A KKK group’s plan to rally in Dayton at the end of the week generated a lawsuit, mobilized law enforcement from across the state, prompted the planned closures of businesses and streets — and stoked anger and fear among residents.
But it has also galvanized people throughout the community to unite in ways seldom seen.
Since Montgomery County granted a Klan-affiliated group a permit to hold a rally on Saturday from 1-3 p.m., the community has responded with an outpouring of engagement among everyday citizens, rights groups, law enforcement and the city and county governments about how to counter the Klan and keep the community safe while respecting the constitutional rights of all.
But in every community conversation, meeting, forum and law enforcement planning session since the Honorable Sacred Knights got the permit, one fear rises above others, said Jared Grandy, Dayton’s Community-police relations coordinator.
“The elephant in the room is Charlottesville. That’s what we don’t want to happen again,” he said.
The Virginia city’s name has come to mean a protest ending violently with injuries and death as it did in 2017. Drawn by protests over a statue of Robert E. Lee, alt-right protesters and counter protesters clashed. 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. Two Virginia state troopers died in a helicopter crash responding to the violence.
Just stay away
A Klan “kookout’ in Madison, Ind., was the most recent event the Honorable Sacred Knights of Indiana have had in the public eye before they arrive in Dayton on Saturday. About 20 people attended that event in September and flew confederate flags. An estimated 300 people protested the group from across a fence erected at a city park, according to a report in the Louisville Courier Journal.
About the same number of Klan members is expected in Dayton, according to the group’s permit application and more recently by email from the group. It’s unknown how many counter protesters will be drawn to downtown, but law enforcement expects opposition to vastly outnumber Klan members, who will be behind barricades.
The message, though, from city leadership, the public schools and the federal Justice Department is the same: Just stay away.
“There’s no way to engage peacefully or intellectually or any other way that would be positive for the community,” said Daedra A. Von Mike McGhee with the federal department’s Community Relations Services.
Many groups plan alternative activities.
The Dayton Unit of the NAACP plans several events, including a conversation on race relations at the Dayton Art Institute on Thursday, and a family event at McIntosh Park on Saturday.
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.
But not showing up Saturday to fight racism and protect hard-fought rights is not possible for some, Cameron Walker of Dayton told about 250 people at a community meeting in March.
“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,” Walker said. “So to ask them to not resist and not have a peaceful protest, we can’t control that.”
The 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?” Walker asked.
The Klan group’s visit also forged A Better Dayton Coalition, an affiliated group of rights organizations that began planning in February for a peaceful – but confrontational – counter protest.
Coalition supporters will dress in red and counter the Klan message by gathering across Main Street from Courthouse Square to sing freedom songs, listen to speakers and “encourage love, peace, community and acceptance of one another,” said coalition leader Rev. Chad White.
“It is to me the pinnacle of confrontation, to be nonviolent in the face of those who seek to further oppress … based on skin color,” White said.
The Klan group wants only to gin up reaction, said Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck.
“We have to remember, these groups are coming here to incite us,” Streck said. “We know when large groups gather, people do stuff that’s out of character and that’s what they are relying on.”
‘Rise above the hate’
A common concern at community meetings was that young people were not in attendance and not hearing how to peacefully respond to the Klan’s message.
During the past few weeks, juniors and seniors in all of Dayton’s high schools were encouraged to “rise above the hate” during optional sessions that taught about peaceful protest and the history of supremacy groups in an effort to demystify the Klan and its message, said Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli.
“We wanted to make sure there was no mystery there that they had to go solve, or no mystery that they had to be intrigued by to go see these acts that this hate group is going to be performing,” she said. “We wanted them to be clear and have an understanding that this is not something they want to engage in because of the safety issues, because of the credibility you give to a group like that when you actually show up and give them a forum.”
County legally obligated
It’s unclear who’s behind the Honorable Sacred Knights. The purported leader would not agree to use his real name nor let his face be photographed by the Dayton Daily News.
The KKK group’s main compound is in Indiana, and it has members in the Miami Valley, according to the group via email last week.
“Our Dayton members wanted to have a rally there,” an email read.
The name Robert Morgan, with a Madison, Ind., post office box address, appears on the rally permit approved by Montgomery County in February. Fictitious names on its first application were flagged by local law enforcement and the FBI, and the county had the group resubmit the paperwork.
After a review and consultation with law enforcement and legal counsel, the county reluctantly approved the second permit application.
“We are legally obligated to provide access to public spaces where individuals can exercise their freedom of speech and right to assemble,” said Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert. “More importantly, we will continue to work with our local law enforcement and community organizations to ensure public safety before, during and after the planned event.”
County commissioners have been threatened with retribution at the polls when they come up for re-election over granting the permit, but County Commission President Debbie Lieberman said there was no mechanism to stop the rally constitutionally.
“They (Honorable Sacred Knights) were probably hoping we would deny it,” she said. “Because if we would have denied it, they would have sued us, and they would have won, and we would have paid them a great deal of money.”
Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors domestic hate and extremist groups, added the Honorable Sacred Knights to its updated “hate map.” The SPLC first took note of the group in 2017, said Heidi Beirich, an SPLC spokeswoman.
Through last year, the group became more active, frequently posting online, including videos that confirmed an active, steady membership of about a dozen, Beirich said.
Among numerous videos of the group on YouTube, one posted in January shows five men with torches — four in robes and hoods — circle a cross while another records. In the background is an American flag and Confederate battle flag. The five come together, light a cross and a bagpipe version of Amazing Grace begins playing.
“This is white pride, this is white power, this is who we are. If we do not do this, then nobody else will,” says the leader, followed by a string of racial epithets and chants of “white power.”
‘We’ve done our homework’
Though Dayton police Chief Richard Biehl doesn’t expect violence, he’s had a few “worst-case conversations.”
“We’re well aware of what happened in Charlottesville. We’re aware of what’s happened around the country,” he said. “Truly, we’ve done our homework.”
Many security plans will not be shared with the public, Biehl said. But more specific details about what areas will be off-limits to counter protesters and which downtown streets will be closed will be shared later this week, he said.
Last week, an Ohio State Highway Patrol helicopter hovered over Courthouse Square and agents from the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation installed a temporary surveillance camera system around Courthouse Square. The mobile security system, requested by the Dayton Police Department, can run up to 10 cameras, according to a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
The camera system, made available to local jurisdictions for security at events with large crowds, was last used locally during St. Patrick’s Day at the University of Dayton, the spokesman said.
Consent decree signed
Also expected to help keep the peace is the settlement last week of a lawsuit the city brought against the Honorable Sacred Knights.
Dayton got most, but not all, of the items it asked for in a consent decree, having first presented the Klan group with at least 14 specific stipulations for the rally.
The city eventually agreed to terms allowing the Klan members to cover their faces and carry side arms, but the agreement curtails the Klan’s ability to rally in a paramilitary fashion and prohibits them from carrying long guns or assault rifles.
“The city’s primary goal is keeping our residents safe while this rally occurs,” said Barbara Dosek, Dayton’s city attorney. “This agreement does not mean we accept their hateful views or their presence is supported by our leadership, our community or our residents.”
The group will not wear tactical gear nor “incite any violence against our residents or solicit violence during this rally,” she said.
Only those associated with the Klan group holding the rally permit will be allowed on Courthouse Square, and Dayton police will control when and how the KKK group enters and exits the venue. They also must “immediately leave the Dayton downtown area after the rally is concluded,” according to the consent decree.
If the Honorable Sacred Knights fail to comply with the terms of the consent decree, the Dayton Police Department may immediately shut down the rally and remove the group from Courthouse Square. The group is also liable for any damages the city incurs during the event, according to the agreement.
Biehl cautions that counter protesters — some who may also be coming from out of town and with less than peaceful motives — may pose more of a threat for going to jail on Saturday.
“There is a difference between lawful conduct and unlawful conduct. Free speech is not without its limitations, regardless to who is speaking,” he said.
It may be unlawful for citizens to gain entry into areas that are closed off or block the ingress or egress to businesses, he said.
“There are a number of laws in this state, that should a person engage in that conduct is no longer free speech and is a criminal offense, and those offenses can lead to arrest,” Biehl said.
The full extent of disruption on downtown business won’t be clear until police reveal the map of street closures later this week, said Sandy Gudorf, president of the Downtown Dayton Partnership.
“Several individual downtown businesses and buildings are making their own decision as to if they are going to completely close down their buildings and their parking garages,” she said.
Premier Health announced to employees last week that its headquarters at 110 N. Main St. and the parking area beneath the building will be closed on Saturday. Signs are already up in windows indicating the CVS Pharmacy on Courthouse Square will be closed as well.
Out of an abundance of caution, Miami Valley Hospital, with the region’s only Level 1 trauma center, is slightly increasing staffing levels Saturday, according to a spokesman.
United Against Hate
Last week, citizens planning to counter protest were offered de-escalation and event marshal training to to help them make good decisions when tensions may run hot. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service will hold another event marshal training session Wednesday from 6-9 p.m. at Central State West, 840 Germantown St., Dayton.
“We want people to remain safe and law-abiding,” Grandy said. “If people decide to go downtown and participate in any way with the rally, we want to make sure that they are not the ones getting arrested when they are not the ones who are spewing the message of hate.”
Dajza Demmings, president of Dayton Young Black Professionals, never expected to be taking event marshal training in 2019 to counter protest a hate group.
“I never thought I would live through something like this,” she said. “That it’s still happening is kind of mind blowing.”
The city also unveiled an anti-hate campaign last week that will continue working toward inclusion, respect and equality long after the Klan goes back to Indiana, said Erica Fields, Dayton’s Human Relations Council executive director.
“Hate is an open attack on tolerance, decency and overall community health,” Fields said. “We must not ignore it, but instead take action, unite against it, and create opportunities for sustained movement.The United Against Hate is a platform to help uplift the community as we work toward inclusion, respect, empathy and equity.”
Will Smith, a community activist and member of the Community Police Council, said no one from out of state can tear down a community – but only local citizens can fix problems here.
“I would challenge people who are really disgusted and angered and feel the stench of hate to really carry that on and really start to meet people,” he said. “There is nothing someone from Indiana can do about predatory lending. There’s nothing someone coming from Indiana can do about money taken from our public school systems, about the criminal justice system. These are things people face daily.”
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