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 craved.

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 police.

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 over again.

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 planet.

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.

Created and maintained by Lawrence Kestenbaum, polygon at potifos dot com
Written, May 12, 1998; slightly revised and posted, August 21, 2002