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Posted on Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 5:58 a.m.

An unwelcome assignment: Protecting the KKK during an Ann Arbor rally

By Rich Kinsey


Then 18-year-old Keshia Thomas of Ann Arbor shields a man wearing a Confederate T-shirt from an angry crowd during a Ku Klux Klan rally on June 22, 1996, outside Ann Arbor's city hall. Thomas, who won national attention for her act, later said: “People don’t have to remember my name. I just want them to remember that I did the right thing."

photo by Mark William Brunner

It was a surreal moment burned in my memory. A chunk of concrete suspended in the air in front of the windshield of the van I was riding shotgun in. It was moving in slow motion from my right to left across the path of our van. Just before I saw it, I looked out of my gas mask at Slider, seat belted and driving the van, wearing his gas mask.

I was chuckling in my mind about how we must look like a couple of six-foot tall ants out for a drive. Then I remembered our trembling cargo had their heads between their knees trying to get lower than the windows on the van. They were not enjoying the comical appearance of their security detail after their fun Saturday outing turned ugly.

Our actions in those minutes would earn us a letters of thanks, praise and commendation from their group. That letter would later save the city from a lawsuit. My letter was hung prominently for several years with a thumbtack in the outhouse of my family's cabin, should the occasion arise and extra toilet paper ever be need.

We were not pleased with the assignment the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) drew that year for the Ku Klux Klan rally. We would be the Klan's security detail for the event. It was our job to get them in and out of town safely. We were professionals and knew we did not have to like the assignment; we just had to do it.


A man wearing a Confederate T-shirt runs from an angry crowd during a June 22, 1996, Ku Klux Klan rally that turned ugly outside Ann Arbor city hall.

Mark William Brunner photograph

The deputy chief, I call "the Big Kahuna" and I met with the Klan leaders just across the border in Indiana at a truck stop cafe. The Imperial Wizard, the boss bigot, who I had seen on video spreading his hateful foul-mouthed vitriol, was pleasantly waiting for us when we arrived.

He was well dressed in a powder blue, buttoned-down collared shirt; he was soft spoken and appeared friendly. Looks can be deceiving, and the Kahuna and I were not buying his outward demeanor. This guy was trouble and was going to cost the city a lot of grief upholding his right to free speech.

He smugly asserted that one way or the other his group would have its rally in Ann Arbor. He explained how other communities had tried to block their appearance and were later court-ordered to allow the KKK to rally. He bragged that his (anti-Semitic term here) lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union, would sue if Ann Arbor tried to block their appearance. He further informed us that it was our duty to protect him and his followers.

At the time, the mid-1990s, it was the common belief that what the Wiz said was correct. After consulting with the Michigan State Police, the Ann Arbor Police Department adapted the plans used for an earlier rally held in Lansing at the Capitol.

(In later years, a city boasting "Da Bears and Da Bulls" told the Klan they could have their rally and good luck — they would get the same police protection everyone else got. The Klan never made it far from their cars in the Windy City. That is why there are fewer rallies —at least that was the story I heard.)

We outlined our rules of their conduct while under our security. If they broke any of the rules while being escorted by officers the rally was over — period.

City Hall had yards of chain link fence installed as a buffer between the speakers and those protesting their appearance. Inside that perimeter fence were police officers dressed in "hats n' bats" or riot gear (helmet with faceshield, batons, and gas masks) for the officers' protection.

Being on the ground between two rival groups, I can tell you it is never fun but part of the job. Even though an officer may wish to be on one side or the other — when you are in uniform with a badge, you can have no opinion. Police officers must be disinterested third parties and prevent both sides from doing any harm to the other.

Having stood on those lines and dodged all sorts of projectiles thrown, I can tell you political opinions and beliefs matter not. The only thing that matters is keeping your brothers and sisters next to you safe, completing the job and neutralizing whatever threat you are confronted with.

Behind the faceshield, what bugged me was when the crowd chanted, "The cops and the Klan go hand in hand!" Inside you want to scream, "No! No! Don't you understand that is completely false? I'm here because it is my duty to protect all of you." Outwardly you stand, you say nothing and get ready to duck if necessary.

This year we were in plainclothes on the security detail. It was a warm spring day, and when we met the Klan at the Baker Road rest area, they were all dressed in sloppy T-shirts and jeans or cutoffs. It looked like they were going on a picnic as they joked, laughed and loaded into the vans rented by the city.

They talked among themselves and did not engage us in conversation. Except for the Wizard and his designee in the other van, none were to say a word to the officers on the detail. They would take their directions from officers, and any questions should be addressed though the Wiz to me.

They carried their robes and hoods on hangers in dry cleaner bags. They put them on when they got to City Hall. The youngest members — who were scared, acne afflicted teenagers — were in the front with shields. The Wiz spouted his words of hatred and was mostly drowned out by the crowd protesting. Then it happened!

A rock hurled from the corner of Fifth and Huron, "a one in a million shot," a lawyer later argued, hit the Wiz's wife on the noggin. There was blood everywhere.

The wild-eyed, terror-stricken rest of the Klan was evacuated to the vans, waiting in the police garage by their security detail. Smoke and teargas were deployed to cover the van's escape from City Hall. We got everyone out safely, and the Wiz and missus went to the hospital, sans bloody robes, via ambulance. The chunk of concrete never hit the van's windshield, but it was an interesting ride for a few blocks.

When the Klan picked up their heads inside the van, they clapped and thanked their saviors. Two of their four police saviors were African American.

Lock it up, don't leave it unattended, be aware and watch for your neighbors.

Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for He also serves as the Crime Stoppers coordinator for Washtenaw County.



Wed, Oct 10, 2012 : 4:16 a.m.

What a powerful photo.

Sam Smith

Sat, Mar 10, 2012 : noon

I hope and pray that Keisha Thomas and her family and loved ones are doing well!


Sat, Mar 10, 2012 : 6:54 a.m.

I propose (and believe) that the First Amendment right to "free speech" has nothing to do with speech INTENDED to create negative consequences. Since the KKK has always used speech intended to create negative consequences: they are using unprotected speech. I AMAZES ME that no one, not even judges, seem to grasp this BASIC fact about the law. So-called "hate speech" is just one kind of expression INTENDED to create harm. Protesting and fighting such speech IS constitutional. In fact, it's A DUTY of all government administrators and legislators AND citizens. Most likely explanation for this irrational and wasteful and counter-prodictive "free speech" misuse is: lawyers and police and judges are just doing the "make work" thing that makes government so onerous and costly. Sorry, Rich Kinsey, I think you're misguided - this time. It's time (past time!) we got this matter settled once and for all: ban speech intended to create negative consequences to the public or any group or any class of people. We MUST NEVER HAVE any level of government sending police or military forces to "protect" harmful speech: period.


Sun, Mar 11, 2012 : 8:30 p.m.

"no one, not even judges, seem to grasp this BASIC fact about the law." It AMAZES me that you are the ONLY one that has this interpretation! And how many years of law school did you have? I can't hear you!


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 10:22 p.m.

Here is another link to an organization that documented the legal battles the anti-Klan demonstrators faced after the 1998 KKK event in Ann Arbor: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 10:02 p.m.

Here are some links to coverage of both the 1996 an 1998 KKK events in Ann Arbor and their legal aftermath: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 10:27 p.m.

The CMU link should have been: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 6:28 p.m.

Ignore the Klan and the Nazis? Like Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler? How well did that work out?

rusty shackelford

Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 3:52 p.m.

Always interesting to me that cops seem to feel the need to &quot;protect&quot; demonstrations by violent fascists, whereas their default reaction to peaceful demonstrations by liberals or leftists is nearly always 'gas, beat, and arrest on false charges.'


Thu, Mar 15, 2012 : 8:24 p.m.

genetracy and jcj - rusty is saying that it ALREADY is the case that one group can protest while the other is silenced. He did not say or even imply that the KKK should not be allowed to protest; he is saying that &quot;liberals and leftists&quot; (ie. the Occupy movement) should receive the same protection as the KKK instead of being &quot;gassed, beaten, and arrested on false charges.&quot;


Sun, Mar 11, 2012 : 8:26 p.m.

rusty I find it hard to believe you can't see the logic in genetracy's comment. But then again maybe that fact is what justifies his comment!

rusty shackelford

Fri, Mar 9, 2012 : 7:52 p.m.

The sentiment behind your comment might be valid if it had any relation to my comment.


Fri, Mar 9, 2012 : 7:19 p.m.

Let's make a deal. The Klan will forever be banned from holding rallies and you will no longer allowed to post in any forum for the rest of your life. Sound ridiculous? Not any more so than you saying one group should be silenced while the rest of us can speak freely.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:52 p.m.

Thank you for this article. What must be remembered is the fact that there were 273 police personnel from various agencies protecting the Klan and taking photos of counter-demonstrators. The Klan hurled racial epithets and anti-Semitic slogans to incite the counter-demonstrators. After the rally the AAPD set up a command center to go thru photos and work up cases against the anti-Klan participants. Eventually the office of Prosecutor Brian Mackie issued 35 arrest warrants against anti-Klan counter-demonstrators; no Klansmen were arrested nor charged by Mackie. 21 persons were eventually arraigned. Criminal defense attorney George Washington defended the cases pro bono. He prosecutions ended up a disaster for Prosecutor Brian Mackie. After Judge Timothy Connors bound over all felony defendants for circuit court trial, rioting charges were dismissed and other felony charges resulted in jury acquittals. One felonious assault defendant was convicted and received a nine-month probationary term by Judge Shelton. Judge Connors' wife, Margaret Connors, prosecuted nine misdemeanor defendants for allegedly damaging a fence; these charges were dismissed by District Judge Ann Mattson. Mackie received a limited victory when rioting charges were reinstated by the Michigan Court of Appeals against some defendants, but Mackie entered into sweet plea deals &quot;under advisement&quot; that allowed the charges eventually to be dismissed against those defendants. Ultimately, only one conviction was had against the 35 anti-Klan demonstrators charged by Brian Mackie's office - no one was jailed. This was a vast waste of police and prosecutorial resources to target persons exercising their First Amendment rights. Larry Kestenbaum, now the Washtenaw County County Clerk, was a Peace Team volunteer member separating the Klan and anti-Klan people; he can tell you what it was like that turbulent day.


Fri, Mar 9, 2012 : 6:13 p.m.

@demistify: you absolutely nailed it!!... so sorry your previous response to this post was were mine elsewhere. moderators seem a tad erratically touchy on this thread despite having overall become a bit more savvy about these issues /personell locally . baby steps are better than crawling though!


Fri, Mar 9, 2012 : 3:54 p.m.

I get it! The Klansmen spoiling for a fight were the good guys. The militants throwing stones at them were the good guys. They were all heroes of the First Amendment. The only bad guys were the spoilsport lawmen. The world according to Roadman. And attorneys are laughingly called &quot;Officers of the Court&quot;.

Atticus F.

Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:25 p.m.

I still remember when that happened, I think that photo might have even been on the cover of Time Magazine. Such a powerful image, that woman standing up for a person who probably hated her for no logical reason. It still brings a tear ro my eye to look at it.


Fri, Mar 9, 2012 : 3:27 a.m.

Actually that guy had nothing to do with the rally. He was walking on the other side of the street and was attacked. What I remember best was a young guy with a box of donuts tossing them over the chain link fence to a real heavyset cop. The cop laughed and batted them away with his shield.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 3:02 p.m.

Agreed. A powerful photo.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:59 p.m.

It speaks volumes of the human spirit doesn't it?


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:08 p.m.

Kudos to you Rich...not an easy task my brother...

Homeland Conspiracy

Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 1:08 p.m.

Ban Rallys.....&quot;Think Of The Children&quot;


Fri, Mar 9, 2012 : 4:09 p.m.

Freedom of speech, Roadman? Rioting and incitement to riot were ruled not to be protected speech about a century ago. Stone throwing is not protected free speech in the US, although it is a favorite form of political expression in some other parts of the world.


Fri, Mar 9, 2012 : 4:02 p.m.

Peaceful assembly, Roadman? Apart from the woman in the photo, the only participants that showed any interest in keeping it peaceful were the lawmen.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 3 p.m.

The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and the right to peaceful assembly.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 1:03 p.m.

&quot;In later years, a city boasting "Da Bears and Da Bulls" told the Klan they could have their rally and good luck -- &quot; I hate Illinois Nazis.

Grey Man

Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 12:55 p.m.

Ignore the ignorant and they will go away. They have the right to speak, but not the right to be heard. If you don't show up, the protest fizzles.


Sun, Mar 11, 2012 : 8:21 p.m.

Ulysses &quot;pick &quot;liberal&quot; places like Ann Arbor where there are plenty of right-minded people who feel the need to stand up against them&quot; I thought liberals were left minded people!


Fri, Mar 9, 2012 : 12:56 a.m.

I took Grey Man's comment to mean, &quot;Ignore their protest&quot;, not &quot;Completely turn your back on the hateful actions of the KKK&quot;. Ignoring their rallies DOES work, from what I witnessed growing up in Livingston county in the 80s and 90s. Howell seemed to handle the events well. There was limited press about the upcoming Klan rally, and the town would plan a distracting, positive event on the other side of town while the rally took place. If I remember correctly, the KKK eventually stopped having the rallies there.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 5:22 p.m.

eyeheart? Hitler was a monster. We did try to ignore it. That is what started WWII. Japan bombs Pearl Harbor and the whole nightmare starts. You have good points. but I hate to say it, we tried to ignore him, they tried to ignore him but he pretty much got what he wanted and well, the rest as they say? Is history.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 5:15 p.m.

Lol I love idealistic comments like these. If only you could really ignore stuff and have it actually go away, like a school yard bully (temporarily of course). In reality, the KKK has been spewing hate forever in our nation protected by our government. They do these racist demonstrations to incite violent reactions from crowds, which is why they like to pick &quot;liberal&quot; places like Ann Arbor where there are plenty of right-minded people who feel the need to stand up against them. I do agree with you in part though, because the media promotion of the KKK rally was really a huge factor. There was a ton of build up to this led by the media which heavily contributed to people protesting and making the turnout huge. Sad that we have such racist and hateful people in our world.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 4:27 p.m.

If everyone would have ignored the Nazi's, they wouldn't have had a lot of people on their side. Regardless, the KKK does not now and in 1996 didn't have a lot of people on their side, so it would have been just as easily (in fact it would have been easier) to ignore them. It just takes a little restraint.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 3:21 p.m.

That's not true. The Nazis had enough people on their side to do a lot of damage. They couldn't be ignored.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:41 p.m.

&quot;ignore the ignorant and they will go away&quot;....uh huh! ( although there is that pesky reality problem , from the nazis to the the taliban to more local iterations of a counter nature, referred to above by me. A competing , and more valid, platitude is :&quot;all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to remain silent&quot;.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:14 p.m.

Truer words were never spoken. Can you imagine how stupid those buffoons would have looked standing there with the bullhorn behind the chain link fence and preaching to a crowd of exactly zero.

Greg M

Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 12:37 p.m.

Ah yes, I remember this rally. I was a freshly minted EMT working for HVA at the time. We were assigned duty based out of the fire station across the street. Once that first rock flew the crowd went nuts, and moved quickly around the fencing perimeter to try and get inside. That prompted officers to try and disburse the crowd with megaphones and eventually tear gas. When the tear gas was fired one protestor picked up a canister (maybe to try and throw it back?) only to realize it was extremely hot. As his hand started to burn he reflexively flung the canister away, and it rolled right into us in the fire station, putting a couple of ambulances and their crews out of commission for the rest of the event. My general recollection of the rally (as an 18 year old kid) was that the protestors came looking for a fight, which was just the reaction the KKK organizers wanted. If the protestors had instead ignored them, or had an alternate rally elsewhere in town, the KKK's hateful messages would have gone unheard.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 5:18 p.m.

I bet you can laugh at that canister rolling into the dept now, but not then. Wow. What a thing to have happen. Thanks for the giggles. I can just imagine.


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 2:57 p.m.

There was an alternate anti-Klan rally several blocks away that many attended. There was also the volunteer Peace Team organized that separated the Klan and anti-Klan factions.

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 12:17 p.m.

I don't remember the KKK rallies. But I certainly remember the Nazi rally's. In particular the 1982 rally at the Federal Building that turned ugly. I was there as my boss at the time took a few of us. (trust me we weren't there to, cheer them on.) I believe that 1982 Nazi rally may have been the one that spurred the idea of a chain link fence at city hall to buffer the crowd from the hatemongers.


Fri, Mar 9, 2012 : 5:39 p.m.

jns131: Please explain what your point is. And, despite laws against displays of Nazi symbols, Holocaust-denial, and other manifestations of Nazi bigotry, racism, and antisemitism, there appaers to be no shortage of manifestations of Hitler emulation in today's Germany. So, again, what is your point? Are you bothered by democratic Germany's anti-Nazi laws?


Thu, Mar 8, 2012 : 5:17 p.m.

In Germany? It is a felony to even mention the word Nazi or anything related. We have free speech, even though they do too? It is prohibited.