Darrell Flinn’s message is hateful and racist, a rhetorical sewer of Old South, white supremacist, Ku Klux Klan ideology. To the dismay of black residents, it’s broadcast live every other Sunday night on Lafayette’s public-access cable TV channel--an hour of hooded robes, Confederate flags and burning crosses.
Flinn, Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the White Kamellia, considers his show a paragon of 1st Amendment rights, exactly the sort of unpopular speech a true democracy must tolerate. The program’s saving grace might well be its relative obscurity, viewed by no more than a few thousand die-hard cable subscribers.
And that’s probably the way it would have stayed had local NAACP leaders not dusted off an equally obscure Louisiana law in their campaign to ax “The Klan in Akadiana,” as Flinn’s 3-year-old show on the Acadiana Open Channel is known. At a December news conference, the civil rights group accused Flinn of violating a 1924 statute that prohibits wearing masks in public, except during special events such as Halloween and Mardi Gras. Although Flinn has never concealed his face on air, several of his guests did that month--including a Lafayette firefighter who invoked the Los Angeles riots while stroking an assault rifle and urging viewers to “get these guns while you can.”
Based on the NAACP’s complaint, authorities arrested Flinn and charged him with a misdemeanor count of being “a principal” to the mask-wearing infraction. A trial is set for August.
Rather than silence Flinn, the legal assault has only enlarged his video soapbox, bestowing the 34-year-old ex-Army officer with his 15 minutes of fame, and then some. Since his arrest, Flinn has been flown to Chicago to appear on the “Jerry Springer Show.” He has been jetted to New York for a stint on one of Phil Donahue’s final episodes. He has been welcomed on CNBC to debate Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. And on the syndicated TV program “Day & Date,” Flinn has gone head-to-head with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“Six months ago, Darrell Flinn was just another fringe element,” said Patrick Soileau, executive director of Acadiana Open Channel, which has tried to remain neutral. “Now, they’ve given him a national platform that he never would have had before.”
Portraying himself as a defender of free speech and a champion of public-access media, Flinn is at the forefront of a movement to remake the klan’s image. A social studies major at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, he contends that today’s KKK is the victim of stereotypes, persecuted only for its politically incorrect views. He insists that his agenda is nonviolent, and that by advocating “white rights” he is not trying to deprive any other group of theirs.
On his show, which features a live call-in segment, he’s careful not to use offensive epithets, even cutting off sympathizers whose language grows too heated. On national TV, he seems keenly aware of the theatrical value inherent in his rituals and regalia, grinning from under his purple hood as the studio audience drowns him out with jeers.
“Different times, different measures,” explained Flinn, who plans to graduate from college this year and become a high school teacher. “This is 1996. If you want to spread your message, you have to use the fax, the TV, the videotape machine. You’re not going to get too far using violence these days.”
For blacks, who compose 26% of Lafayette’s population, even Flinn’s sanitized KKK imagery recalls a terrifying era of murder and intimidation--and none too distant, given the epidemic of church-burnings sweeping the South. For many whites, Flinn’s rants over affirmative action and urban crime sound refreshingly similar to those of Louisiana’s new governor, Mike Foster, whose great-grandfather is reported to have been one of the original White Kamellias.
“Man, you’d swear the Civil War was never even fought,” said Bernard Broussard, spokesman for the Lafayette branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
After Flinn’s arrest, the Lafayette Parish Council asked Acadiana Open Channel to establish a set of community standards for its programming, denying access to anyone whose material would “create opportunities for social unrest.” But the cable company said it was unable to do so, explaining that such guidelines were almost always arbitrary and subjective.
“Basically, it came down to the idea that being offensive, in and of itself, is not an offense,” said Soileau, adding that Flinn’s show has drawn far fewer complaints than a now-defunct comedy program that was laced with profanities.
In fact, Flinn is considered one of the station’s most reliable producers, delivering his show on time with few technical glitches. For that, he will be rewarded when the new cable season begins in July: Instead of a semimonthly format, the klan will now take to Lafayette’s airwaves every Sunday night.