Orange County

Orange County sheriff plans to arrest KKK members who brought guns to Hillsborough rally

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office plans to arrest at least two Ku Klux Klan members on misdemeanor weapons charges after a Klan rally Saturday.

Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens said the local response to the rally was Saturday’s biggest story.

“Maybe 10 to 1, people dropped what they were doing — neighbors, shopkeepers, parents — just stopped and went to the courthouse to stand and be present and let the world know that the KKK, neo-Confederate, white supremacist message is just not going to be welcome here and it’s not part of our community,” Stevens said.

Efforts to reach leaders of Hillsborough Progressives Taking Action and the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, two groups that helped organize the community response, were unsuccessful.

However, the groups posted Tuesday that a March Against White Supremacy will be held from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31, beginning at the Old Slave Cemetery at West Margaret Lane and Occoneechee Street in Hillsborough. Spectrum News reported Tuesday afternoon that the KKK also plans to return to Hillsborough on Saturday but the group did not provide details.

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A Ku Klux Klan rally in Hillsborough, NC on Aug. 24, 2019 inspired the community to show up in protest. Tammy Grubb tgrubb@newsobserver.com

Deputies took photos at Saturday’s rally by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and their supporters at the Orange County Courthouse, Sheriff Charles Blackwood said. Investigators have been looking through the photos, and at least two arrests are pending, he said. One suspect lives in another county; the other lives out of state, he said.

A few Klan members wore white robes and pointed hoods. Two wore purple and green robes, which signify high-ranking members.

“They’ve done a remarkable job [identifying] these people without anything other than the photographs that we had, intelligence that we’ve gathered from other agencies, and vehicles that they were supposedly driving, some of them rental vehicles,” Blackwood said.

The rally started without advance notice around 6:30 p.m. and lasted under two hours. Community members, who recently created a network for mobilizing a rapid response to white supremacist and Confederate rallies and protests, outnumbered the roughly 20 Klan members and their supporters.

The Klan rally topped off a month in which a Hillsborough chocolate shop owner had received death threats over a sign outside his store that read, “Burn a Rebel Flag ... Get a Free Chocolate!” and a rally on Aug. 3 in support of the shop. An Aug. 10 rally brought about 50 people downtown to condemn racism and gun violence. A small group of Confederate flag supporters also has targeted the town several times over the last 15 months.

North Carolina Democratic Party leaders issued a statement Tuesday also highlighting the Klan’s use of President Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” on its banner.

The statement, from NCDP Chair Wayne Goodwin and NCDP Second Vice Chair and Hillsborough Town Commissioner Matt Hughes, noted Trump’s rally in Greenville last month during which he talked about Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and the crowd chanted “Send her back!” They also mentioned threatening, racist letters sent to several black Charlotte elected officials telling them to “go back to where you came from.”

”All North Carolinians deserve to feel safe and valued,” the men said. “Instead, the president is encouraging racist chants, inspiring people to pen death threats to black elected officials, and emboldening the KKK to threaten our cities and to rally behind his slogan in broad daylight — all here in North Carolina. Republican leaders, including the state Republican Party and Senator Tillis, must join us in forcefully rebuking the racism and hatred being spurred on by Donald Trump.”

Loyal White Knights

Carla Hill, a senior investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League, said it was fortunate Hillsborough’s rally was peaceful, since the opposing groups were not kept separate.

It also was good to see residents documenting the event because KKK groups try to control how their events are portrayed, she said.

In general, the Klan movement has been declining, Hill said.

“A lot of the old leaders that are very traditional Klansmen have passed, and so they don’t have any good leaders, anybody they really respect,” she said.

The Loyal White Knights are based in Pelham, N.C, which is in Caswell County near the Virginia state line.

It was one of the largest KKK groups five years ago when it had roughly 200 members, about 35 to 40 of whom took part in public activities, Hill said.

That was around the time the group started to embrace neo-Nazi beliefs and groups, like the National Socialist Movement, the ADL reported.

They and other Klan groups also sought to be part of the rise of the alt-right in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, Hill said. But the Klan has a different image than the alt-right desires, she said.

“The alt-right is young intellectuals, clean cut, no tattoos for the most part, and they have just a different take on the way forward, and that would not be marching around in a Klan robe,” Hill said.

The Pelham-based group also has lost members because of its founder’s firearm, assault and other charges in the last several years, Hill said. Chris Barker and his wife, Amanda Barker, founded the group in 2011.

Only about 12 people showed up for the other Loyal White Knights rally this year in Virginia, Hill said, although they still lead in the distribution of propaganda, with 28 of 39 incidents attributed to them this year. At least one Hillsborough resident reported finding a KKK flier in their yard on Saturday.

Free speech area

The town is looking at tweaking its permit requirements and possibly creating a free speech area, among other ideas, Stevens said. It will require balancing public safety and freedom of speech rights, he said, and the rules will have to be applied equally to everyone.

They also plan to talk about how firearms laws can be enforced and the Police Department’s role in that, he said. Stevens emphasized that town officials “have enormous trust in our Police Department.”

“The town has a commitment to integrity in government, to integrity in policing and to integrity in providing all services ... to people regardless of their personal beliefs,” Stevens said. “We would not want that to be construed that we in any way are supporting the message of people who are advocating racism, white nationalism, white supremacism and those kinds of messages in our community.”

Blackwood said he has talked with Police Chief Duane Hampton about the law enforcement response. In addition to several Hillsborough police officers, six deputies patrolled the area on foot and others were in their cars, Blackwood said. His deputies told him four times Saturday that they did not see guns at the event, he said, although they did get calls later.

Hampton responded to questions in a Sheriff’s Office news release Monday evening.

“Sheriff Blackwood and I have been in frequent communication since the event started,” Hampton said. “Both our agencies worked together, combining our resources to manage the situation and will take follow up steps as necessary.”

Jurisdiction, weapons questions

Blackwood noted some officers were confused about whose jurisdiction the rally was in, whether it was a planned event, and whether they could arrest people for carrying weapons or not. The courthouse sidewalk is town maintained and regulated by local police, but the courthouse and the grounds on which it sits are county property, which is the Sheriff’s Office’s jurisdiction.

The county prohibits guns — concealed or openly carried — in its buildings, including the courthouse, spokesman Todd McGee said. State law does allow concealed carry permit holders to take handguns onto county grounds, but it does not allowed any guns at demonstrations and protests.

The primary goal for law enforcement Saturday was making sure everyone remained safe, Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Jamison Sykes said. Most officers who did see weapons didn’t see them until the event was wrapping up, he said.

The Sheriff’s Office and Police Department will handle future situations as one agency to enhance understanding, Blackwood said. He stressed that the Sheriff’s Office is not protecting one group over another as some groups and individuals have suggested.

“The thought process that we’re not doing anything or that we’re somehow trying to assist somebody in violating the law is ludicrous,” Blackwood said. “There are a lot of moving parts, and we do have to be diligent in making sure we’re not just looking out for public safety but for everyone’s rights who’s involved.”

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