As churches burn across the South, a vigorous discussion over displays of the Confederate flag grips the country, and communities bury the victims of the church shooting Charleston, S.C., that rocked the nation, the KKK has decided to enter the mix.
The South Carolina chapter of the Loyal White Knights is planning a rally on the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. The organization, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is clearly attempting to fan the flames with its protest against a government it claims is “trying to erase white culture and our heritage right out of the pages of history books.” Governor Nikki Haley has spoken out against the rally, but, as with the display of the Confederate flag on statehouse grounds, her hands are tied when it comes to doing something about it.
Astoundingly, even hate groups are allowed to apply for permits to rally at the statehouse, where the only obstacle to protests is the events schedule — the Loyal White Knights selected July 18 as their rally date, and that day was open, so South Carolina Budget and Control Board overseer Brian Gaines was forced to grant their request. According to the policies of his office, political ideology isn’t a consideration when approving rallies. Both spontaneous and approved demonstrations — most notably, Bree Newsome’s removal of the Confederate flag — on numerous sides of the debate have occurred on the grounds already, but this one could turn ugly.
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The United States is undergoing a tangled and stressful period of racialized hatred as communities of color across the country experience police shootings and other violence, rising up in protests of varying natures. Between rallies, spontaneous protests, calculated lobbying and other acts of defiance, communities of color are forcing racism into the public eye and pressuring the country to have a conversation about race. Escalating racial tensions in the United States feel like history repeating itself — right down to church burnings perpetrated by white supremacist groups in the civil rights era — and the KKK is hoping to exploit the issue with a rally calculated to escalate the issue.
According to organizers, the Loyal White Knights will be discussing slavery at the event on public grounds, and then retiring to private property for a “cross lighting,” a polite euphemism for a cross burning, one of the hallmark moves of Klan rallies. The Loyal White Knights have specifically identified Dylan Roof, the Charleston shooter, as a “warrior,” and will no doubt be commemorating his activities at the rally as well.
Allowing rallies that reflect any political belief might appear like an act to protect free speech, ensuring that government officials don’t censor beliefs they don’t agree with. However, the Supreme Court has set a clear precedent for addressing hate speech, including speech calculated to incite violence, as will likely be the case on July 18. Moreover, South Carolina officials have a public safety mandate, and a rally that could be filled with numerous KKK members and counterprotesters could turn extremely dangerous for participants. While Gaines might not be able to turn down the request on the grounds that the government welcomes the voices of people with all political beliefs — even those the government considers abhorrent — it should be able to stop the protest because of the inherent dangers involved.
The fact that it hasn’t is a troubling sign that at least some South Carolina officials aren’t committed to engaging with racism and historical issues surrounding race in the state. Free speech as guaranteed under the Constitution does permit for the expression of all political views — and obliges the government to respect rather than constrict those views — but when speech constitutes a threat, as the KKK is doing by shouting “fire” at a crowded rally, it’s time to recommend a change of venue.