oppression and hatred and terrorism and violence – just because of the color of our skin,” said Cameron Walker of Dayton. “So to ask them to not resist and not have a peaceful protest, we can’t control that.”

How to respond to the planned rally was the focus of community forum Wednesday at Grace United Methodist Church in Dayton. A risk that the May rally in Dayton could end like a 2017 alt-right rally in Virginia cast a shadow over the more than 200 people in attendance, including Mary Cooper of Dayton.

“I think about what happened in Charlottesville, and I don’t want that to happen here. I don’t want to hear of a fatality or someone getting hurt from this,” said Cooper, a mother and grandmother.

In Charlottesville, violence erupted between alt-right protesters and counter protesters. White nationalist groups came in helmets, matching uniforms and used shields, batons, clubs. An Ohio man used his car as a weapon, ramming a crowd and killing 32-year-old anti-racist protester Heather Heyer. More than 70 people were injured.

At Wednesday’s meeting, attended by Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and City Manager Shelley Dickstein, people broke into smaller groups assisted by representatives from the Dayton Mediation Center. Each group tackled three questions asking what values they stood for, what kind of impact they want the response to the KKK rally to have on the community and how they would know if whether the response was successful.

Ron Browning of Kettering said he will be among those ignoring the Klan group when it comes to town.

“I believe everybody ought to have free speech rights, but they don’t have a right to make me listen to them,” he said.

Dayton City Commissioner Darryl Fairchild and many others, including the Dayton Unit of the NAACP, are advocating for alternate events that day away from Courthouse Square.

“There have been initiatives in Dayton that have tried to address race relations and tried to improve them,” Fairchild said. “I think we have an opportunity to revive those, possibly doing a 5k as a way to raise some funds and use those funds to go into something like the Dayton Dialogue on Race Relations or the YWCA that has a mission of eliminating racism.”

The Dayton Unit of the NAACP plans several events surrounding the Klan group’s rally, including a conversation on race relations at the Dayton Art Institute on May 23, and a family event at McIntosh Park on May 25.

A ceremonial cleansing of Courthouse Square on May 26, the day following the Honorable Sacred Knights’ rally, will be similar to the NAACP’s response after a 1994 KKK rally in the public space.

Mark Donelson of Dayton marched against the Klan rally the last time the group was in town. He disagreed with the approach taken by city officials then, and his view hasn’t changed in 25 years: “We don’t have to stay home.”

“I understand what the mayor is saying, and I understand what the police officers are saying, and I understand what our commission is saying – but we also have the right to be a part of a community that shows in force that we are not afraid,” he said. “We don’t want to be confrontational, but at the same time we want to show them that we love each other, white, black, everybody in this community.”

Last week, the city sought injunctive relief from the Montgomery County Common Pleas Court, arguing that the Honorable Sacred Knights would be engaging in paramilitary activity while downtown, subjecting residents to an outcome like the injuries and death at Charlottesville.

The Honorable Sacred Knights said it agreed not to rally in a military fashion, including wearing tactical gear and arming themselves with certain weapons, according to an email response to questions from this newspaper.

“We agreed to not carry long guns or assault rifles. If anyone is armed, it will be because they are legally allowed to be and practicing their Second Amendment rights,” the response read.

Robert Morgan, who gave a Madison, Ind., post office box address when applying for the Courthouse Square rally permit, is a named defendant in the city’s court complaint. Also named is Richard W. Preston, Jr., called a known member of the Honorable Sacred Knights in the complaint.

The Indiana group said in its email that Preston, who was sentenced to four years in prison for firing a gun at the Charlottesville rally, has never been one of its members.

“None of our members were even in Charlottesville, and we will not be accused to be in any type of alliance with him,” the group wrote.

A concern consistently voiced at the meeting was that young people may not be prepared to hear the Klan group’s message and react non-violently to it.

“I don’t see a whole lot of youth here,” Cooper said. “Our main concern is keeping everyone safe on that weekend. I’m particularly concerned about our youth, and everyone in our group had the same concern.”

Rev. Chad White, leader of A Better Dayton Coalition, an umbrella organization of several rights groups, said the city was “disingenuous” to decide people need to stay away from downtown before citizens had an opportunity to weigh in on the community response at the forum.

“I do have a concern that statements have been made from city officials and tonight by the city manager that we want everybody to stay away from downtown. Why have a public meeting to discuss options when you’ve already made up your mind what you’re going to do? Everybody does not feel that going somewhere else is an option.”

The Honorable Sacred Knights’ planned rally has mobilized the community in a way it hasn’t been for a long time, Walker said.

“Why did it take the KKK to come to town before the city could come together?” she asked.