By DeMicia Inman
Memorial Day weekend often calls for cookouts and relaxation. In Dayton, Ohio, however, many people opted to gather downtown in order to protest a rally held by the Honorable Sacred Knights of Indiana, a Ku Klux Klan-affiliated hate group that has been listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as one of 24 active hate groups in the state of Indiana.
The event had been a long time coming; according to the Dayton Daily News, the group was approved for the rally permit in February after going back and forth with the city about the legality of the event. (Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert told the Daily News, “We are legally obligated to provide access to public spaces where individuals can exercise their freedom of speech and right to assemble.”)
That wasn’t the end of the fight, however; based on the permit’s indication that the group would be armed and operate in a military fashion, a March 13 lawsuit filed by the city claimed the group’s presence endangered the community. “We are proud of what we represent, which is Christian white straight Americans,” the group said in statement released to Fox45Now.
The city ultimately aimed to disarm the group completely and prevent any members from covering their faces. But, according to the Dayton Daily News, the group threatened to rally with or without the permit, citing First and Second Amendment rights. On May 14, the two parties reached an agreement and settled the lawsuit. The resolution prevented the group from wearing tactical gear and carrying assault rifles but did allow for members to cover their faces and carry certain firearms, given that Ohio is an open-carry state.
“The agreement does not mean that we accept their hateful views or that their presence is supported by our leadership, our community or our residents,” Dayton's city attorney, Barbara Doseck, said during a press conference.
On May 25, the air in downtown Dayton smelled of equal parts cigarette and marijuana smoke, as well as burning sage as protestors gathered as early as 11:30 a.m, an hour and a half before the rally was approved by the city to take place. The small group of Honorable Sacred Knights of Indiana arrived promptly at 1 p.m.; the group established their presence with a KKK flag, a Confederate flag, and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Approximately nine members showed up; only one remained un-masked while the rest concealed their identities from the counter-protestors.
In contrast, their critics came ready to make their voices and identities known. The diverse crowd ranged from Christians to Atheists, youth to elderly citizens, veterans to anti-war and anti-violence organizers, and every demographic in between. Between them, they waved American flags, gay pride flags, the transgender pride flag, Antifa banners, the Pan-African or Black Liberation flag, and other emblems while battling 80-degree temperatures.
“[We plan to] drive out the KKK and anyone who wants to show up and sign up,” Gerry Bello, a member of the Columbus chapter of the Anti-Racist Action Network, told MTV News. “We never had any doubt [the permit] would be approved. [We will] do whatever we can to interfere with their recruiting.”
The Anti-Racist Action Network, or the ARA, was founded in 1988 and uses education, organization, confrontation, and celebration to eradicate racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination against the disabled, the oldest, the youngest, and the most-oppressed people.
The Dayton Daily News reports the City of Dayton overall spent approximately $650,000 to ensure the safety of both the rally-goers and counter-protestors. The event would eventually close with no arrests, injuries, or incidents reported, in stark contrast to the 2017 counter-protest in Charlottesville, Virginia where a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd, killing activist Heather Heyer. The city also prepared for the confrontation by blocking off streets leading to Courthouse Square, where the rally was set to be held, and separating the counter-protestors from the hate group with fencing and a barricade of armed members of the Dayton Police Department. In total, the DPD employed 350 police officers to patrol the streets; helicopter coverage and their visible presence on the rooftops of nearby buildings made some uneasy and others question who the police intended to protect and serve.
The rallyers spoke as planned, but hundreds of activists from all walks of life drowned them out with noise, with the aim to let both the group and the country know that Ohio residents do not stand for bigotry.
“I think that the Klan rally’s primarily a recruitment tool, certainly in this area. I think that the counterprotest clearly shows the Klan that they are not welcome in our city” said one protestor, who attended the rally with A Better Dayton Coalition, a collective of seven grassroots organizations with similar activist goals.
Many of the counter-protesters had geared up for the worst, by sporting bandanas and sunglasses to block potential tear gas attacks and etching identifying information and important phone numbers on their arms with permanent markers in the event of violence and arrest. Grassroots organizations provided free water, and shared vegetable and hummus trays, sunscreen, and even distributed emergency contraception to those in need.
“Our presence here today is to protect our people. We are not here to yell at the Klan or anything like that,” a woman who identified herself as the Minister of Defense of Republic of New Africa told MTV News. “We are here to make sure that each and every one of the people who came out here today to protest goes home safely.” As the event ended, she encouraged counter-protestors to exit the area in the same way they came, and used a megaphone to amplify her message: “We came in peace, we leave in peace.”
For some groups in attendance, protesting the the Honorable Sacred Knights was nothing new.
“We’ve protested this group before in their home base of Madison, Indiana, several years in a row,” Jen Scott, a member of the American Atheists who traveled from Cincinnati to protest, told MTV News. “We wanted to know why they chose Dayton and why this time. Usually, only 10 or 12 of them show up, spit out their message of hate for about 10 to 20 minutes, and they leave.”
Another protestor named Vanessa said this event was her first time protesting anything, but she felt that it was necessary to represent as a Christian standing up against hate. She had attended the rally with her church, and stood frontline at the fence with her partner, holding a wooden cross.
Ben, a protestor who attended with an organization associated with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, told MTV News that when he first heard that a group affiliated with the Klan was on its way, he was angry and planned to counter-protest immediately.
“We wanted to make sure that Black people’s bodies and lives are respected in the city,” he added. “We wanted to show that we are against hatred, bigotry, violence, and terrorism and that Dayton is a city for all working class individuals, not just white working class individuals.”
And while labeled organizations arrived en masse, local Dayton residents made their presence known on an individual level, too. A 39-year-old named Shante and her 11-year-old daughter Grace made sure to be active as Dayton natives, proudly raising a “No Hoods In My Woods” sign between them. Shante told MTV News she was not surprised by the KKK rally, but pointed out that the same First Amendment rights that allowed them to gather gave her the same rights to counter their arrival under the same statute.
“They have a pride and I have a pride,” she added.
Grace, who chose to attend and protest on her own, added that she joined her mother because she knows her own voice matters.
“I came here to show that they won’t make me feel any different about my color at all,” she told MTV News.
Those protesting the KKK presence in Dayton not only expressed messages denouncing the hate group; they also included anti-Trump, anti-police and anti-capitalist messaging with chants, posters, and body art. The group repeatedly cheered “No Trump, no KKK, no racist USA.” The police were met with chants asking “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” and “The cops and the Klan go hand-in-hand” as counter-protesters showed disdain for the DPD’s protection of the Honorable Sacred Knights. Many protestors had written the phrase “Fuck 12,” a slang term for police, across their bodies in red ink. Attendees also held posters in memory of those killed by police brutality, referencing the Black Lives Matter movement.
As for the city of Dayton itself, the local government launched an initiative called Dayton United Against Hate, as a direct response to the hate group’s choice of location. “Hate is not a Dayton value. This event is an opportunity for us to talk about what our values are as a community, and you all have named them loud and clear,” Mayor Nan Whaley said in an accompanying PSA.
“We have to make sure that fascism doesn't take hold of this country by showing it is outnumbered,” one protestor who led many chants but asked not to be identified by name, told MTV News. “It is important for us to be out here in numbers and making our voices heard.”