Ku Klux Klan members appeared on the streets of Manhattan today for the first time ever, but the organization's traditional fury was reduced in legal defeat to a silent white supremacist vigil.
In a multiracial outpouring of outrage at the Klan's appearance, hundreds of New Yorkers jammed the streets of Foley Square around the New York County courthouse, shouting, "KKK no way! You ain't gonna march today!" After the 75-minute standoff, the Klan group departed under heavy police protection and the crowds dispersed. Police reported seven arrests, all involving anti-Klan demonstrators.
The Indiana-based Church of the American Knights of the KKK was permitted to rally on the courthouse steps, and organizer Jeffrey Berry said he expected about 80 Klansmen to attend. They had intended to wear the masks behind which Klan members have hidden when making speeches upholding their anti-minority racial beliefs.
But in the climax of a First Amendment battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued an emergency ruling today that temporarily upheld the city's 1845 statute making it illegal for people to wear masks during a public political rally. Berry told reporters that the decision diminished attendance, although a rally he staged in Cleveland this summer produced a similar turnout of robed followers. New York's refusal to allow the use of a sound system rendered the 16 Klansmen silent, and their white robes and conical hats were barely visible above the phalanx of police that protected them.
The event appeared headed for violence only briefly, when a few impostors robed as Klansmen attacked the real Klan members as the vigil began.
In addition to anti-Klan protesters and a melange of people waving placards for a host of other racial and political causes, the event attracted those for whom a sighting of the dreaded Klan was not to be missed.
"I wanted to see what a Klansman looks like," said Richard Green, a free-lance photographer. "It's like being in a zoo: You get to see an endangered species."
Berry, the group's national imperial wizard, told reporters that the Klan's effort to rally in New York is not over.
"We are here to defend our First Amendment rights," Berry said. "We'll be back."
In an odd alliance forged on the free-speech principle, the New York Civil Liberties Union is representing the Klan and contends that Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's administration has violated the Klan's First Amendment rights.
In its federal court actions, the Klan also found strange First Amendment allies in the National Action Network of Al Sharpton, the black civil rights activist.
Norman Siegel, director of the NYCLU, said after the rally that the Klan will seek a federal trial on the merits of the city's anti-mask law on the grounds that it denies a fundamental right to free speech. Klansmen appear publicly in masks because they need anonymity to protect them from retaliation for their racist views, said Siegal. But the Klan's views are not the issue at hand, he said.
"We think their message is as repugnant and bigoted and offensive as any, but that's not the issue," he said. "In America, everyone--including people who have offensive, bigoted, repugnant views--has the right under the First Amendment to a peaceful rally."