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Security prep for Memphis Klan rally seen as national model

Klansmen exiting the Shelby County Courthouse in Memphis, Tenn., moments before their rally, March 30, 2013. (Blake Billings)
Klansmen exiting the Shelby County Courthouse in Memphis, Tenn., moments before their rally, March 30, 2013. (Blake Billings)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (JTA) — Cantor Ricky Kampf descends from the bimah, adjusts his prayer shawl and strides up the aisle, cutting through the cavernous sanctuary to greet the familiar out-of-towner.

“Y’all here for the shindig?” Kampf says at the Baron Hirsch Synagogue here as he grasps the hand of Paul Goldenberg, the burly former cop who runs the Secure Community Network, the security arm of the national Jewish community.

The shindig in question is a Ku Klux Klan rally planned for later that day, March 30, in downtown Memphis. For months, Goldenberg has been in constant contact with the Jewish community leadership in this Mississippi River port city, as well as with local and federal law enforcement, in readying for any possible attack.

It’s a security template that SCN, an arm of the Jewish Federations of North America and of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, wants to replicate across the United States.

“It’s not just dealing with the immediate challenge, but as we do in Jewish life, we try and prepare for the next situation, how to deal with these things on a regular basis, so they’re prepared for it,” Steve Hoffman, the co-chairman of SCN, tells JTA. “The best security preparation in the Jewish world is vigilance without panic.”

A persuasive, kinetic presence, Goldenberg crisscrosses the country meeting with Jewish community leaders and local law enforcement. But training in Memphis is accelerated because of the Klan rally, a protest of the decision to rename parks that until recently commemorated Confederate heroes — notably Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Klan.

Ahead of the rally, leaders from every Memphis Jewish institution receive a crash course in security training, including presentations by the Department of Homeland Security and the Memphis Police Department’s SWAT team: Develop a communications plan, secure exits and entrances, and above all, be aware.

“The Jewish community and any community, faith-based organizations, we see them as part of the homeland security enterprise,” Bill Flynn, a deputy assistant secretary of DHS, tells JTA.

In the end, the Klan rally is a bust. Barely 60 Klansmen show up on the rain-soaked steps of Shelby County courthouse. A leader uses a megaphone to address klatches of men and women — some robed in white and red, others not — who respond with shouts of “White Power!” It’s over in less than an hour.

But law enforcement officials still have reason to be concerned — not with the Klan itself, which makes a point these days of being law abiding — but that an outlier attracted to the rally could break off, drive 20 minutes east and target one of the seven synagogues in Memphis.

“The United States is into a four-year resurgence both of anti-government and white supremacist groups,” said Mark Pitcavage, the director of fact finding for the Anti-Defamation League. “This resurgence started in early 2009 following the election of Barack Obama and the economic crisis. There has been an upsurge in violent activity as a result of that.”

A report published in January by Arie Perliger, the director of terrorism studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, showed violent attacks emanating from the far right rising from below 200 per year at the turn of the century to more than 300 by the middle of the decade. Attacks spiked in 2008, Obama’s election year, to more than 550 before dropping to 300 in 2010. In 2011, the number rose again, to more than 350.

In Memphis law enforcement circles, the threat is described in shorthand. “West Memphis” refers to the murder of two policemen in the Arkansas town across the river in 2010 by two affiliates of the anti-government “sovereign citizen” movement; “Washington state” is the placing of a bomb at a Martin Luther King Day parade site in Spokane in 2011; “Schmidt” is Richard Schmidt, a Toledo, Ohio, man arrested in December in possession of a small armory and a hit list including the names of leaders of the NAACP and the Jewish federation in Detroit.

In each of the cases, and in many others, the attackers are loners likely influenced by the rhetoric of extremist groups.

“In general, the FBI considers lone offenders to pose the most significant threat of violence within the extremist movement,” Eric Sorensen, an analyst with the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit, said in a March 13 conference call with the Memphis Jewish community leadership.

On the Saturday morning of the Klan rally, Goldenberg surveys Memphis synagogues, nodding approvingly at recommendations heeded — guards at each exit — and groaning at those ignored. A playground remains unprotected by shrubbery or a fence.

“We don’t want people seeing our kids,” Goldenberg says.

A patrol car checks streets near the synagogues. Fathers in yarmulkes walk their toddlers to Sabbath services seemingly unperturbed by plans for an extremist rally. A woman at a synagogue entrance holds out to Goldenberg the panic button hanging from her neck; one squeeze and the police are alerted, just as Goldenberg had recommended.

“Good work,” he says, and she shoots back a gratified grin.

Goldenberg says that communal officials who graduate from the training he organizes with law enforcement officials are “force multipliers.” John Cohen, the deputy counterterrorism coordinator at DHS, says that making a targeted ethnic or religious community a partner in its own protection is “our basic model” of homeland protection.

Such partnerships, however, make civil liberties groups nervous.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said that urging civilians to report suspicious activities could lead to abuses that it contends are already inherent in law enforcement reporting of such activities. Programs encouraging such reporting make it “far more likely that both the police and the public will continue overreporting the commonplace behavior of their neighbors,” the ACLU said in an analysis in January.

Even among Memphis Jews, not everyone is enamored of Goldenberg’s strategy. Ronald Harkavy, a lawyer, philanthropist and community patriarch, isn’t happy to run into Goldenberg at the Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Congregation.

“I’m one of those who say do nothing” when the Klan comes to town, he tells Goldenberg, his accent and broad smile thick with a cold gentility. “That’s been fine for over a hundred years.”

Goldenberg shrugs and Harkavy turns away. Another congregant leans in and whispers, “We’re thankful for all you do.”

Having completed his tour of Jewish Memphis, Goldenberg heads downtown to meet the Memphis Police Department’s liaison to the Jewish community, Stuart Frisch, an Israel Defense Forces veteran. Frisch ferries Goldenberg to a white van functioning as a command center. Goldenberg leaps in and admires a monitor feeding images from public and privately owned security cameras. The streets are empty.

The police ensure the Klansmen do not encounter anti-Klan protesters. In 1998, violent clashes at another rally traumatized the city. Memories of that day took up several pages in the morning edition of the Commercial Appeal, Memphis’ main daily.

Between beat cops and SWAT team members, there is more security personnel — much of it African-American — than there are Klansmen. The megaphone-audio is so poor, the rain driving down so hard, that much of the grand wizard’s speech — apart from the punctuations of “White Power!” — is reduced to a muffled “wawawa.”

Goldenberg and his friend head out in search of lunch. The day is a success: The Jewish community in Memphis is aware and engaged with law enforcement. The Klan have come and gone. No one is hurt.

Breaking off from a dissipating anti-Klan rally, an African-American woman strides through the rain, arms outstretched.

“Wash away the sin!” she cries out. “Wash away the stench!”