A few weeks ago, I was on my way to my office in downtown Washington when I ran into traffic jams, detours and angry people. Some people were trying to get to work. Some were tourists. And most of them had no idea what was going on.
It was midday on Oct. 28, and the Ku Klux Klan had come to town.
Since I couldn't get through to my office, I decided to stick around and see what would happen -- not a good idea, as it turned out.
I parked my car and began walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. I saw police tightening barricades along both Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues and people milling about, carrying banners that read "Ban the Klan" and "The Cops and the Klan Work Hand-In-Hand." And I saw a police sharpshooter on the top of the Archives building.
I kept walking, toward where the Klansmen were supposed to begin their march. Some black men were nose-to-nose with some black police officers there. I could imagine what they were asking the police, but the police didn't seem to be responding.
Then it was 1 p.m. -- the hour of reckoning. Although I couldn't see any marchers, I began to hear shouting. Rocks, stones, bricks and bottles began flying through the air. It seemed as though they were targeted at the police as much as the Klan marchers.
Then police began to chase the counter-demonstrators back. I heard people shouting "Don't run," probably because police would think that it was the rock and bottle throwers who were trying to escape. I moved back too, to just short of the statue near Indiana Avenue.
Things seemed a little quieter there at first, but then I saw young children tearing down the fence that surrounded a construction site. Rocks and bricks were still flying, and people were running by, shouting about how crazy all this was. I decided it was time to get out of there.
Two college girls I had met earlier on the avenue came up to me. They wanted to get out of the "combat zone" too, so I told them they could come with me to my car. The three of us started up Indiana Avenue. Behind us, an unmarked police car had its windows busted out by bricks and rocks. And behind the car, it looked as though a police officer was hurt.
We kept going. I was trying to reach an alley that hooked up to the street where my car was parked. We could hear shouts behind us of "Don't run. Don't run," but we couldn't tell if it was police or counter-demonstrators doing the shouting.
Then out of nowhere, police in riot gear with Glock 9 mms in one hand and night sticks in the other were chasing the angry counter-demonstrators in our direction. I threw myself up against a wall and put my hands up. As the crowd swept by, a police officer gave me an angry glance but kept going. Up against the same wall was a businessman from San Diego, who said he had only been trying to visit a museum. I offered to get him out in my car. Luckily, the four of us did reach my car and got away, shaken up but unharmed.
It was only later that I learned that only 30 or so Klan members had marched, while more than 1,200 had counter-demonstrated. I learned that the deployment of police and the National Guard cost the city at least $800,000 and probably more to repair property damage. I also learned that the American Civil Liberties Union would fight to help the KKK march -- as well they should, since the ACLU stands for freedom of speech.
Because protecting that freedom of speech means protecting the freedom of speech of groups like the Klan, it seems we must let even hate groups demonstrate. So it's up to us to avoid scenes like the one I witnessed.
The next time the KKK or any group like the Klan decides to take to our streets, we should do ourselves a favor and ignore them. As I can attest, they aren't worth even a look. -- David M. Brown