Louisville Courier Journal
Published 6:54 p.m. UTC Sep 2, 2018
MADISON, Ind.— A Ku Klux Klan "kookout" at a park along the Ohio River Saturday drew hundreds of protesters carrying signs, giving speeches and heckling the Klan members themselves.
The roughly 300 protesters who vastly outnumbered 20 or so people attending the two-hour KKK event in Jaycee Park appeared split on how best to counter the racist group. One element spoke about the need to fight darkness and hate with light, before turning their backs and marching to a separate park.
"There's no place for hatred in this community," said Hanover College student Nick Vaughn, who called for peace, love and understanding, as well as a "tactful" approach.
But others faced the "kookout" head-on, hurling insults and chants from across a barrier — at times riling up some KKK members, through the small group largely seemed disinterested in engaging with protesters beyond chanting "white power" in response.
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Though Madison has drawn similar rallies in the past, this was the first such event for the Southern Indiana community since a white power rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year left a counter-protester dead and made international headlines. A heavy police presence on Saturday and the closure of a street bordering the river reflected concern about safety in Madison.
"We may not agree with the message, but people — all people — have a right to protest," said Jefferson County Sheriff John Wallace.
More than 30 officers from his department, Indiana State Police, Madison Police and the Indiana Conservation Office monitored the scene on Saturday.
The officers looked on, but took no significant action, as some protesters and KKK members came face-to-face from across a fence, yelling curses and shouting at one another but avoiding physical contact.
The event was an effort for the Honorable Sacred Knights, a KKK chapter that claims members in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, to spread its message and drum up new members.
In that, the group's leader said he saw success. About eight newcomers joined 13 members, many of whom wore bandannas, hats and sunglasses to conceal their faces but donned vests with KKK symbols, for soda and hot dogs under a picnic shelter.
In order to access the picnic space, people were asked to express support for KKK ideology, which self-identified Imperial Wizard Derek Noble called an effort for people to keep themselves safe.
"I'm not going to let the ones that are screaming obscenities come over here to set here and break bread with us," Noble said. "... We don't care about the protesters. We're just peacefully sitting at a public park. ... Changing their minds is as impossible as changing our minds."
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The protest was blown out of proportion, Noble said, as the event wasn't intended to be a publicity stunt. News that the KKK had reserved the shelter had spread across social media along with a photo of the KKK "kookout" flier, which Noble said wasn't intended to spark a protest.
At about 3 p.m., Klan members packed up their flags — one American flag, one reading "Don't tread on me" and one bearing the KKK insignia — and departed the park. Police formed a line to prevent protesters from swarming cars as the "kookout" attendees dispersed.
The Ku Klux Klan has appeared in Madison a few times in recent years, though past events were held by different chapters, Noble said. When asked why Madison was chosen as the location, he cited the town's drug problems, which he blamed on minority groups. Plus, he added, the town about 50 miles northeast of Louisville is a central meeting spot for several members.
Madison Mayor Damon Welch couldn't be reached for comment Saturday, but city officials previously said they were developing a plan to avoid injuries.
"Our goal is to make sure everybody's safe, has the ability to speak with what they want to say and that all of our other events won't be impacted," said Andrew Forrester, Madison's community relations director.
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The park near the Ohio River Bridge is just blocks away from the town's historic downtown business district, where one sign read, "Help me not despise or oppose what I don't understand," in an apparent reference to the Klan.
The Rev. Forrest Gilmore, a protester who traveled to Madison with about a dozen others from Bloomington, Indiana, said it was worth the two-hour trek to stand up to white supremacy and racism.
"It's an important statement: the ideology is un-American, it's un-Christian," Gilmore said, clutching a sign that read, "God loves everyone (but is really mad at RACISTS!!)"
Meanwhile, Albert Running Wolf Ortiz, co-chairman an American Indian Movement chapter that includes members in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, called for protesters to pray for the KKK members, adding that "peace is what we want."
And Tony Davis, an Indianapolis resident, made several attempts to engage one of the more outspoken KKK members in conversation. He and a man who identified himself as Jack Noble, a "nighthawk" security monitor with the Honorable Sacred Knights, spoke briefly and shook hands.
Davis said he doesn't agree with the KKK's message and said the group has a "fragmented understanding" of history, but it is important to try a civilized approach.
Changing their minds won't happen through yelling, he added.
"If we keep this up, all we do is stay divided. We're never going to solve the issues out here," Davis said. "...We're so divided, and that's why we can't get past this hate and (make) progress. Real progress."
Follow on Darcy Costello on Twitter: @dctello.