The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 60 (Winter 2000).

New York: Why the Klan Wasn’t Smashed

While many on the left cheered the big October 23 [1999] demonstration against the Ku Klux Klan in New York as an unqualified triumph, we say: tell no lies, claim no easy victories.

On the positive side, it was a militant interracial mobilization of 8,000 to 10,000 people united against a common enemy for the first time in many years. The protestors showed widespread disrespect for Democratic Party politicians who tried to keep them pacified throughout. Several anti-Klan fighters managed to land a few blows against one Klan leader. And only a pathetic group of 16 or 17 KKKers showed up. But the fact that these advocates of racist terror were not driven from the streets and given a beating—in a city with a huge number of Black and Latino workers—means that the anti-Klan victory was at best minimal.

The huge mobilization of police to protect the Klan was the most obvious reason why the Klan was not dealt a smashing blow. But the police could never have succeeded in saving the KKKers’ skins were it not for the passive and divisive role played by the liberal Democratic politicians, as well as that of the sectarian and opportunist groups on the left. Had the major trade unions and the Black and Latino organizations mobilized to run the Klan out of town, the result could have been far different. Even though a few prominent Black and union leaders talked big beforehand, organizations like the NAACP and the Nation of Islam did nothing. Thus the opportunity for a far stronger mobilization against the Klan was missed.

It also must not be overlooked that the Klan rally was kept so quiet and tiny by the actions of New York’s racist Mayor Giuliani, who succeeded in obtaining injunctions that prevented the Klan’s use of a sound system and hoods. Since the Klansmen couldn’t hide their faces, only a handful turned up. If the anti-Klan protesters had faced a hundred KKKers blaring their amplified racist crap and still been prevented from breaking up their rally, then the anti-Klan side could not have claimed any victory at all.

Nevertheless, Giuliani’s injunctions were not in the interest of those who wanted to fight the Klan. Bans on marches and masks will be used much more heavily against the working class and oppressed people. The working-class answer is mass mobilization to smash the Klan.

Democratic Party Pols Push “Free Speech"

Giuliani’s moves to ban the Klan immediately opened a division between those who said they want to stop the Klan and liberals who think the Klan have a legitimate right to spread their murderous message. The Partisan Defense Committee (PDC), a front group of the Spartacist League, announced their intention to hold a counter-demonstration under the banner “Stop the KKK!” We in the League for the Revolutionary Party joined with many others in endorsing this call. An LRP supporter introduced a motion for union support in the Guild Delegate Assembly of the 1199 Hospital Workers Union, and the motion passed unanimously. But this broad working-class sentiment was betrayed by union head Dennis Rivera, who didn’t lift a finger to mobilize anyone.

Meanwhile, the liberals chose to oppose Giuliani by defending the KKK’s First Amendment right to free speech—ignoring the reality that Ku Klux Klan rallies are not about speech but about organizing for racist terror. Under the rubric of the Ad-hoc Citywide Coalition to Stop the Klan, various Democratic politicians, along with the Latino Officers Association, called for a mass protest to drown out the Klan with noise but not actually stop their rally. The most influential figure involved was former mayoral candidate Rev. Al Sharpton, accompanied by lesser-known people like State Assemblyman Scott Stringer.

The liberals’ method of building for their rally undermined the potential power of mass protest at every turn. Challenging Giuliani’s ban, the New York Civil Liberties Union, Sharpton’s National Action Network and the Black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, petitioned in court in defense of the KKK’s “right.” As we warned in our leaflet:

You better believe that bans will be used far more against Blacks and the working class than against right-wingers. But arguing for the Klan’s “right” to march is also bogus…. You can bet the KKK won’t be attacked the way the Million Youth March was in 1998, for example. You can also bet the cops won’t crack the heads of the KKK the way they do whenever a working class demonstration or strike gets “out of hand.”

The liberals also called for massive police protection for the Klan rather than for mass action to stop them. Led by Norman Siegel of the NYCLU, they went so far as to offer to share a platform and sound system with the KKK! This obscene deal was accepted by the courts at first, but was overturned on Giuliani’s appeal.

When the anti-Klan rally began, thousands of people arrived obviously hostile to the Klan but unclear what to do. At first many listened politely but without much enthusiasm to speeches from the podium by an assortment of Democrats and liberals. Other figures with more militant reputations echoed the mainstream view. Rev. Herbert Daughtry said of the Klan, “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it.” Minister Conrad Muhammad of the Million Youth March declared, “Yes, I defend their right to march, but we have to let them know they are not welcome here in New York City.” (Amsterdam News, Oct. 28.)

Importance of Fighting the Klan

Against the liberals, we argued that a life-and-death issue was at stake: an open street demonstration by the KKK is a call for racist terror. The working class has to prevent such rallies from happening. Our leaflet said:

The Klan has chosen New York as their rally site exactly to test their strength in a city which is home to a large population of Blacks, Latinos, and immigrants, and a powerful working class at large. If they can pull off a rally here, imagine what they’ll think they can get away with elsewhere…. The Klan and associated groups are getting stronger in such states as Pennsylvania and Indiana—as well as their traditional Southern stronghold. We can’t let them get any stronger anywhere. Combating the Klan, preventing them from spreading their message, and thereby also demoralizing their current members is possible—but only through militant action.

The question was not whether the Klan was popular in New York City. It isn’t, although there is support for it—especially among cops, prison guards and other bastions of reaction. But if the Klan could get away with rallying here, that would help them win recruits and act more boldly elsewhere. It was no accident that a number of people we spoke to at the rally recounted experiences that their families had been through, not so long ago, with the Klan down South.

Further, the anti-Klan rally had an even greater potential. For the KKK and other fascist groups are not the main enemy today. That is the capitalist state and its mainstream parties, Democrats as much as Republicans. As our leaflet warned:

“Democratic” capitalism is the source of racist police brutality and an obscenely racist system of “justice” and incarceration. The “democratic” profit-making system is also the source of anti-worker cuts in social programs, anti-immigrant attacks and murderous wars against the peoples of the world from Serbia to Puerto Rico to Iraq.

A mass action against the Klan had the potential to win a solid victory not only against those scum but also against the capitalist politicians and cops who perpetrate racism and attacks on workers every day, and who inevitably work together against all of us to protect the fascists. If the protestors had actually succeeded in getting at the Klan, which would have meant getting through the barrier of cops, that would have been a tremendous boost to the entire struggle against the cops and racist attacks in New York.

Preparation for the Cops

The slogan “Stop the Klan!", under which the PDC had initiated its call, was necessary but not sufficient to prepare demonstrators for an actual confrontation. It was of course not a matter of giving out detailed battle plans but of presenting an understanding of the role of the police. This was not what was done in the PDC’s October 19th press release, which quoted PDC counsel Rachel Wolkenstein as follows:

The Partisan Defense Committee does not call on Mayor Giuliani to ban the Ku Klux Klan demonstration. We are for the people of New York, the working people, to come out and stop the Klan. What we want to do is organize a mass demonstration here, that by its size, by its multiracial character, by the strength of its numbers and who it represents will make it clear to the Ku Klux Klan that it doesn’t want to show its face. That’s what we mean by stopping the Klan. This has happened before, and it will happen again here in New York. We do not want any confrontations with the police, and we don’t want any impotent, liberal wailing over how bad the Klan is. We want a show of force by the working people of this city, by immigrants, by minorities that makes it clear that the Klan is not welcome, that the Klan will be stopped.

It is one thing to say that it would be great if numbers and unity scared the Klan into retreating. It is another to not even deal with the obvious: that the KKK would be heavily protected by the police, and would only be “stopped” by a fighting effort that would have to defend itself against the cops. Here’s what our leaflet said on the subject:

As they have done in the past, the cops will aim to keep us under their control and far from the fascists whom they aim to protect. In city after city, every time the fascists rear their ugly heads, the cops are there with their guns and batons turned against us….

The misleadership of today’s anti-Klan rally … can’t be allowed to hand over the rally site to the Klan. A confrontation between the working class and oppressed on one side and the police and the Klan on the other is the last thing they want. Yet it is absolutely necessary. It can only happen by convincing the ranks of both anti-Klan rallies.

Many of the anti-Klan protesters arrived at the rally with no clear intention of trying to smash the Klan. Nevertheless, our agitation and our leaflet in favor of doing this received a warm reception. More importantly, the appearance of the Klan enraged the crowd and made clear to many protesters what they hadn’t recognized before: that they wanted to smash the Klan!

Opportunity for Left Leadership

Intent on protecting the Klan and making a show of force themselves, the NYPD divided the crowd into several sections with concrete barriers and plenty of cops between them to prevent any united militant action. The closest section was kept 50 yards away from the Klan location by a wall of police. This physical constriction made the crowd even angrier. When LRPers initiated the chant “Cops and Klan Go Hand in Hand” in the front section, it was taken up by almost everyone in our vicinity. Others led this and similar chants in other sections.

We joined with others in demanding that the platform speakers defend the protesters against the police tactics. Even those who hadn’t lent much of an ear to the liberal speeches could see for themselves that the Democrats on the podium had no problem with the cops’ set-up. It would have been far more embarrassing for “militants” like Sharpton or Rivera to have to choose between the cops and the crowd. No wonder these two “leaders” never showed their faces!

When the Klan members appeared, protestors continually tried to surge forward, ignoring the podium and chanting “Smash the Klan!"—far louder than the politicians’ speeches, sound system and all. The Dems and friends ignored the will of their audience and went on with one sappy speech after another. Throughout several struggles with the police right under their nose, the liberals on stage ignored the conflict and rambled on.

October 23 provided a great opportunity for the self-proclaimed revolutionary groups to demonstrate their alternative leadership in action. Even though communists are not widely popular in the U.S. in these times, this was a specific situation where the vacuous efforts by the pro-capitalist liberals left the leadership of the anti-Klan crowd wide open. Despite their best efforts to control the demonstration, the liberals were facing an angry, spirited crowd looking, quite literally, for a way to get at the Klan and who ignored the podium once the Klan arrived. It was the massive police presence alone that was saving the Klansmen’s hides, and everyone there could see that. But in the end, most of the left organizations with the size to affect the day’s action distinguished themselves only by doing harm to the struggle.

The principled course of action would have been to prepare in advance and consistently campaign for the unity of all interested groups and forces in action against the Klan. Had the left from the start counterposed an action policy to stop the Klan, against the liberals’ reliance on the cops to keep order, they would have had a widely popular issue and the numbers to lead the whole crowd in a successful action. But a united effort was ruled out from the start, due to the typical combination of sectarianism and opportunism that characterizes the centrist left.

Fake Socialist Speech

The International Socialist Organization (ISO) was a chief culprit. They played a leading role in the main rally at Foley Square. They had capitulated to the liberals from day one, endorsing and working uncritically inside the Democratic-led coalition that stood for allowing the Klan to rally, and they had used slogans in their material similar to the liberals’. When they got to the demo, they behaved as if they were on their own planet. Their contingent mostly gathered in circles and preached to their own choir about how bad the Klan was, how the Klan wanted to scapegoat Blacks, Latinos, gays and so forth. Well, who there thought differently? Their phony pep rallies featured lame and non-confrontational slogans like “KKK, Go Away, Anti-Racists Here to Stay.” This wasn’t just cheerleading, it was really bad cheerleading.

The LRP and others had tried to get ISOers to join us in chanting to break down the barriers between sections from early on. At a critical juncture, when the protesters’ demand to remove the internal barricades and unite the demo was at its peak, with chants of “Open the Gates!” and “One Demo!” ringing throughout the crowd in both sections, an ISO speaker on the stage, Johanna Fernandez, actually had the microphone in her hands. With an opportunity to lead the crowd by agitating for a united demo, she ignored the demands of the demonstrators (including a few of her own comrades, who were joining the calls to cut the crap and unite the demo!)—and also failed to criticize her fellow bigshots on the platform with her for their role. Instead, we were treated to a vague and abstract speech for socialism.

The practical, activist-minded ISO, extremely capable of submerging discussion of socialism when it suits them, this time used a “socialist” speech to avoid action. Giving the lead the protesters wanted would have meant openly challenging the Democrats and cops.

The Spartacist Sideshow

While the behavior of the ISO was scandalous, it wasn’t anything new for them. It was the Spartacist League and its Partisan Defense Committee (PDC) that betrayed the anti-Klan forces in the most stunning way, given the large effort they had put into organizing against the Klan and the even larger claims they made about their intentions and their role. The PDC took a militant posture, saying that it stood for confronting the Klan with the largest possible “labor/Black mobilization.” It also claimed to be carrying out an authentically Trotskyist “united front” policy. For these reasons, their work deserves some detailed attention.

Originally the Klan had applied for a permit from the city for a rally at 100 Centre Street, the Criminal Court Building. The PDC immediately applied for a permit for a counter-demonstration at the same location. Then the Klan’s rally site was moved to 60 Centre Street, two blocks away, at Foley Square. Extensive newspaper and television advance coverage in New York gave notice the KKK, if it showed up at all, would be at Foley Square from 2 to 4 p.m. The Spartacists did make a major effort to leaflet campuses and workplaces about their rally, but clearly the Klan’s projected appearance drew thousands to the rival site.

While the Foley Square event led by the liberals attracted thousands, the PDC held its separate rally and drew about 400 to 500 people at peak; half of these were SL supporters, while most of the rest came from the organized left. There were delegations from Columbia and NYU, and a few local union officials who didn’t bring many members; the largest union contingent was about a dozen transit workers from Local 100’s New Directions opposition.

As in the main rally, the speakers droned on without giving a clue about what to do about the Klan—although here, in contrast, the speeches were verbally militant. Aside from the Spartacists and their front groups, few on the left were called on to speak. A few labor officials spoke; the only one of any significance was Charles Ensley, a leading DC 37 reformer and President of Social Workers Local 3171. Ensley said, “On behalf of the 58,000 of us I’ll commit to you that we will be in the struggle until victory is ours.” No Spartacist from the platform dared to challenge him about where the actual 58,000 workers were!

But the speeches were incidental. After 1 p.m., our comrades at the PDC rally found a great deal of sentiment for moving to the other site, where the action was likely to be; many people drifted there in small groups. The Spartacists excused the fact that their march was in the wrong place by claiming 1) that the cops, mayor, Democrats and Klan had evaded them by relocating the Klan; and 2) that the PDC rally would march to the Klan site when and if the Klan showed up.

However, at 1:30 p.m. PDC leader Gene Herson announced from the podium that “The Klan has not appeared; that’s a victory for us.” That was a bit premature, since the Klan was scheduled to arrive at 2 p.m. Thus they seriously disoriented protesters who counted on the PDC to lead a confrontation against the Klan. At 1:45 p.m., when the most militant section was chanting “Let’s march!"—meaning “let’s go over to where the Klan was"—the SLers at the podium responded with empty chants like “KKK, Not Today.” It was at this point that they put the one Democratic Party politician they had landed, District Leader Carmen Quinones. They didn’t criticize her politics from the podium any more than they had criticized the pro-Democratic labor hacks.

Throughout their sideshow, in fact, the PDC made no preparations to march to stop the Klan and failed to keep its audience informed of what was happening or what its plans were. In the end it was other left groups—above all the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), as well as the LRP and others—who led a split from the PDC rally and made the circuitous trip around police barricades to Foley Square and belatedly joined the much bigger crowd that had the possibility of confronting the Klan. The Spartacists were left talking mainly to themselves. Eventually they wandered over towards the Foley Square rally, but by that time they couldn’t get close enough to affect the action going on.

Progressive Labor

Besides the ISO and the Spartacists, who had excellent opportunities to offer leadership from their microphones and podiums, the only left organizations with sizeable forces were the Workers World Party and the Progressive Labor Party. The WWP made no attempt at distinguishing itself or giving leadership. The PLP, on the other hand, played an active role, not their customary sectarian game. A typical PL “intervention” is to hold a physically separate anti-Klan rally and ignore any other rally that is happening at the same time. This is what they did, for example, in response to the ISO-led anti-Nazi rally in Washington, D.C. last August.

First, PLP claimed credit for the three infiltrators who posed as Klan supporters to get into the KKK rally area, where they managed to rough up one of the Klan leaders before the cops dragged them away. That effort got a lot of attention in the next day’s press. PLP also attended the PDC rally and triggered the breakaway to the main rally. But they had not made an effort at the PDC rally to build support in advance for the move. More importantly, they hadn’t sent people to talk to the much larger numbers at Foley Square from the start. Once they did get there, the Klan was already halfway through their show. A few PLers did make some attempt to egg on the crowd to action.

PLP did a better job on October 23 than what we have seen before. A militant attitude is important in fighting the Klan and dealing with the police. But it is not enough. PLP as a rule opposes the notion of united actions against fascism; that they made even a partial intervention into the crowd at the PDC rally was unusual. And the problems with PL’s politics go far deeper. As we have explained, this Stalinist organization propagates a sectarian, un-Marxist and frankly nonsensical misunderstanding of fascism, in which Clinton, the National Organization for Women and the Teamsters union are all fascist! (See our article in PR 57.)

Failure to Fight for Unity

What could have been done to really stop the Klan? Both in advance and on October 23, the concrete problem facing revolutionaries was how to build an event that would be motivated and powerful enough—as well as in the right place!—to stop the Klan. This required winning the mass base of people away from the liberals: a problem of forging a united action between those who would turn out in response to the PDC efforts and the inevitably greater number who would turn out where the Klan actually was scheduled to be.

Concretely, it was necessary to warn that the Democrats would cooperate with the police in trying to prevent a confrontation between the anti-racists and the Klan; and to work ahead of time to forge a defense plan to meet that situation. One thing that the PDC could have done was to call for voluntary defense marshals who agreed with the idea of united action to meet in advance to form a coordinating body between the two demos. A plan for united action could well have retained the use of the Criminal Court Building area as a launching pad for a militant march to the main rally. Whatever the tactic, it was necessary above all to get the most militant and conscious forces to Foley Square in time to lead the crowd there.

Nothing of the sort was done by the PDC/SL. That was not because of a lack of cadre: the Spartacists brought many supporters into New York from other areas to build for the day. But they completely ignored the need to unify the participants in the two demonstrations. The PDC did intervene at one small meeting of the Ad-hoc Coalition, mainly to demand that the larger coalition endorse the PDC rally.

In an October 19th press statement the PDC described its one attempt at unity:

In his repugnant defense of the Ku Klux Klan, New York Civil Liberties Union head Norm Siegel is acting in collusion with the city administration and the KKK against the PDC and the many thousands of working people who intend to stop the Klan…. Gene Herson [the PDC’s labor coordinator] said at today’s press conference: “We want to make it clear that the Partisan Defense Committee-initiated demonstration is broad, it is open to anybody who agrees with the simple slogan ’All Out to Stop the KKK on October 23.’” Noting that the PDC had contacted Stringer on several occasions, Herson continued: “We want to see a coordinated mobilization here, however he has informed us that his protest is being coordinated by the lawyer for the Ku Klux Klan, NYCLU lawyer Norman Siegel.”

Herson’s excuse for the lack of unity made no sense. For one thing, Stringer and Siegel do not differ over the Klan’s right to free speech—Stringer wasn’t any less a candidate for unity because he was working with Siegel. In reality it would have made good sense to demand that Stringer, Sharpton, Rivera, Siegel et al endorse joint action—if only to prove that they would refuse and thus underscore the fact that the liberals were the barrier to unity. Second, the assertion that the PDC demo would be broad and open to everyone wasn’t the point. Stringer’s rally was also open to everyone who wanted to get in the Klan’s face. (In fact he misleadingly used the slogan “Stop The Klan in NYC!") Wouldn’t people who wanted to stop the Klan show up there despite the “free speech” garbage? Of course.

Further, as in this press release, the PDC repeatedly baited Sharpton, Stringer and Siegel for being in collusion with Giuliani and the Klan. This line was false and foolishly ineffective. Who would buy the line that Sharpton & Co., for all their rotten bourgeois politics, were pro-Giuliani—much less pro-Klan? In the same spirit, on the day of the rally, several PDCers were at Foley Square to try to convince protesters that the rally they were at was “pro-Klan"—the real anti-Klan action was two blocks away!

Political Split Only at the Top

Another way the SL avoided the task of building unity was to pretend that the PDC rally already had the masses behind it. In an October 17 press release, PDC lawyer Rachel Wolkenstein asserted:

Unions and union officials representing hundreds of thousands of workers in this city—including the Social Service Employees, Transport Workers and Local 1199 hospital workers, DC 37 and other AFSCME city workers—have endorsed the call for a massive labor/black mobilization to stop the Klan. Black, Hispanic and other community organizations have come on board as well as campus student governments and other student and youth groups. Organizing efforts on the streets have met with a resounding response from thousands of people in neighborhoods across the city.

If that were really true, why would anyone have to worry about a piddling liberal event at Foley Square?

In order to justify their own sectarianism, the SL/PDC had argued that there was a political division between the two rallies—only the PDC rally was for action to stop the Klan. But this was a lie. The real political division existed only on the top; the PDC leaders and the liberal politicians did have different political programs. But demonstrators at both rallies did want to stop the Klan, exactly why an appropriate united front tactic was sorely needed. The PDC should have been preparing their followers to send all forces into the main demonstration in order to combat the liberals’ misleadership and galvanize the whole crowd to confront the Klan.

The Spartacists, however, destroyed any notion of united action. They carried out a purposeful disinformation campaign. For the sake of boosting their own rally and tooting their own horn (see Workers Vanguard’s Fabrications), they ended up building a sectarian barrier to united action.

The Way Forward

The demonstration exposed the Democratic Party pols who regularly hoist themselves to the front of protests. Their position on October 23 was not just a mistake about how to fight the Klan. It was an expression of their overall program, which is not to fight against the capitalist system and its myriad forms of oppression, but rather to run the system by trying to soften its cruelty and maintain social peace. Their defense of the Klan’s rights, even though they lent their voices to an anti-Klan protest, expresses their program of opposing capitalism’s worst injustices—but above all opposing any struggle that might threaten the system. In the same way, they restrain the fight against police brutality and all other mass struggles. Their leadership can only disarm the masses in the face of growing attacks, serve as a safety valve for their anger and provide our oppressors with the opportunity to prepare ever greater attacks.

On the left, the ISO distinguished itself by doing the most energetically opportunist cheerleading for the Democratic Party line; while the Spartacists divided the action on the basis of lies. In the aftermath, the ISO, SL, PL, WWP and other groups all sang in unison, hailing the outcome as a substantial and unqualified victory. As we have noted, there were extremely positive aspects to the crowd’s participation that day. But the left ignores the fact that the rally failed to achieve its potential of smashing the Klan. They avoid the hard truth that the Klan rally would have been more powerful had Giuliani not succeeded in limiting it. Indeed, they completely ignore the fact that Giuliani and his courts and cops succeeded in showing all “who’s the boss” by successfully attacking both the Klan and the anti-Klan rally.

As for our own organization, we fought for a united mass struggle and distributed several thousand leaflets that were very well received; we participated in both demonstrations, particularly in the mass effort at the barricades, and agitated whenever possible to stop the Klan. At the PDC rally, we were misled by the Spartacists’ assurances that they were out to stop the Klan and that the Klan wasn’t showing. We didn’t realize until too late that the PDC had no intention of marching en masse over to Foley Square.

But overall, our tactical approach was correct. Our problem was that we did not have the size to decisively influence the event. From this experience the LRP has re-confirmed our need to vigorously make every effort to expand our numbers. We need to build an authentic revolutionary party leadership for such struggles in the future. Join us!

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