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Blowback: Why I gave the KKK 'exactly what it wanted' and protested its hate

I attended the Ku Klux Klan rally in Anaheim a week and a half ago, armed only with a picket sign and my camera. My intention was to bear peaceful and silent witness against one of the ugliest forms of racism. I never imagined there would be bloodshed, nor did I expect that counter-protesters, and not members of the KKK, would perpetrate the initial acts of violence.

The best way to confront a hate group that has increasingly made its presence known in Anaheim is difficult to determine. Some people prefer not to give the KKK the satisfaction of receiving any attention at all. I understand that, but my bigger fear is that if we ignore the KKK, we allow racism the opportunity to fester in the dark.

Shining a bright light into those shadows and declaring, "This is wrong" -- that feels right to me.

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The Times' editorial board feels otherwise. It criticized people like me who showed up planning to let the world know that we would not let the Klan’s racism have its day unopposed. More important, we wanted to send a message to the targets of the KKK's intimidation: We have your back.

The editorial dismissed the Klan as a fringe hate group with none of the power that made it a frightening nuisance last century, and one that feeds off only whatever outrage it can provoke. To the contrary, recent events in this country suggest a greater need for vigilance against racist intimidation. We are seeing an uptick in hate speech and violence, including racist killings, clashes over immigration policies, dog-whistle politics and overt discrimination against those whose appearance and ideologies don’t mirror our own.

These are the environments in which white supremacists make inroads -- even in a neighborhood park a short drive from Disneyland. 

The violence that erupted at Pearson Park that Saturday obscured the peaceful intentions of most counter-protesters. I was inspired by the good-hearted people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and ages, well-heeled neighbors and homeless people, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder to stop racism's long reach.

Shape-shifter that it is, hatred manifested itself on both sides that day. Counter-protesters splintered into factions, some of whom showed up with their own agendas and agitated an already unsettled crowd. When the KKK's sport utility vehicle crawled up Cypress Street, vigil erupted into frenzied motion. A large group of counter-protesters pounced as soon as Klan members emerged from the vehicle. The police arrived only after a Confederate flag was ditched at the curb and the SUV had sped away, leaving behind three stabbing victims.

I'm not sure I can identify the right time for ordinary citizens to step in or stand back. Either way, there's little doubt in my mind that if we ignore a hate group's presence in our midst, as The Times recommended, we leave unguarded the threshold at which darkness finds access to our homes and hearts.

The Times asserted that because the KKK's numbers have dwindled for a period of years, it has become a joke rather than a source of fear. Research by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows otherwise: The number of active KKK groups is on the rise again, here and elsewhere. Just last year, the Klan distributed recruitment materials in Orange County neighborhoods and literature that disparaged Martin Luther King Jr.

If there's research to support the notion that peaceful demonstrations correlate with racist groups growing in strength and numbers, I haven't seen it yet. Nor have I seen statistical evidence that questions counter-protesting as an effective response to hate speech. On the other hand, news reports from the campaign trail reveal just how quickly an unanswered flare of racism can erupt into a four-alarm fire.

The violence at Anaheim's KKK rally was swiftly denounced, and rightly so. But the actions of a few agitators shouldn't obscure a larger truth: Peaceful protests against racism also send an important message to those watching from the sidelines. My biggest fear is that, absent the peaceful voice of opposition, hate will grow unnoticed, and people who heed The Times' editorial may become unwitting accomplices to that end.

Melodye Shore is a freelance writer based in Orange County. She tweets as @melodyeshore.

This piece is part of Blowback, our online forum for rebuttals to The Times. If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

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