KKK activity in Northern California a wake-up call

On retrieving the publications, residents of the Sonoma County city found fliers titled "Political Program of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan."

The fliers seek new recruits and promise, among other things, that the Klan will "place trained, patriotic white economists in charge of our economy and punish the Jew tycoons and leeches who have brought America to the brink of financial disaster."

The Klan, the flier states, will also remove blacks and "other inferior beings from our white schools. No longer will our children be forced to go to school with wild jungle savages. The Klan will no longer permit liberals, race traitors and Jews to poison our children's minds with race mixing, Communist propaganda and perversion."

In recent months, similar fliers have been placed in inserts in free newspapers, coupon books and real estate magazines in Texas and western Pennsylvania.

The Classified Gazette issued a statement denying any responsibility for the fliers. Joe Walsh, the paper's owner and publisher, is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those involved.

Whether or not a crime was committed has yet to be determined, however, because free speech has broad protections under the First Amendment.

In the fliers, the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a group with 12 chapters around the country, lists its national headquarters as Victor, in the northern San Joaquin Valley.

However, despite the group's belligerent literature, Barbara Bergen, executive director of the regional Anti-Defamation League, believes its presence in Northern California is small.

"It's likely there are a few disgruntled people who live on hate and are determined to cause problems, make people suspicious of one another," she said. Still, she added, "I like the Jewish community to know this is out there."

Bergen says it's hard to pinpoint a cause for the recent KKK activity. She does see it, however, as part of a rise in general anti-government, anti-minority sentiment among militia and white supremacist groups as well as some religious extremists.

"It has to do with the changing demographics in our society," she said, "a concern about loss of power and influence that may be real or imagined.

"People who are generally insecure may be threatened by the fact California is becoming more diverse, that minorities and women are present in all walks of life, in all careers, in all levels of achievement."

The fliers that appeared in Santa Rosa also appeared on the lawns of some Stockton residents earlier this year — including that of a member of the city's Temple Israel.

Jason Gwasdoff, Temple Israel's rabbi, is aware of some Klan activity in the communities outlying Stockton. Still, he was somewhat shocked to see KKK literature distributed in an upper middle-class neighborhood of the city.

"That was a wake-up call, a reminder not to be so complacent," he said.

At about the same time, the nearby town of Lodi witnessed two cross burnings.

In January, less than 24 hours after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, someone set a wooden cross ablaze on the lawn of Tokay High School. The two men accused of burning the cross, Gary Lee Howard Jr., 22, and Shawn Vernon Lyman, 28, have been charged with a misdemeanor hate crime.

However, leaders of the Lodi Unified School District, the Lodi Police Department and the Stockton chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are exploring legislative tactics to make cross burnings on public school campuses punishable as felonies.

Several weeks later, meanwhile, another cross was burned on an overpass above one of Lodi's major thoroughfares.

"Suspects were seen fleeing the area, but no arrests have been made," said Lodi Police Chief Larry Hansen. At this point, he added, there is nothing to indicate a connection between the two cross burnings.

Following the incidents, Gwasdoff invited Bobby Bivens, president of the Stockton chapter of the NAACP, to speak at the synagogue.

"That was really a wonderful event," the rabbi said, "an opening for new, more positive relations between the black community and the Jewish community here in Stockton."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.