The planned Ku Klux Klan demonstration March 30 at the Shelby County Courthouse is a demonstration inspired by the ongoing controversy over a park named for Confederate General, Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest.
And the past is dictating at least some of the city’s strategy for handling it. But it’s not the past of 150 years ago or even 50 years ago. It’s the past of 15 years ago, when another Klan organization from Indiana demonstrated on the same courthouse steps.
“We’re going to be extremely vigilant in making sure that anyone who speaks out has the right to do so. But the primary obligation we have as the city is to keep the peace for all citizens,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said. “We know from 1998 that there was some property loss. We’ve learned from that and we’re going to see that there’s not a repeat of that.”
The Klan protest in 1998 ended with Memphis Police wading into the crowd of onlookers and spraying pepper gas to disperse a crowd that was a mix of onlookers and a loose confederation of counter protestors who had separate plans and agendas for showing up.
The police reacted as some in the crowd began climbing over barriers.
Some windows were broken at the 100 North Main Building, a block away from the courthouse, in the melee that then-Memphis Police Director Walter Winfrey later acknowledged police could have handled differently and better.
Civil rights groups decided 15 years ago that there would be no alternative activity or counter-protest to the Klan demonstration, opting instead for an approach of ignoring the Klan presence.
Some of the groups admitted later the approach backfired and left a vacuum filled by counter-protestors with other ideas about how to react to the Klan.
This time, the Memphis branch of the NAACP is among the groups organizing an alternative to the Klan protest.
Meanwhile, Memphis City Council members this week pondered whether they should set more specific rules for protests and demonstrations.
“The balance is when an organization asks for a permit to march or organize on city or county property, the (police) director has the discretion to say you are not able to gather with your faces covered or to carry concealed weapons,” council member Harold Collins said as he explained why the council won’t set new rules in advance of the demonstration but will instead give Police Director Toney Armstrong more discretion.
“He can set boundaries and areas of separation. He can set up checkpoints to search individuals,” Collins said. “He can also request that a surety bond or a deposit be made to offset the cost of extra security and overtime for police officers. … That gives the director the discretion and the authority to make those requests without coming to the council for approval.”
All of that is included in an ordinance the council approved this week on the first of three readings. The third and final vote should be at the March 19 council meeting.
“Most of these are already in the ordinance,” Collins said. “These are just new elements to spell out specifically what his responsibility is. It gives him latitude to make that decision within allowing the permit.”
Another part of the discussion this week with attorneys at City Hall was about how much the city can limit what happens when the activity is a form of expression that touches on constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech.
“I just want to make sure we have a really solid legal vetting because it’s one thing to look at this in our instant case,” council member Shea Flinn said. “But when you immediately take that off, you are having a real potential for government suppression of speech here. I want to make sure we are way on the other side of that.”