The permit said 100 Ku Klux Klan members in hoods would be standing outside the gates of Augusta State University between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Oct. 23 to protest the faculty’s alleged embrace of LGBT issues. Instead, one dozen bedraggled-looking men in fatigues marched onto the lawn, shouted for about a half hour and left, leaving over 200 counter-protesters wondering what all the fuss had been about.
“I wish it had been a bit more constructive, but then I suppose rallies like these never really are,” said Proud Ally member and counter-protester Maleeha Ahmed. “I think we stood our ground and they stood their ground, but when they saw our numbers they realized they wouldn’t be able to make their point, so they just turned around and went home.”
Christin Meador, the New York-based founder of Proud Ally, collaborated with Get Equal and the Queer Justice League of Atlanta to assemble the sizable counter-protest. Supporters of the gay community in Augusta waved signs at passing vehicles, likely drawing more notice than those originating the rally.
“I got wind of this story because Augusta is my hometown,” said Meador. “I just felt that a rally like this couldn’t go unchecked, so I called [the police] to ask if we could protest. The support has been really amazing because I didn’t expect this many people to turn out.”
The Klan protest targeted the university’s decision that counseling student Jennifer Keeton must undergo a remediation program to learn more about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people after she told professors and students she believed homosexuality to be immoral and allegedly said she would counsel clients against being gay. Keeton sued the school in federal court; a judge has refused to block ASU from expelling her if she does not fulfill the plan while the case proceeds.
“We are not here for Jennifer Keeton,” shouted a Klan leader who identified himself as David Webster, Imperial Klaliff. “We are here for the Constitution of the United States that this country was founded on, and which we believe is being violated by the actions of Augusta State University. Why should any institution be allowed to enforce their ethics on anybody?”
No one in the KKK has been in contact with Keeton, who herself condemned the Klan’s actions and did not attend the event. Other protesters, however, believe there are deeper issues at stake.
“If we don’t stand up for human rights and the ability to be who we are, then that is a sad statement for the civil liberties of everyone in this country,” said Betty Couvertier, whose radio show “Alternative Perspectives” airs Tuesdays in Atlanta at 7 p.m. on WRFG 89.3 FM. “These are people who want to tell us that we shouldn’t be allowed to be ourselves, and that we’re wrong for trying. But I’ve been doing this for 62 years of life and I know I am not wrong as a person. Homosexuality is not a choice, and it’s not something they can take away from me.”
Students urged not to protest
While officially neutral in the standoff, the school did block off the main gate during the rally and close the front traffic circle to all but emergency vehicles. At least a dozen police offers were also brought in to ensure traffic flow and that the rally didn’t turn violent.
“Because the event is being held on city property, we’re supporting the county by making the event as safe to the public as possible,” said ASU Director of Public Safety Jasper Cooke, who then added, “I think most of these people showed up because they said there were going to be 100 of them and they were going to be robed.”
Richmond County Sheriff’s Lt. Scott Gay met privately with members of the KKK to discuss safety considerations before the event. “We are not condoning it one way or another,” he said.
An e-mail sent out to all students the day before the rally discouraged protesters from taking part in the rally.
“These kinds of events rarely happen, but now that it is scheduled to occur near our campus, we the students must abstain from taking action or drawing attention to the event,” wrote student body president Barinaadaa Kara. “This event has the potential of great damage, and as the student body president it is my duty to advocate the safety and welfare of the students. On behalf of the student body, Student Government Association and myself, I ask that all students refrain from coming on or near campus or formulating any action against the KKK rally.”
Clearly, not everyone agreed.
“I think the student body as a whole was wrong not to turn out in greater numbers to support their university,” said ASU student and protester John Greene. “The Klan was clearly in the minority here. Their message is antiquated and out of touch and just not relevant, and despite what they said I think their bigotry was revealed in the symbols they chose to march with.”
The rally stayed respectful and the Klan left after less than a half hour with a final “white power” salute, leaving the jeering crowd still asking questions about their motives.
“It would have been more impressive to me if they had simply issued a formal statement about their values,” said Johanna Thibodeaux, who traveled to Augusta from Atlanta to see the rally. “Instead, we get 12 people and a little boy carrying racist flags, which didn’t seem at all appropriate or relevant to anything.”
Top photo: Counter protesters met the KKK at Augusta State University over the weekend (by Christopher Selmek)