Mark Dubois
Mark Dubois ()

Donald Trump rarely tells the truth, but he was correct when he said the Ku Klux Klan and its foes have been battling each other long before he became president. During the early years of the Klan’s “Second Era” after World War I and until the 1930s, Connecticut was a surprisingly active venue for Klan activity. Connecticut membership during that era peaked at somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000.

One historian estimated that at its highest, Klan membership in Connecticut was at about 5 percent of all citizens, and up to 15 percent of native-born whites. Large rallies were held in Branford, Woodstock and Greenwich in the 1920s.

In the early 1980s, somewhat coincidental with the start of Ronald Reagan’s first term, there was an upsurge in Klan activity in Connecticut. There were sixteen Klan rallies between 1980 and 1984 at both public and private venues in Scotland, Meriden, Windham, Danbury, Norwich, Canterbury, New Britain, Stratford, Groton, Wallingford and West Haven. At one of the early Meriden rallies in 1981, anti-Klan protesters, who always outnumbered the Klan, threw rock and bottles, resulting in injuries and arrests. Afterward, municipal officials worked out a protocol on handling such events.

At the time, I was a young lawyer working in the law department of one of the cities where the Klan sought to hold a public gathering. I went to the superior court and sought an injunction giving us the right to impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on the meeting, including searching for weapons and maintaining a 1,500 foot distance between the pro and anti forces outside of the rally venue.

Dealing with the Klan was easy because it had an organized structure and named officials who could be served with process. Several leaders showed up for our injunction hearing. The antis, from what we could determine, were a mixed group of far lefties, anarchists and remnants of the Weather Underground who had cut their protest teeth on the Vietnam War. We couldn’t figure out which of them to serve, so we simply gave public notice that we’d be in court on a particular day and place seeking authority to impose restrictions on activity at the upcoming rally.

At the hearing, we showed the judge a video of the Meriden riot and presented testimony on both the risk and what we believed were appropriate restrictions designed to protect property, order and safety. We got our order.

The rally was permitted in a municipally owned football stadium with a high perimeter fence. Anyone wishing to enter had to submit to a search. Inside, pro and anti groups were to be assigned to different corners and kept apart. While the Klan came in and shouted at the others, the antis refused to enter the stadium. Later, the antis marched from the venue to City Hall. Several arrests were made, all of them counterprotesters. I believe that some of them were of marchers who had outstanding warrants for other activity. No one was injured and no property was damaged.

As the 1980s wore on, interest in Klan rallies waned. At the second New Britain rally, in 1984, the press outnumbered the Klan and the protesters by many multiples. In 1986, Judge Jose Cabranes of the Connecticut District Court entered an injunction prohibiting indiscriminate searches of Klan rally attendees. In his decision (Wilkinson v. Forst, 639 F.Supp. 518 (D. Conn. 1986), he noted:

“[The Court] cannot promise that not even a black eye or a bloody nose will ever occur at any future Klan rally held in Connecticut. Our system of ordered liberty cannot guarantee that the clash of views will never erupt into the clash of fists. It cannot guarantee that a person will never suffer physical or emotional harm as a result of another person’s exercise of his constitutionally protected freedoms. However, the choice of whether to impose restrictions before any unrest has occurred, or to take action only after the unrest has erupted, cannot always be left to the discretion of law-enforcement officials, regardless of their competence and their good faith. In some cases, as where the preventive measures would infringe an individual’s rights of privacy or expression, we must occasionally accept the risk of violence in order to preserve the fundamental liberties enshrined in our Constitution.”

Recent events remind us that the balancing of public order and private rights is never easy. My experience taught me that while prohibiting such events might be the easiest course to follow, careful planning and good legal and police work can help find the proper ratio.