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On the eve of his appearance in federal court to represent the rights of hood-wearing Ku Klux Klan members to rally in Manhattan, New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Norman Siegel received distressing news from Bell Atlantic: the agency's phone system was so deluged with calls that it would have to be shut down. Siegel told the 'Voice' he has received numerous death threats since announcing last week that the NYCLU would represent the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the most vicious white supremacist groups. "They're trying to harass [us]," said Siegel of his faceless tormenters, interrupting an interview on Monday to negotiate with the phone company. "It's not enough that they do it at my home."
The Klan, which sought to hold an October 23 rally in front of the Criminal Court Building, was denied a permit last week by the Giuliani administration. Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Partisan Defense Committee have urged New Yorkers to stay away from the rally if the KKK finds some way to hold it. "The response to our call for 'All Out to Stop the KKK on October 23!' has resonated among thousands of outraged New Yorkers who intend. . . to let these killers know that there is no way they are going to rally in this city," PDC counsel Rachel Wolkenstein said in a statement.
But a more militant resolve by some anti-Klan activists has driven home to Siegel the danger of defending white boys in hoods. "I got threats," Siegel disclosed. "One guy said they're gonna bomb my house: Death to my wife. Death to my family."
At the office, Siegel received a call from Mordechai Levy of the Jewish Defense Organization. He said Levy told him, "If in fact you represent the Klan, we're gonna picket your home." The civil libertarian claimed that the Klan has a right to rally "as long as it is peaceful." He said he received another threatening call from Borough Park in Brooklyn, where Gideon Busch, a mentally disturbed Hasidic Jew, was shot to death by cops last month. Borough Park is home to several Hasidic sects.
On Sunday, an anti-Klan group handed out fliers at the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan, denouncing Siegel's plan to represent the American Knights. "They called me a traitor and they put my home address and phone number on the flyer, but I am the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union it comes with the turf," Siegel said.
When it wasn't militant Jews, it allegedly was outraged students from Hunter College jamming the phone lines. "They're black, Latino, and Asian students who are all upset about what we're doing." Siegel vowed that he won't be deterred by threats, but will advocate the principles of the First Amendment, even when it is on behalf of the hated KKK. "I try to be careful," he said. "On the other hand, I believe in this stuff."
As Siegel pondered his next move, calls of encouragement poured in from other quarters. Although they despise the Klan, the ailing Bill Tatum, publisher emeritus of The Amsterdam News, one of the nation's oldest black weeklies, and his wife, Susan (who is Jewish), as well as the Reverend Al Sharpton, urged Siegel not to back down. "I've been encouraged by lots of people in the street," Siegel said. "People are rising to the occasion."
Siegel's troubles began when the Knights' national imperial grand wizard, Jeff Berry, announced his plan to march in the city. The Giuliani administration balked, arguing that a state loitering law also prohibits groups from congregating in public while wearing masks or disguising their faces, except for masquerade parties or for entertainment. "The representatives of the Ku Klux Klan refuse to participate in this demonstration without having their heads covered by hoods, and that's a violation of the penal law," Police Commissioner Howard Safir told reporters. "I'm not going to issue a permit to an organization that does not comply with the law."
Siegel contended that the city cannot deny Klan members their First Amendment rights. "Our position is that the denial of the permit is unconstitutional and that people have a right to engage in peaceful rallies under the First Amendment." He added that the anti-mask provision violates the First Amendment, and that the U.S. Supreme Court on two occasions has ruled that people have a right to anonymous political activity.
The Giuliani administration is "abusing statutes like the anti-mask law, which has never been invoked, as a pretext for trying to suppress an offensive message," Siegel charged. "It is the same anti-mask law that would make it a crime for kids to go trick-or-treating on Halloween."
So why didn't cops arrest a group of masked men protesting the fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo at the West African immigrant's funeral in February? "When I came out of the funeral at the mosque, standing at the corner were 10 African American guys with ski masks," Siegel recalled. "There were hundreds of cops [and] they didn't bust anybody." Others have challenged the anti-mask law since then and were not prosecuted, he pointed out. "Last week in the Bronx, people dealing with the issue of asthma and the environment wore masks."
Though he's always for free speech, Siegel has straddled both sides of the emotional debate. "I've also told [West Side assemblyman] Scott Stringer that if the city does not give him the right to hold a counterdemonstration, we will go to court for him too."
Two weeks ago, Siegel stood outside the Brooklyn Museum as protesters pro and con aired their grievances over an exhibition that Giuliani has denounced as offensive to Catholics and as an inappropriate use of tax dollars.
"The vision I have is that on Saturday there will be a demonstration by the Klan, and there'll be hundreds of counter-demonstrators saying that they don't want this hate speech in New York," Siegel said. "It will be peaceful and the First Amendment will do its thing. And if the Giuliani politicians stay out of it, New Yorkers can handle this thing. It only [creates tension] when they interfere."
Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas and AP