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Cleaning Up with the Klan  
Why the KKK’s about as credible as Bush’s EPA  

    April 2 —  What has happened to the Ku Klux Klan? Once America’s most-feared hate group, the KKK is so disorganized, so dispirited, so cheap, that it can’t even pick up garbage, let alone strike fear into the hearts of normal, decent, respectful people.  

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  THE KLAN IS, in short, a joke.
       Now, before you start firing off those letters to gershny@yahoo.com, here’s why I can say that the Klan is about as credible an organization as Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency:
       Six years ago, a Klan franchise in Missouri sued for the right to participate in the state’s “Adopt-a-Highway” program (apparently believing that the surest way to spread the message of white supremacy is a tidy median strip).
       With the help of the ACLU lawyers—paid through the generous support of liberals like me (who probably thought the money would be used for more important things like defending hard-core pornographers)—the Klan argued that the state has no right to allow “good” groups (beer distributors, defense contractors and nuclear power companies) to clean highways while barring groups it considers “bad” from doing the same thing.
       The U.S. Supreme Court gave the Klan its victory last month. Finally, Klansmen could clean up the highway. Hoo-rah for the First Amendment!
       But victory turned out not to be so sweet. Apparently, the organizer of the Klan’s trash-pick up is in jail (on an unrelated charge...they say) and the Klan can’t find anyone else to pick up the garbage.
       That’s right. The most-feared hate group in America doesn’t have enough members in the St. Louis metropolitan area (population 2,569,029) to form a clean-up crew.
       The whole thing is kind of ironic, considering that the Klan is always complaining that immigration takes jobs away from “real” Americans—yet when offered a chance to take a job that’s increasingly being performed by low-paid immigrants, the men in the white sheets run the other direction.
       Unable to believe it myself, I called the Klan for a comment (which is a weird concept to begin with). Thomas Robb, who identified himself as a Grand Wizard, returned my call, but immediately made me call him back so the discussion would be on my bill (cheapskate!). Over the course of our broad-ranging, 30-minute discussion Robb begrudgingly admitted that he can’t find a Klansman willing to pick up the garbage.
       “Listen, you take any organization—99 percent of the people in that organization aren’t going to volunteer to pick up trash,” Robb said. “I can’t just order people in St. Louis to pick up garbage.”
       Robb said that a Klansman in another part of Missouri offered to adopt a stretch of a different highway—but the trash-loving Klansman in question, Ralph “Butch” Griffith, did not return my calls (perhaps he can’t afford long-distance, either).
       I don’t know much about Griffith, but I think he’s serious about the Klan, God and picking up the trash. After all, his answering machine identifies him as “a white, Christian, Christian-identity movement member” and urged me to “have a proud, white, Aryan day.”
       I was worried that my impression of the Klan as a weak, crippled, dysfunctional family was just optimism thinly veiled as journalism, so I called the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors the Klan.
       Joe Roy, who has the great title of “director of the intelligence project,” confirmed that Klan membership is not only way down from its historic highs, but that the Klan sometimes appears bigger than it is because it picks media-friendly fights.
       “They’re more savvy now,” Roy said, who estimated that there are just 7,000 “card-carrying Klansmen” today. “They know they can get out their message through things like the ‘Adopt-a-Highway’ battle. They know they can always get an ACLU lawyer to defend them.”
       Now, if they could only find an ACLU lawyer to pick up the trash for them, they’d have something.
       That thought led me to Bob Herman, the lawyer who not only represented the Klan in the Adopt-a-Highway case, but is currently defending a woman who wants her vanity license plate to read “Aryan1.” (And he’s Jewish! His mother must be so proud!)
       “My role is to prevent the state from penalizing people with unorthodox political views,” Herman said. “The state is not allowed to tell us what is an offensive political philosophy.”
       That’s all well and good, but Herman said his commitment to justice ended on the courthouse steps, not along the shoulder of Interstate 55.
       “My job is over,” he told me. “I’m not going to pick up the trash for them.”

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post and the author of “HAIR! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness” (Random House, April 2001). His email address is gershny@yahoo.com.

       © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.
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