On June 22, 1996, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan converged on the city hall building in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Seventeen members had massed on the second-floor promenade, dressed in white hoods and with a permit from city officials allowing them to hold a rally. Led that day by Jeffery Berry, a National Imperial Wizard at that time, the rally was used, as always, to exercise the hate group’s right to free speech. What made the events of that day special, however, had little to do with the KKK and its message. Instead, the day stands out because of the actions of a protestor named Keshia Thomas.
According to People magazine: “In the street, meanwhile, 300 anti-Klan protesters were assembling, and one spotted a white male spectator wearing Confederate flags on his vest and T-shirt. Instantly, a swarm of angry-demonstrators rushed him, including an 18-year-old African-American named Keshia Thomas.
“‘I wanted to yell at him, ‘What did I ever do to you?’ Thomas says. ‘The next thing I know, this one guy hit him with a sign…. Then everybody else started beating him up.’ Appalled, Thomas, a high school senior from Ypsilanti, Mich., threw herself over the fallen man, shielding him from the kicks and punches. Soon, the unidentified victim, who police say is not a Klan member, was led to a squad car, lucky to escape with a bloody nose.
“Keshia noted after the incident. A bit surprised by all the attention she received, she said, ‘People don’t have to remember my name. I just want them to remember that I did the right thing.'”
The events of that rally were again brought to light last August from the perspective of Rich Kinsey, a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who blogs about crime and safety for AnnArbor.com. Kinsey recounted, in a post titled “An unwelcome assignment: Protecting the KKK during an Ann Arbor rally,” how the Special Investigations Unit that he worked with drew the assignment of providing security to members of the Klan that day, and how it was a difficult task since the group’s agenda clashed so greatly with his own beliefs. But Kinsey was also bothered by the way protestors were characterizing police that day, namely: “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.”
I discovered the story of Keshia Thomas thanks to actor Jim Beaver, whose Facebook page has become an unexpected source of compelling reading material as of late. In the comments thread on Beaver’s page, a woman named Felicia Kludy Willeman points to a series of photographs by Mark William Brunner that were taken the day of the rally, and that lend added insight to the emotional climate of that moment: “[Here’s] a series of photos of the event as it unfolds. Some of them are scattered elsewhere through the photo line, among other photos, so I’ve started at what appears to be the beginning of the longest sequence”
What Brunner’s photographs provide are crucial on-the-ground perspective. We never see any of the hooded KKK members alluded to in the People article or Kinsey’s re-telling of his experience. But we don’t have to. The placards held by protesters that damn the hatespeak of the KKK tell us that the hooded men are nearby; that the threat is real. And these messages make us aware that the protestors — in this case, a mob — are unhappy. What’s most revealing here, however, and ironic, is that protestors angered by a group with a long tradition of racial violence (i.e., the KKK) engaged with a surrogate of those beliefs (the man with a Confederate flag on his vest) by embracing the same type of solution: violence.
Mob rules took hold that day, which is why the actions of Keshia Thomas were so courageous. But when you look at Brunner’s photograph of Thomas protecting the unnamed man (pictured above), it’s the faces in the crowd that display the greatest conflict. There’s a sense of shock, to be certain, which may be due in part to the violence taking place. But there’s also a sense of confusion as those inflicting the violence come to terms with what Thomas is trying to do: provide a voice of reason, even if it means getting herself harmed. The iconography at play in this image is a fitting final sendoff, most notably the unnamed man’s Confederate flag on his back, and what appears to be a tattoo of the SS logo on his shoulder, contrasted with Thomas’ emotional plea as his fierce and unlikely protector.
(Photograph: Mark William Brunner. Caption: 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.”)