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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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism