In which a black man hires a member of the KKK as his lawyer

Tabatha Leggett speaks to Willie Brown, of Harrison, Arkansas, who did just that.

It’s 2008 and Willie Brown, a retired police officer from California, is moving to Harrison, Arkansas. As he unpacks boxes into his new home, he notices some damage to the house’s interior. A few days later, he mentions the problem to a neighbour, who advises him to hire a lawyer. That evening, Willie leafs through the phone book and finds the number of a local attorney: Jason Robb. Willie and Jason set up a meeting, discuss Willie’s problem and decide that the project is too big for Jason to take on right now. Jason politely refers Willie to one of his colleagues, who promptly sorts out the issue.

A year later, Willie’s neighbour mentions that the Knights Party, the most prominent branch of the Klu Klux Klan, is based in Zinc, a small town just north of Harrison. Willie looks it up. He learns that the Klan is a large, racist organisation famed for advocating white supremacy, white nationalism and anti-immigration, traditionally through terrorism. He also finds out that the Klan’s leader is called Thomas Robb. The name "Robb" rings a bell. Willie remembers Jason, the attorney he met last year. Further research confirms that Jason is Thomas’s son, as well as an active Klan member and the group’s lawyer.

Oh, I forgot to mention: Willie is black.

So what was it like to meet Jason, one of the most powerful men within one of America’s biggest hate groups? “I went into his office,” Willie says, “I sat down and filled out the necessary paperwork. He wasn’t nasty and he didn’t refuse to speak to me; I would never have known he was a Klan member.”

But didn't Willie feel uncomfortable when he later found out about Jason’s involvement with the Klan? No. “If you’re good at what you do, what does it matter?” he insists.

What’s more, Willie wouldn’t think twice about hiring Jason again. “If I had a legal issue and he was the best attorney around, of course I’d hire him. He never told me he doesn’t like blacks.”

But he actively hates blacks, I reply, determined to stir Willie's nonchalance.

“If he doesn’t like blacks, that’s on him,” Willie says. “But I’m not going to go in there, harass him and not hire him because I’m black. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. If you know someone has a racial bias, why would you want to agitate that person? I’m not a troublemaker. As long as you don’t assault me, I couldn’t care less. You’re entitled to speak your opinion. That’s your right.

“I have a friend who hates Israel. Does that make me feel uncomfortable? No. I know blacks who hate whites. Does that make me feel uncomfortable? No. It’s their issue, not mine.”

The Klan’s headquarters consist of a few buildings and a chapel on a farm in Zinc. It’s a 13-mile drive from Harrison. Although the Klan has never caused any trouble in Harrison, their mayor, Jeff Crockett, has previously spoken about the Klan’s proximity to his town having a negative effect on its economy. A Google search of Harrison brings up countless results related to the Klan, which naturally deters people from travelling there. However, Willie insists that although the Klan’s members often visit Harrison, they never cause any trouble. “There’s no robe or hood wearing here,” he explains. “Anyone could be a Klan member; there’s no way you can tell.”

I can’t help but wonder whether Harrison is a safe place to live. Although the Klan’s membership has rapidly declined in recent years – due partially to their incompetent Internet use – the group has a longstanding history of violence. In the last sixty years they’ve bombed the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People; shot, lynched, firebombed and assassinated countless black people; bombed Baptist churches; and massacred Communist Workers’ parties.

But Willie insists that things have changed. “The Klan has been sued a lot recently and they’ve lost a lot of property. They’re more underground now. It’s not the same as how it used to be because this country doesn’t allow that. Harrison is part of the United States, and the law’s not going to allow that kind of thing to happen. Fifty years ago, they got away with more. But they couldn’t do that now.”

In an effort to spread this message and prove that Harrison is a welcoming town, it hosted the Martin Luther Commission, a non-violent youth summit, last year. Although a lot of parents were sceptical about sending their children to Harrison, no incidents of racism were reported, and the summit served to demonstrate that the Klan’s members really don’t bother the people who live in Harrison.

In fact, Willie insists that, given the opportunity, he wouldn’t drive the Klan out of town. “Everyone has a right to live where they want,” he says. “Everyone has the right to speak freely.”

“I don’t have to listen to what they have to say, but they’re entitled to say it.”

Downtown Harrison, Arkansas. Photograph via WikiCommons

Tabatha Leggett is a freelance journalist who has been published in GQ and VICE and on the London Review of Books blog and Buzzfeed.com.

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Is it OK to punch a Nazi?

There are moral and practical reasons why using force to stop a far-right march is justified.

It says a great deal about Donald Trump that for the second time under his Presidency we are having to ask the question: is it OK to punch a Nazi?

More specifically, after the events in Charlottesville last weekend, we must ask: is it OK to turn up to a legal march, by permit-possessing white supremacists, and physically stop that march from taking place through the use of force if necessary?

The US president has been widely criticised for indicating that he thought the assortment of anti-semites, KKK members and self-professed Nazis were no worse than the anti-fascist counter demonstrators. So for him, the answer is presumably no, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi in this situation.

For others such as Melanie Phillips in the Times, or Telegraph writer Martin Daubney, the left have seemingly become the real fascists.

The argument goes that both sides are extremists and thus both must be condemned equally for violence (skipping over the fact that one of the counter-protesters was killed by a member of the far right, who drove his car into a crowd).

This argument – by focusing on the ideologies of the two groups – distracts from the more relevant issue of why both sides were in Charlottesville in the first place.

The Nazis and white supremacists were marching there because they hate minorities and want them to be oppressed, deported or worse. That is not just a democratic expression of opinion. Its intent is to suppress the ability of others to live their lives and express themselves, and to encourage violence and intimidation.

The counter-protesters were there to oppose and disrupt that march in defence of those minorities. Yes, some may have held extreme left-wing views, but they were in Charlottesville to stop the far-right trying to impose its ideology on others, not impose their own.

So far, the two sides are not equally culpable.

Beyond the ethical debate, there is also the fundamental question of whether it is simply counterproductive to use physical force against a far-right march.

The protesters could, of course, have all just held their banners and chanted back. They could also have laid down in front of the march and dared the “Unite the Right” march to walk over or around them.

Instead the anti-fascists kicked, maced and punched back. That was what allowed Trump to even think of making his attempt to blame both sides at Charlottesville.

On a pragmatic level, there is plenty of evidence from history to suggest that non-violent protest has had a greater impact. From Gandhi in to the fall of the Berlin Wall, non-violence has often been the most effective tool of political movements fighting oppression, achieving political goals and forcing change.

But the success of those protests was largely built on their ability to embarrass the governments they were arrayed against. For democratic states in particular, non-violent protest can be effective because the government risks its legitimacy if it is seen violently attacking people peacefully expressing a democratic opinion.

Unfortunately, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to embarrass a Nazi. They don't have legitimacy to lose. In fact they gain legitimacy by marching unopposed, as if their swastikas and burning crosses were just another example of political free expression.

By contrast, the far right do find being physically attacked embarrassing. Their movement is based on the glorification of victory, of white supremacy, of masculine and racial superiority, and scenes of white supremacists looking anything but superior undermines their claims.

And when it comes to Nazis marching on the streets, the lessons from history show that physically opposing them has worked. The most famous example is the Battle of Cable Street in London, in which a march by thousands of Hitler-era Nazis was stopped parading through East End by a coalition of its Jewish Community, dockworkers, other assorted locals, trade unionists and Communists.

There was also the Battle of Lewisham in the late 70s when anti-fascist protesters took on the National Front. Both these battles, and that’s what they were, helped neuter burgeoning movements of fascist, racist far right thugs who hated minorities.

None of this is to say that punching a Nazi is always either right, or indeed a good idea. The last time this debate came up was during Trump’s inauguration when "Alt Right" leader Richard Spencer was punched while giving a TV interview. Despite the many, many entertaining memes made from the footage, what casual viewers saw was a reasonable-looking man being hit unawares. He could claim to be a victim.

Charlottesville was different. When 1,000 Nazis come marching through a town trying to impose their vision of the world on it and everywhere else, they don't have any claim to be victims.