Amplified by tweets from presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke and journalist Soledad O’Brien, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’s impromptu rally in front of the Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough on Aug. 24 made national headlines.
The Loyal White Knights of the KKK are so radioactive that Jason Kessler, the lead organizer for the disastrous Unite the Right rally, pleaded with them to not come to Charlottesville in 2017 because it would damage the reputations of the other constituents in the white-nationalist coalition. Although no one should doubt the capacity of Klan members to commit acts of devastating violence, their kooky robes and multiple-felony rap sheets do not exactly raise a profile attractive to the best prospects of a successful mass movement towards fascism.
The more salient issue is law enforcement’s repeated failures to properly handle the KKK in North Carolina. This region of the state — the northern Piedmont along the Interstate 85/40 corridor — has a pretty bad track record. Going back to 1979, a Klan member and Greensboro Police Department informant named Edward Dawson led a caravan of Klan members and neo-Nazis into a black housing project, where they opened fire on antiracist demonstrators and killed five people. Despite the fact that Dawson’s police handler, Detective Jerry Cooper, was tailing the caravan, the police were somehow not on the scene to intercept the assault.
If we were to view the Greensboro Massacre as an historical anomaly, we might be tempted to think: Lesson learned at a tragic cost. Let’s study what went wrong and do better next time.
Enter Chris Barker, the 40-year-old imperial wizard of the Loyal White Knights of the KKK, who has expressed admiration for Virgil Griffin, a Klan leader who was part of the motorcade that visited death on Greensboro. The FBI flipped Barker after he was caught participating in a 2012 plot to build “a mobile, remotely operated, radiation-emitting device capable of killing human targets silently and from a distance with lethal doses of radiation” that could be used to kill Muslims, according to an affidavit by an FBI special agent.
Following two months of jailtime for violating a federal charge of possession of a firearm by a felon, Barker has been repeatedly arrested for offenses like driving while impaired and assault on a female (his wife, the imperial kommander), but with little to no consequence. In 2016, on the eve of a parade to celebrate the election of Donald Trump, Barker was jailed and charged with aiding and abetting attempted murder for his role in a knife attack against an Indiana Klansman who was considered disloyal. The following year, the top prosecutor in Caswell County dropped the charge because the victim refused to testify — had refused, in fact, to return to Caswell County because Barker’s wife took out a warrant for his arrest on a bogus communicating-threats charge that wasn’t even in the right jurisdiction.
Barker’s FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force handlers, according to reporting by veteran journalist Nate Thayer, were Greensboro police officers Rob Finch and Steven Kory Flowers.
When the Loyal White Knights of the KKK organized a rally in Charlottesville in July 2017 — a month prior to the violent Unite the Right rally — Imperial Kommander Amanda Barker warned Charlottesville police Capt. Dave Shifflett of a bloodbath.
“Because of the threats, I will have my concealed weapon permit in the crowd,” she said in an email to the police captain. “Armed and waiting for anyone to shoot at us. I will not let my people die. So if I was you, I would check everyone in the crowd. If not, my people will hurt others for shooting us. This will be on you, I would check everyone in the crowd. What is going to be done? My people want to be there in peace, but your chief is not putting his foot down. So a bloodbath will be on him!”
In Hillsborough on Aug. 24, witnesses photographed at least two members of the Loyal White Knights — North Carolina Grand Dragon Roger Dale Renick of Red Springs, and Ohio Grand Dragon CM Jenkins of Middleton, Ohio — carrying firearms, in plain violation of a state law that bars people from carrying “dangerous weapons” during any “picket line” or “demonstration,” and on the premises of “any public place owned or under the control of the state.” Images taken by photographer Daniel Hosterman show Renick and Jenkins speaking to law enforcement officers during the rally, so it begs credibility for anyone to assert that the police didn’t notice the violation.
And yet that’s exactly what Sheriff Charles Blackwood has said.
“If weapons had been viewed during the demonstration, officers would have made arrests,” the sheriff said in a prepared statement on Aug. 26. “However, reports of firearms and confirmation of same were not available at that time. Investigators have since positively identified two individuals in possession of firearms at the demonstration, and the investigation is ongoing.”
Now, under pressure from antiracists and other community members, the sheriff’s office has issued warrants for Renick and Jenkins’ arrests.
The Loyal White Knights are not only the most violent and extreme faction of the KKK in the country, but they’re one of the most heavily monitored by police intelligence. How did this possibly sneak up on the police in Hillsborough?