There was no Klan and there were no spectators anti-KKK protesters march outside Danville, Virginia. Photograph: MWAA/ZDS/WENN.com
We raced into Danville and were the first to find the building. It was a grand, red-stone home in the Italian villa style, on a hilltop, with a wide lawn and a stone obelisk on which were engraved the words Guarding Our Future by Preserving Our Past. The property occupied an entire city block, and would have been a fitting site for any demonstration. But there was no one there. No white supremacists. No one at all.
We drove through Danville and soon found the ESG Security SUV in a parking lot on the edge of Danvilles downtown. Theyd found something. The white-haired newscaster stood outside, flanked by his private security guards, talking to a tall man with a wild grey beard. He wore a black leather cowboy hat and a denim jacket bearing at least 10 Confederate flag patches. There were two trucks nearby. One bore the Virginia license plate CNFEDRT.
The bearded mans was named George Randall. He and the two women with him were bewildered, like Custer caught in an ambush. Were not part of the Klan, Randall said. They were part of a group called the Virginia Flaggers, whose motto was Heritage, not hate. Periodically they held rallies to preserve Southern heritage and fly the Southern flag. He said he hadnt heard anything about a Klan rally, and hated getting confused with the Klan. This kind of mix-up, he said, was the fault of the media. And the young people. And the liberals. He monologued for a time, at one point complaining about a woman hed seen on the internet defecating on a picture of Trump. While he was speaking two more cars, carrying activists and journalists, pulled into the parking lot. Randall looked alarmed.
We better get out of here, said one of the women in the CNFEDRT truck. Randall jumped in and they took off.
Back at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, a handful of black-bloc activists stood on the corner. Passing motorists, most of them African American, gawked and pointed. Thought experiment: what would the reaction have been in a reciprocal situation? If 30 or so young black people, most of them men, showed up in a small predominantly white town, wearing masks and carrying baseball bats, what might happen?
Megans phone dinged. The activists were headed back to the rest stop where we had started the day almost five hours earlier. Sugelema and I left Danville and got on the highway. When we got to the rest stop, the 30 cars were leaving. They were going back to the Danville Museum. Theyd heard that a different Confederate group was about to demonstrate. We tried to convince them that we had just come from Danville and that nothing was happening there, but it was too late. They were gone. We followed. It was a lot like high school, where dozens of cars roamed the same few suburban miles, looking for a party, stopping at the mini-mart, getting a Slurpee, exchanging specious information and driving off only to repeat the whole process half an hour later.
We arrived at the museum to find a few disappointed black-bloc members. No Klan, no Confederates, no neo-Confederates. Megan and Tony arrived with news. Tony had seen some police cars a few blocks away, parked near a playground. He thought it might be the protest, or at least a protest. We raced to the park, but there were no Klansmen there, no black bloc. Instead, about 25 Danville residents, most of them African American, had assembled before a video camera, in rows, as if posing for a school picture. Put down the guns! they all said in unison. The gathering had nothing to do with white supremacists or Trump. It was about ending a recent cycle of violence in Danville.
David L Wilson, who split his time between selling life insurance and working at a tyre-manufacturing plant, explained. Weve had a lot of shootings in our city. Weve had 14 murders recently. Even last night, a young lady here had a gunshots outside of her house. He took the arm of an older man next to him; he had tired eyes. This was the idea of this man, Gerald Holmes, Wilson said. Holmes had organised a movement called 434 Lives Matter, named for the local area code.
We have to change the mindset of the people, Wilson said. We cant do it from a top-down position. We cant do it just with the police. If we dont change the mindset of the people in the community, and change the way theyre dealing with each other in terms of conflict resolution, were going to continue to see this robbing and shooting and killing.
The members of 434 Lives Matter planned to go canvassing that day, door to door, in the neighbourhoods affected by the violence. For a moment, what the rest of us had been doing all day seemed hopelessly irrelevant. A mass of interlopers, many of whom were in costume, were chasing the Klan like it was some urban scavenger hunt. Meanwhile, the actual residents of the town were trying to figure out why their young men were shooting each other.
Sometimes they do things out of their character, Wilson said. But theyre doing what they think they have to do in order to survive. Theyre trying to do what they can to make ends meet, to take care of their families. Our main thing is listening now. We have to listen to what peoples hurts are.
We left the park. Megans phone went off again. The protesters were marching in downtown Danville. Apparently they were tired of waiting for the Klan. We raced to Main Street and found them. It was happening. And their numbers had grown there were now about 100 people marching. There were more locals. There were parents with their children. It was loud and it was real. No hate! No Fear! The KKKs not welcome here! they chanted. Leading the march were the black bloc, their baseball bats dragging on the pavement. Minutes before, I had felt like whatever the anti-KKK activists were doing had no tangible meaning, but now, seeing it happen, it seemed vital and necessary. The last vestiges of the Ku Klux Klan must be met with this kind of demonstration of resistance.
Trailing the marchers were three Danville police cars, their lights spinning brightly. They had sanctioned the march and were ensuring that it had the run of the road. All of which was remarkable. The police had allowed the protest on incredibly short notice, and were OK with dozens of black-clad protesters marching down their street with bats. It was a model of accommodation and restraint.
But because it was a Saturday, and because the stretch of road they marched was not a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, and because the march had been organized in the last half-hour, there were only a few people to watch it. A beautician peeked out the window of her shop, but otherwise the witnesses to the march were entirely members of the media.
After a few blocks, the protesters gathered in a parking lot. Williams spoke first. We shut shit down! he said, and the crowd repeated it: We shut shit down! they roared. The mood was ebullient. We shut shit down, they roared again and again, their baseball bats hammering the pavement. Then, in the call-and-response style he had used earlier, Williams added a coda.
One more good piece of news before you go, he said.
One more good piece of news before you go, the crowd repeated.
We just heard from folks, he said.
We just heard from folks, the crowd repeated.
Who are watching the Twitter account, he said.
Who are watching the Twitter account, the crowd repeated.
Of the official spokesperson, he said.
Of the official spokesperson, the crowd repeated.
Of the Loyal White Knights, he said.
Of the Loyal White Knights, the crowd repeated.
Who says they fucking cancelled their march.
One more good piece of news before you go, he said. We just heard from folks who are watching the Twitter account of the official spokesperson of the Loyal White Knights who says they fucking cancelled their march.
The crowd erupted. Megan was ecstatic. The Klan, she and the activists had deduced, had been scared off by the strength of the counter-protests. Maybe the Loyal White Knights were really only two people Amanda and Chris Barker. And maybe they had been trying to gather enough people all day to make their parade worthwhile, and had failed. It seemed like a suitably pathetic end to a hateful but powerless cabal. There was still the alt-right, and David Duke was running for office again, but at least the KKK, or this head of the serpent, was dead.
Since the Loyal White Knights announcement of the rally, there had been much debate about what to do. There was a school of thought that said paying the Klan any attention at all was only encouraging them. There were those elsewhere in North Carolina, from Greensboro to Raleigh to Charlotte who preferred to hold counter-rallies, focusing on inclusion and featuring speakers and songs, far away from any confrontation. But the people in Danville believed it would be a terrible thing, in 2016, if a Klan rally happened, and happened uncontested. Slightly better would be a Klan rally that was vociferously confronted. Best of all, though, would be a Klan rally cancelled in the face of opposition. And this is what had just happened. And even though this was a modest counter-protest in a modest city, it mattered just as Birmingham had mattered in 1963, and Ferguson had mattered in 2014. Maybe it mattered more because it was Danville, the last home of the Confederacy.
Terrell Simmons was feeling good. A tall African American man wearing combat boots and a red bandana, he had led some of the post-march chants. The Klan dont have the people, so they dont have the power! he had yelled. The establishment dont have the people, so they dont have the power! He was a high school test-prep teacher from Mobile, Alabama, and had driven 12 hours to confront the Klan. Now he was basking in the victory and planning what would come next. Were going to have a lot of cohesion between the groups that have been divided, he said. Were going to see that we cant build this country without one another. A lot of the things that have held us up in the past are going to go away. Reality is going to set in that without actually meeting the needs of the poor people, the sick people, this nation is doomed to fail.
He walked away smiling, joining the black bloc, whose members were taking off their masks and disbanding. Soon there were only a few people left on Main Street. Tony and Sugelema were looking for a place to get a beer. Shit, Megan said. In the parking lot, now nearly empty, she was reading her phone. Natalie Janicello had just
posted a tweet. ITS HAPPENING, she wrote. KKK just came through Roxboro. Battle flags and shouting WHITE POWER.
While the anti-Klan protesters marched through Danville, the Klan had paraded through a different town, 45 minutes away. Janicello had embedded film of it into her Twitter feed.
In the video, about 20 vehicles speed through an intersection. Some of the cars have Confederate flags flapping from their windows. Some cars are unadorned just gray sedans driving down the street. No spectators are visible. None of the drivers are visible. A woman in one of the cars yells White power from a window. Then its over.
Megan was despondent. Not just because the Klan had trolled the protesters and had pulled off their parade. But there was the matter of her former student, Natalie Janicello, who must have known about the location of the parade, and had opted not to tell any of the protesters or members of the media. She was the only media member, and maybe the only person, who saw it.
The next day brought one last twist. A Klan member named Richard Dillon, who had made the trip from Indiana, was in the hospital with
multiple stab wounds to the chest. Two other Klansmen, Chris Barker and William Ernest Hagen of California, were charged with the crime. Apparently, in the early morning before the planned parade, the Klan had assembled at the Barkers house. Drinks were drunk. Dillon had hassled Hagen about a Klan rally Hagen had put on in Orange County, where the Klansmen had been beaten up by counter-protesters. Hagen didnt much appreciate that, so he stabbed Dillon repeatedly, while Barker blocked the door. Bleeding profusely, Dillon managed to escape, drove to Danville, went to the hospital and told the doctors on duty what had happened.
Police arrested Barker and Hagen that morning. So they didnt get to see the parade, either.