A jittery police captain checked his watch and straightened his sagging gun belt. It was 4:20 p.m. last Saturday and the commander’s repeated radio calls for cops in riot gear had been muffled by the uproar of a surging crowd. Although 16 unmasked members of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan had been hounded from Foley Square, thousands of angry protesters—feeling cheated out of a showdown with the white supremacists—lingered to agitate in the streets.
Some turned on grouchy, steely-eyed officers—taunting the “Blu Klux Klan” who, they contended, were all that stood between a multi cultural posse and “death” to “the lynch-mob murderers.” But in an uncanny twist of events, others, blacks and Jews—who hours earlier had locked arms in outrage at the Klan’s presence—suddenly broke into separate fight clubs, op posing pockets of anti-Klan resistance that began to menace each other with racist and anti-Semitic chantdowns, which almost escalated into fisticuffs.
Tension between the groups erupted after Jewish protesters tried to confront black participants about placards they were carrying, blaming Jews for “the black holocaust” and decrying “revolutionary alliances” with whites. These blacks said they felt that Jewish civil rights activists especially were trying to co-opt “a black-led struggle” against the KKK. “Tell me the last time a bed-sheet cracker hung a muthafuckin’ Jew from a tree?” asked a black protester who held up a sign proclaiming: “Niggers, beware of white interlopers. Fight your own battles.”
At the intersection of Chambers and Centre streets, where a crowd gathered shouting anti-Klan insults, Maya Paz, an 18-year-old Israeli conscript, broke through police lines and stormed after a tall black man in a gray gabardine suit. Hoisted above the man’s head was a huge placard with a picture of a white Jesus, asserting: “The White Man Is The Devil.” (Paz would tell the Voice later she heard the man make an anti-Semitic remark and felt compelled to challenge him about it.)
“Get outta my face!” he sneered, turning his back on Paz as he walked away. Paz dogged his every move. “This is wrong!” shouted the teenager with Chelsea Clinton hair, who was wearing a trendy Southpark fall coat, green cargo pants, and dusty army boots. “I have a lot of black and Latino friends,” she added. “All my life I have been fighting for racial equality, for these people. What about that? Isn’t that something?”
“You’re still white!” the man shot back.
“You don’t know me,” declared the tempestuous idealist, who must report to the Israeli army by January. “I don’t even consider myself Jewish.” The man turned his back again.
“I had so much to say to him,” Paz told a reporter as she propped herself against a lamp post and began to cry. She felt humiliated by a man she thought was united with her in the fight against bigotry, intolerance, and outright hatred in New York City. Now all of her volunteer work surrounding the interracial mobilization against the Klan seemed to be for nought. “I came out at 11 a.m.,” Paz recalled. “I had been on my feet all day yesterday trying to bring people here.” Maya Paz’s appalling en counter with the African American protester typified the white response to raw black rage. Some astonished Jews and whites who helped to organize the largely successful anti-Klan rally walked away teary-eyed and confused. What had they done to African Americans to deserve this? Will blacks ever stop blaming them—the other victims?
SHORTLY AFTER THE KKK departed, Yigal Yavin, a 31-year-old Israeli citizen, surveyed the volatile scene and picked his battles. Yavin wandered into a session of the Hebrew Israelites, a black religious group known for its often profane anti-white and anti-Jewish tirades.
The Israelites have preached in the tourist-packed Times Square area for much of the last two decades, and are regularly seen on public-access TV. But in the last year the group has been denied sound permits and police have harassed its members, forcing them to proselytize elsewhere in the city. In June, the Giuliani administration agreed to pay the Israelites $59,000 to settle a lawsuit, charging that police had infringed on their First Amendment rights.
On Saturday, with bullhorns blaring, the Hebrew Israelites rallied in front of the Court Square Building at 2 Lafayette Street. In defiance of the KKK, they hung a stuffed, hooded, and masked white-clothed doll from one of the points of the Star of David. Yavin approached one of the Black Israelites, as they are also known, and raised questions about the group’s anti-Semitic sermons. The Israelite argued that the group teaches what’s in the Bible and speaks out against white people only because the Bible identifies them as wicked.
“Forget about your teachings; it’s what the Bible teaches. You’re a hoax!” the Israelite told Yavin. “The same God that took Moses outta Egypt, he said that you’re not a Jew.”
“What in your mind is a Jew?” Yavin asked.
“You’re all white people,” the Israelite re plied. “You use God’s word outta your mouth, okay? [Jews] don’t know anything about God.”
“Keep your eyes on God!” shouted a young white woman who had been listening to the Israelites consign whitey to an everlasting hell. Yavin gave up and left. But another anti-Klan protester, who described himself as a Moroccan-born Jew, picked up the challenge and waded into the group. His debate with one of the leaders about the Nazi Holocaust wound up in a shouting match. The fiercely proud Jew almost had his yarmulke handed to him.
The Hebrew Israelite denied there was a Holocaust. “My granddaddy died….He was killed in the Holocaust,” the man said.
“Fuck that!” the Israelite responded. “I’m honest. I don’t give a damn if he was killed in the Holocaust.” Blacks, he added, suffered worse atrocities than “the so-called Jews” but Jews never talk about that.
“Y’all didn’t go through no Holocaust!” the Israelite snapped. “And 6 million Jews didn’t even get kilt in that Holocaust!”
“There was a holocaust before that,” the man retorted.
“What about them? Pilgrims?” The Israelite seemed lost. How much of the Jew’s tragic history had he nullified? When the Jewish pro tester disclosed that one of his parents is Puerto Rican, the Israelite lectured him on the Spanish conquest of the island and the evils of race mixing.
“That’s why we got a lot of Puerto Ricans [who] look like you,” the Israelite said, adding, with the same blasphemous tongue, that the late reggae king, Bob Marley, was not a pure black man. “If you look at Bob Marley, he’s the so-called white man,” the Israelite said. “His grandmother was white. His father [was] a white man.”
“There are no winners here,” a Jewish protester conceded.
Farther down the street, six young Jewish women were surrounded by a group of blacks and Latinos, who included Harlem activist Delois Blakey, a black former Catholic nun and assistant to the late Garveyite Queen Mother Moore. “There has been a lotta dialogue going on,” said Blakey, alluding to a heated quarrel that had broken out among black militants and white members of the “October 23 labor/black mobilization to stop the KKK.” Of course, the beef was about race.
“Now,” said Blakey, updating a reporter, “they’re talking about the differences between the Jews and the blacks—the white skin privilege.” Blakey recalled that a black spokeswoman for her group had lambasted one of the Jewish women who tried to argue that the black struggle for racial justice is similar to some Jewish causes. “So the question was raised, is she [the Jewish woman] willing to go back and bring others that think like her be cause she [the disbelieving black spokeswoman] is not gonna accept her as one,” Blakey explained.
Blakey said the entire group also had de bated the contentious issue of reparations, “payback [for blacks], since the Jews [Holocaust victims who are getting back millions in deposits stolen by the Nazis] get paid every year.” The argument reached its most volatile pitch when the Jewish activist said she was only trying to help blacks overcome white racism.
“We got one Jewish girl over here….” announced the spokeswoman for the blacks. “Okay? Let’s get it going. We got five nice Jewish people over here and a nigger lover that saying they wanna help us. So let’s see if we can git this party started. We got a Jewish girl over here claiming to help….”
“You know what,” the Jewish activist interrupted, “the second I talk, you shut me down!…I’m simply saying all white people are racist and I’m here to show you I’m me.”
“Because you’re the white nigga?” her opponent scoffed.
“Fine! So we are,” the Jewish activist said. “But you know what I’m telling you, that I’m here. I’m here!”
One of the Jewish women intervened: “We really need to scrutinize ourselves and maybe we’d work a little harder.”
“See you at the club tonight,” a black man heckled. “See you at the dancehall….” But the woman ignored him, pointing out that she understood how blacks react when they are stereotyped because she’s sometimes tailed in department stores by people who think she looks Jewish and is there to steal.
“I’m sitting here saying, I have white privilege, and because I have white privilege that would make me white, right?” She said she has been reaching out to other “people who are white,” telling them it is time that they admit that “all white people are racists….The KKK are not the only racists. There’s racists everywhere!”
Nothing the woman said convinced her black accusers that she felt their pain, that she knew what it is like to be black in America. “You have to cleanse yourself, become natural,” a black man suggested.
“The white man made you,” another protester declared.
“Why do you want me to become natural?” the woman asked. “What should I do to become natural?” When the reference to ethnic cleansing seemed too painfully obvious to ignore, the woman, tired and sobbing, blurted out, “Six million people got fucking killed….” This fight club broke up as police moved in, ordering protesters to clear the streets.
Back at Foley Square, three black men tried to remind a phalanx of battle-ready cops why protesters were reluctant to disperse. A black officer said he was only doing his job and would arrest anti-Klan demonstrators who behaved violently.
“We’re here fighting for you, too, brother,” one of the black men said. “We’re fighting for all of y’all….Y’all should never have them [the Klan] standing on that ground. We shoulda never let them off the bus….We’re all together now: blacks and whites, Chinese, Jewish. We’re all together now.”
INDEED, ORGANIZERS of the anti-Klan rally had hoped that New Yorkers would be united against race hate. That was the objective. But when frustrated black protesters began to vent their rage against Jews and whites, veteran conciliators began to wonder who African Americans believe their real enemies are. Just when bewildered observers were concluding that the skirmishes signaled a setback for the fragile black-Jewish political alliance, a daring Klan sympathizer yelled “Fire!” in the crowded street theater. A multiracial mob—some of whom had been arguing bitterly—jumped on the woman and began to kick and punch her. Some spat on her.
“She said she was the KKK. She hated Puerto Ricans and the ‘black animals,”‘ recalled Yigal Yavin, the Israeli who’d squared off with the Hebrew Israelites. Another witness said he heard the woman shout, “Heil Hitler!” and curse at Jews. For a moment, people noticed, blacks and Jews were allies again, countering the KKK hate rhetoric with a righteous beatdown. Who said blacks and Jews can’t work together?
Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas