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.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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