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Photography Jonathan Turton

The KKK in today’s America – a rally and the resistance

We report from Charlottesville, Virginia where the Ku Klux Klan marched but were met by a counter-protest that sees them for who they are

Ku Klux Klan marches in America are synonymous with hatred, white supremacy and those stupid hats. All of the above were present in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, but in somewhat meagre portions. What was supposed to be a rally celebrating caucasian heritage in the US turned into a full-blown bohemian carnival.

A string of unfortunate events in the past few months led to Charlottesville becoming, unwillingly, the platform for the KKK’s latest pageant. The stage was to be Jackson Park and Lee Circle in downtown Charlottesville, named after two Confederate leaders of America’s yesteryear. Charlottesville council voted a few months ago to rename these green spaces Justice Park and Emancipation Circle respectively, in acknowledgement of the fact that Robert E. Lee and General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson both fought for the pro-slavery south in America’s Civil War and were slave owners in their lifetime. Although well intended, move gave The Klan an opportunity to flex their increasingly flaccid muscles.

“We’re here today because what they’re doing is a disgrace” said Klansman Douglas Barker, dressed in the infamous all white ensemble of his organisation. “Robert E. Lee fought in the Mexican War and he fought for the Union. I consider him a founding father. They’re trying to erase our history and it’s not right what they’re doing.”

We don’t have hate in our heart, we love our people. We’re doing this for the white race. We do this out of god and a love for our country, and the love for our white race.”

God or no god The Klan has been in trouble for some time. A series of expensive lawsuits brought the association to the brink of collapse not too long ago. In 1997, the Alabama branch was declared bankrupt following the murder conviction of an associate member and the subsequent compensation payout.

Last week, in the lead up to the march, the Klan had intimated they’d be “armed and ready to protect themselves”, something that concerned many people given Virginia’s open-carry firearm laws. Yet in reality, it was a brotherhood of people armed with rainbow flags and messages of love and unity, that carried the firepower on this high noon.

“This is not the time to be quiet” said Judy Polhemus, 68, a visibly emotional Charlottesville local, speaking in a tea shop after the demonstration. “Whatever position you have, I don’t care, let’s talk about it. Without dialogue there is no change. I never thought I’d come face to face with it, their hoods and their flags. My legs are still weak. I can’t believe these people wake up everyday, with this hatred in their heart. They have to wake up every day, under that umbrella. I feel sorry for them, I really do.”

“I never thought I’d come face to face with it, their hoods and their flags. My legs are still weak. I can’t believe these people wake up everyday, with this hatred in their heart” – Judy Polhemus

Despite the fine efforts of many locals like Judy, Charlottesville is no utopia. The town has affiliations with slavery and racism stretching back further than Donald Trump’s combover, while earlier this year, a local black farmer went viral with a Facebook post describing Charlottesville as “the most aggressively segregated place he’s ever lived”.

Yet modern-day Charlottesville isn’t the place it once was. Although racial tension – and discrimination – is still present, a large section of this college town’s populace determinedly rejected The Klan outright. KKK members were shipped in from neighbouring North Carolina, allegedly with the guiding hand of local journalist and far-righter Jason Kessler; a figure in the locale that enjoys revelling in his agitator status. Yet The Klan hadn’t marched in Charlottesville since the 1960s, and this particular band contained nobody who was actually from the area. Many locals saw The KKK’s opportunism in their town as an affront, and took the chance to make their dissatisfaction known.


Hours before the rally began the town’s streets began to swell with opponents. Not a burning torch or Hitler youth haircut in sight. A solitary, 80-year old war veteran waved a US flag at the feet of Robert E. Smith’s statue in the park, which will be removed in coming weeks and auctioned off. Another man glanced cautiously from the shade of a nearby bench at the park’s perimeter.

At the same time, a thousand-strong procession was setting-off from a nearby council building, led by religious leaders of various faiths. Individuals of all creeds and colours lined the sidewalks and soon the roads were packed, united by a vehement disregard for depressing dinosaurs that were about to invade their town.

“Protected by a platoon of law enforcers, a small entourage of pathetic-sounding, flag-wielding, ageing men followed”

The official rally started an hour or so after it was scheduled to, with the first KKK members smuggled onto the site like contraband.

Protected by a platoon of law enforcers, a small entourage of pathetic-sounding, flag-wielding, ageing men followed. As with any of these unfortunate events, as seen on Jerry Springer or the Internet, it had something of the WWF about it. Bad goatees; weird costumes; bloated midrifts. Not to mention the dumb placards. The partizan crowd were quick to point out that one of the genius Klansmen had spelt bible, ‘Biblel’, on his homemade paraphernalia.

Predictable exchanges between the embittered crowd and white extremists ensued. It bordered on pantomime at times. One KKK member got hit with a tomato, then proceeded to do some kind of odd dance, like a wounded boxer trying to show his opponent his durability. If the context wasn’t so serious, it might have been funny.

As quickly as it had begun it was over. The Klan were escorted back to their coach while the park slowly returned to its natural state. The truth is, most people in Charlottesville don’t care that much about the statue of Robert E. Lee. The black community would be more interested in hearing about legislation to demilitarise the police force here, than a change to the park’s name. The fallout from this well-intentioned but ultimately clumsy decision has given an ugly, dying institution an opportunity to fan its embers at an extortionate price to the taxpayer.

Comfort, however, should be found in the vast numbers that came out to challenge this provocation in their town. The Klan were outnumbered by a hundred-to-one, at least. Of course the smart racists of Charlottesville will have been playing golf or trimming the hedges on Saturday but still – the lasting image of the day will be the swathes of ordinary folk that said no to the Klu Klux Klan.