In the past month, the murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have forced many Americans to take a critical look at the ways that racism is ingrained in our society. However, one group that has never shied away from expressing overtly racist beliefs is the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s purpose from its founding in 1865 has been to intimidate and incite violence onto Black people. With a long history of lynchings, assaults, harassment, destruction of property, and many other acts of violence committed by the Klan in the past 150 years, it would be easy to assume that the group is a terrorist organization. However, the United States’ government has never labeled the KKK as such. In the wake of recent social upheaval over horrific acts of racism, a petition on Change.org started by Jose Cardenas has called for the designation of the KKK as a terrorist organization and has amassed nearly two million signatures. While there is no clear evidence that deeming the Ku Klux Klan a terrorist organization will result in any definitive policy change, this designation would send a clear message to citizens that blatant displays of hatred will not be tolerated. It is time for the country to publicly recognize the Klan for what it is, a domestic terrorist group.
A Brief History of the KKK
Following the Civil War, the era of Reconstruction began in the South, marked by policies with the goal of establishing equality for the newly-freed Black citizens. The formation of the Ku Klux Klan was a direct response to these policies, enacting terror on Black communities in the form of violent attacks and lynchings with the goal of restoring white supremacy in the South. Ultimately, the Klan and others sharing similar opinions achieved their goal of ending Reconstruction, resulting in a nearly fifty-year hibernation of the now infamous white robes.
In 1915, the Klan reemerged with a new fervor following the popularity of D.W. Griffith’s film “Birth of a Nation”, which glorified the Klan while vilifying freed Black men. This new iteration of the Klan continued their anti-Black crusade, and additionally began targeting Roman Catholics and Jews. From this point on, the Klan’s reign of terror only continued, becoming especially vocal in the 1960s as they opposed the Civil Rights Movement. Although the Klan has been far less active in the last 60 years and cases of open Klan violence have become few and far between, a dark underbelly of hatred still lurks in pockets around the country and in recent years, these previously fractured sects have been able to connect with each other through the Internet and align with other far-right groups. These newly empowered racists have often been behind major attacks on minority groups, specifically Black and Jewish communities, which have been increasing in frequency and severity in the past two decades.
Behind the Petition
During a recent Black Lives Matter Protest, a Klan leader drove his car into a crowd. Around the same time, President Trump released a series of tweets calling for the designation of “Antifa,” an anti-fascist political movement, as a domestic terrorist organization. This violent act and controversial request led Jose Cardenas to start a petition, calling for the designation of the KKK as a domestic terror organization. Mr. Cardenas’ petition claims: “Terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation in pursuit of political aims. We ask if ISIS or ISIL is labeled a terrorist group for their acts, then surely the KKK fit the clear description of a terrorist.” As of June 20th, 2020, this petition has garnered more than 1.9 million signatures.
Defining Domestic Terrorism
According to the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation defining terrorism, domestic terrorism is defined as “[involving] acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State.” For an act to be considered domestic terrorism, it must be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or government policy using intimidation or coercion tactics by “mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping” and must occur within the United States.
According to this definition, the actions of the KKK are certainly acts of domestic terrorism. Their history of lynching and brutalizing Black individuals is dangerous to human life and illegal, and many of their actions, both historically and at present, are intended to intimidate minority groups. Additionally, their activities do occur within the United States. This definition almost exactly describes the Klan, yet they are not considered a terrorist group.
The US Department of State has a list of designated foreign terrorist organizations but has not ever designated a domestic terrorist organization. Rather, the Klan and other similar groups are considered domestic extremist groups.
According to FBI officials, designating domestic terrorist groups as such can be a slippery slope, and may infringe on First Amendment rights to free speech. Additionally, some argue that allowing the government to designate groups as “terrorists” could ultimately cause more harm to communities of color. For example, the President suggested that Antifa be considered terrorists. While these fears are valid, I believe that a ridged criterion as to what makes a group a terrorist organization can help alleviate these concerns. These criteria would put an emphasis on groups who have demonstrated a pattern of targeted behavior towards a specific group. Regarding free speech, while “hate speech” is technically protected, speech inciting violence is considered illegal, and has been for many years. This designation has not taken away free speech from the general population, only those whose speech was intended to incite violence.
Another pushback against a possible status change is that many believe that changing the Klan’s status would not really have any concrete effect. There is currently no precedent for what would happen if a group were deemed domestic terrorists, and many officials predict that there would be no practical difference in the eyes of the law between an extremist group and a terrorist organization. While this may be true, designation of the Klan as a terrorist group would serve as a public statement by the US Government that the actions of the Klan for more than 150 years are truly reprehensible, a good first step towards establishing trust with historically oppressed communities.
Why Call the KKK a Terrorist Organization?
At this point, there is no definitive policy change that would occur if the KKK’s status was changed from extremist group to terrorist. However, there is a reason that this petition has garnered so many signatures. While the law may not be greatly affected by naming the KKK as a terrorist organization, an official government response regarding the group’s hateful actions for nearly two centuries will send a loud and clear message to the Klan and other hate groups that the country will not tolerate their actions and will take a step to right centuries of injustices against minority groups. If any group is deserving of this unprecedented status, it is the group that has spent a century and a half trying to terrorize, intimidate, and incite violence upon Black people.
A first step towards changing the status of the Klan is to sign the petition on Change.org. Adding your name may seem like a small step, but there is strength in numbers, and if enough people sign this petition, it may force government officials to reconsider. In addition to signing, be sure to share the petition on social media or with your family and friends. If you feel passionate about creating this change, let your local and state representatives know! Find your representatives here! As time progresses and the current conversations about race in the United States begin to fade from the mainstream, there is still a radical, fringe group that has demonstrated time and time again that they will do anything to assert white supremacy. The good news is, though, current estimates put the Klan’s numbers between 3000 and 6000. Even using the largest estimate of the Klan’s numbers, there are 300 times more people than there are members of the Klan who have signed the petition and are ready to recognize the Klan for what it really is.