In the glare of a hot sun and the blare of tinny bullhorns, about 3,000 anti-klan protesters gathered along Constitution Avenue near the Washington monument Sunday afternoon, waiting for the first sight of hoods and robes.
They didn’t appear. Opting to avoid a confrontation, the 46 knights of the Ku Klux Klan pocketed their permit to march along the avenue to the Capitol, instead staying on a bus and proceeding directly to the Capitol under police escort. There they held a brief rally for the benefit of a clutch of reporters and quickly ducked out of town.
Although four police officers were injured during a bottle-and-brick throwing melee, officers prepared for the worst seemed relieved. The last time the klan came to the nation’s capital, in 1982, the city erupted in violence that left windows broken and store shelves ransacked in downtown Washington.
“There is double the level of frustration in this city now compared to 1982,” said Brian Becker, a counterdemonstration leader. A few minutes before the march was to start he warned: “We don’t want a confrontation, but the klan is such a provocation that we don’t know how people will react when they see hoods and robes.”
The National Park Police, the Capitol Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police practiced riot scenarios weeks in advance. The National Guard was called in to direct traffic. Early Sunday, an armored personnel carrier was even spotted tucked behind the National Museum of American History. Black and white city leaders spent days reminding the city that the white supremacist group has a constitutional right to demonstrate.
“If the klan had showed, there would definitely have been violence,” said Edward Cohen, a 23-year-old Washington native who turned out to demonstrate against the klan.
“I guess I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out,” he added, “although I promised to bring my wife back a hood.”
After hearing that the march was cancelled, counterdemonstrators took off toward the Capitol en masse.
“I’m going to find them, just like a heat-seeking missile. They can’t get away,” shouted one demonstrator as he marched along the wide, museum-sided avenue. But as the crowd neared Capitol Hill, tight lines of police, some carrying sticks, others in riot gear, blocked their path.
A tense standoff ensued. After a loud exchange of words, the crowd began hurling paper, soft-drink bottles and pieces of bricks and concrete at the blue line of officers. In response, police set off M-80 explosives to frighten the crowd.
When the confrontation ended about an hour later, four police officers, including a police department spokesman, were injured. Six counterdemonstrators were arrested, one for inciting a riot. There were no immediate reports of civilian injuries.
But most participants agreed that, under the circumstances, all went well. “I think that after what happened with Marion Barry, all the homeless in this city, all the unemployed and the drug problem,” said Cohen, “all the anger would have been turned on (the klan).”
Not everyone was pleased, however. Don and Donna Decker were on their way to visit the Vietnam Memorial on Sunday morning but were diverted by the crowd. The retired couple from Eaton, Ohio, were carrying a new video camera.
“I’ve never seen a person in a sheet and I wanted to take a picture of one with my new camera,” Donna Decker said sadly. “But I didn’t get the chance.”