I went to a Klan rally this weekend. Instead of braving the crowds upfront, my friend Amy and I sleuthed out the exit where vans waited to whisk the KKKers away. Thanks to a tip, we were the only two civilians waiting by a police barricade while thousands of people crowded into surrounding blocks to shout down the Klan. We stood chatting with an old-style Scottish police officer who, with a wink, refused to confirm that we were in the right spot. We then got our money's worth.
Suddenly, a group of police officers were running toward us, screaming to "get those people out of there!" Instead, our sergeant backed us against a brick wall, shielding us with his body. We were on the 50-yard line for the Klan exit.
As I looked past the officers for the proud, robed bigots, I noticed a sprinkling of plain-clothed people in their midst. I then saw huge wads of white cloth in their hands and looks of absolute terror on their faces. These were the terrorists who were putting New York City on alert for an afternoon.
The Knights were scared shitless as they sprinted for the now-open barrier next to us. A woman's face was covered with red splotches; she wore a bulletproof vest. Another skinny, faded-jean-wearing bigot had a long red mark curved into his cheek, which I later learned he got courtesy of an irate anti-Klan protester. He also was terrified. They all were. This wasn't exactly the proud, fist-raised procession we expected from the American Knights.
Then I saw a familiar face. Bringing up the rear, but sprinting just as full-tilt, was Norman Siegal, the Jewish head of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Siegal -- or just Norm, as many New Yorkers refer to him -- is always there. I remember him a decade ago defending the right of rowdy, "anarchist" protesters who wanted the city to let the homeless sleep in a park. I remember him outside the 1992 Democratic National Convention, watching over the myriad protestors outside Madison Square Garden. He was there during recent rallies against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's extreme policing policies that have left minority men brutalized and even dead.
And Norm was at the plate last week as the Klan fought to march in the unfriendly territory of New York City. First, the mayor said no, but a court said the Klan could march, complete with hoods. The city appealed. A black newspaper, The Amsterdam News, and a black activist, the Rev. Al Sharpton, filed briefs on behalf of the Klan (and the First Amendment). An appeals court said the Klan could march, but without their hoods so police could see their faces. Norm appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg unfortunately upheld the no-masks rule (just wait until you get fired or beaten up for publicly airing your beliefs). A scraggly group of Klanswo/men showed up. New York shouted them down. They ran for their lives.
Thankfully, the First Amendment -- though beaten down by the no-masks ruling -- was there, running with them. Though not literally, so were civil-rights leaders who have been silenced, beaten and gagged in the past. They know better than any of us the absolute necessity of protecting the right to speech -- unpopular or not. Bigot or not, each of us must be allowed to say our piece. Fine, shout down the opposition, but don't try to silence it. None of us can afford such ill-conceived prior restraint.
Now: Picture this same battle in cyberspace. Yes, the KKK's very presence can inspire violence; it did Saturday. But, any controversial speech -- whether by Malcolm X or the pope -- can bring out the worst in people. That doesn't mean we censor the speech and thus endanger our own right to speak out.
Instead, like Norm, we must all grit our teeth and run with the Klan. Our own rights depend on it.