Jordan Green confesses: he’s an ex-activist
The following is my statement to the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
I give it with some degree of trepidation. Reporters are not supposed to hold strong political commitments. In a time when our biases and ability to report fair are routinely called into question it might seem unwise to admit having an opinion about how the world should be.
But I did have strong political commitments in a long-ago time before I acquired an Ivy League master’s degree in journalism, a time in the last decade when I was a disenchanted college-educated carpenter with an idealistic fire in my heart for uniting working-class whites and people of color around the goal of tearing down the white power movement that my group saw as surging across the Midwest and South.
We generally did our best to shout down the Klan and Nazis when they held their demonstrations in small declining industrial towns. We jeered, mocked and drowned them out. If we had the chance, we would steal and burn their flags. We told ourselves we wouldn’t back down from a fight. Almost always the police so thoroughly outnumbered all of us that we couldn’t get within striking distance of each other.
We were the 1990s inheritors of the American anti-fascist movement that was joined by the Communist Workers Party in North Carolina in the late 1970s. We too shouted, ‘“Death to the Klan,’” because we wanted to eradicate their philosophy. The police who kept us apart from our white power adversaries were surely also shaped by the events of Nov. 3, 1979.
I can identify with Nelson Johnson and his circle of activists. I understand what it means to have the kind of bravado that lets you believe your righteousness and fearlessness will lead you to prevail over better trained and more heavily armed adversaries. When I look back on my days in the antifascist movement it’s easy for me to see how my naivetÃ© might have led to an indescribable loss. And if some of our group had been cut down by our Klan and Nazi foes I can easily imagine enduring the same kind of shunning experienced by the Communist Workers Party as they grieved for their slain husbands and friends.
We knew about the Greensboro massacre, and that was one reason we adopted a principle of defending anyone attacked by white supremacists regardless of their politics. We also did not trust the police, partly as a result of Greensboro.
One encounter with a Klan chapter from Indiana in 1999 seemed to have eerie shades of Greensboro 1979. We volunteered to provide ‘security’ for a play called ‘“Corpus Christi’” at a gay community center in Louisville, Ky. The play created a firestorm of controversy because it portrayed Jesus Christ returning to the world as a gay man in Corpus Christi, Texas. A local Catholic group denounced it. The Klan threatened to come shut it down.
Early in the evening we faced off against some conservative Christian picketers. We exchanged insults with a group of people who said they were on their way to a free Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. There were several police officers present to monitor the situation. Then the protesters left and the police withdrew all at once.
But soon, with dusk descending, we watched a pickup truck pull into a parking lot a block away. Klansmen and women dressed in militia uniforms marched down the sidewalk, four abreast. We formed a phalanx to block them. We matched them equally for numbers, but they had way more brawn. For some reason I still can’t fathom I volunteered for the front line. I had no weapons but my two fists, and I’ve only been in two fights in my life. I had no plan.
There was a tense standoff for several minutes, if I remember correctly, in which the Klan members said they had only come to demonstrate their First Amendment rights and we replied that they needed to leave. Then several police cars sped to the site with sirens screaming. One or two of our number were arrested for carrying shanks.
Like the survivors of the Greensboro massacre, we didn’t have a whole lot of allies. Many liberal critics considered us little more than an anti-racist gang fighting against an only slightly more despicable racist gang. They called us thugs, and maybe there was some truth in that.
We responded with what we believed was a quote from Adolf Hitler (I can’t verify that he actually said it): ‘“We could only have been stopped if your enemies crushed us on the streets from day one.’” Frankly, we believed that electoral democracy was a thin faÃ§ade that could easily be ripped away to reveal naked reactionary forces that would usher in a new period of racial subjugation, open attacks on gays and lesbians, a rollback of women’s rights and increased economic exploitation. No one else was being vigilant, so it was up to us.
I don’t quite know how to size up my experience as an anti-Klan activist.
In some respects, I find our attitude and tactics troubling. We did not believe white supremacists were entitled to the First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of assembly. Likewise, we could not understand why the police should spend taxpayer money protecting the Klan and Nazis’ right to spew their hatred, and inspire their followers to attack blacks, gays and other ‘un-pure’ groups.
Today, with my training in journalism and coursework on the law, I have become an ardent defender of the First Amendment and I chafe at the idea of suppressing other people’s free speech no matter how repugnant. The notion that the police should rely on their conscience to decide whose free speech to protect seems utterly naÃ¯ve and dangerous to me now.
When I was in my early twenties, I abided by a rule to refrain from speaking to any media person who gave equal time to the fascists. We wanted to completely deny them a platform for their ideology. The 30-year-old Jordan Green intent on chasing down a story would scorn the 20-year-old Jordan Green for upholding those rules.
I can’t necessarily say which one is right. The truth is that I’m a different person than I was then. An idealistic carpenter committed to the movement and a Columbia University-educated reporter with a professional sense of independence look at the world through different eyes.
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