Ann Arbor City Hall, May 9, 1998
On May 9, 1998, I served as a
volunteer peacekeeper at Ann Arbor city hall, to help separate the KKK
from their violent opponents. The Klan comes to Ann Arbor for a "rally"
almost every spring, and sometimes a big riot erupts with injuries,
arrests, and property damage. This year, there was a widespread consensus
that the community shouldn't just sit back and let it happen.
I got the peacekeeper training a couple of weeks ago, so in theory I was
ready for anything on Saturday. There were over 100 of us, all decked out
in bright yellow PEACE TEAM t-shirts with a quote from MLK on the front.
There were men and women from their 20s to their 60s, including at least a
dozen local clergy of all stripes. The main thing we had in common was
the determination that we didn't want Ann Arbor to once again be the stage
for a huge riot that would give violent groups the national publicity they
The police (who were working with us) would keep the KKK safely cooped up
under the city hall overhang, so we mainly had to deal with the
Revolutionary Workers League (acting here under the name NWROC), whose
stated goal was to "shut down the Klan by any means necessary." Their
leaders seemed determined to start a riot while they themselves
would hang back and let their supporters be bashed over the head by
We walked around, watching for trouble and trying to keep everyone calm.
The moment of truth arrived when the angry NWROC-led crowd of some 300
started to tear down the temporary 8-foot-tall chain link fence that
surrounded the front of city hall and kept them away from the Klan -- and
300 riot police.
Dozens of peackeepers, including myself, struggled to hold up the fence
and keep the crowd from breaking through -- an event that police had
warned us would lead them to take drastic action.
It was a regular tug-of-war, with the militant crowd members (wearing
masks ironically in the KKK tradition of safely anonymous mob violence)
kicked at our hands and groins and yelled insults at us to try to weaken
our grip on the failing fence, knowing that we would not hit them back.
They were every bit as bitter and hateful as the KKK. The leaders egged
them on with bullhorns, and the crowd was very strong. We were
outnumbered and scared, but determined, and held them off for ten long
minutes before just a couple of police pushed them back with pepper spray.
I have never seen a dense crowd disperse so quickly.
Right then, we saw there was a line of riot police, standing perfectly
still, with helmets and plexiglass shields and nightsticks and gas masks,
only about 10 feet behind us, an indication of what would happen if we
failed and the crowd breached the fence and surged through.
What's wrong with this picture? Behind us were dozens of heavily armed
police, nominally on our side, but poised and ready at a moment's notice
to inflict casualties on everyone in sight. In front of us was a hostile
crowd, armed with rocks and bottles and sticks and rage. We were just a
few mostly middle-aged men and women with bright yellow t-shirts printed
with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. Whose idea was this anyway?
But then the crowd came back to the fence and the tug-of-war happened all
The little burst of pepper spray was like the bell that sounds at the end
of a round of boxing. The crowd instantly melted away; we in the yellow
shirts stood there, staggering, exhausted, but feeling an amazing common
bond. I was right between a conservative Disciples of Christ minister and
a radical Catholic priest; we had been holding the fence shoulder to
shoulder, and at that moment they were about my favorite people on the
Later on, though I didn't see it, a smaller section of the crowd broke
through a small fence that blocked a stairway up to the promenade in back
of city hall, and broke a few windows up there. Tear gas was used. After
that, the Klan went away, and tension gradually subsided.
But all told, property damage was minimal, injuries were minor, and no
arrests were made. City officials and police declared victory and
credited the peace team with preventing a riot. The peace team
coordinators declared victory and praised the police for being restrained.
The Klan declared victory because they had held their rally right in the
middle of Ann Arbor. NWROC declared victory because the KKK spoke for one
hour instead of two; they called the peacekeepers "despicable."
The Ann Arbor News headline was "Planning Pays Off", with smaller
headlines about how happy people were about the relative lack of violence
and the key role the peacekeepers played.
And, right on the front page, above and across the fold, they ran a huge
photo of my unidentified back, emblazoned with PEACE TEAM, while a masked
fellow in spiked hair is about to punch me.
I'm okay, I just got some sunburn, some cuts and scratches on my
hands, and a broken watchband. Fortunately, my wife was at the peaceful
anti-Klan rally some blocks away, and didn't witness any of this.