Parade canceled after alleged KKK protest threat
- Published: July 9, 2020
After being canceled by the Odd Fellows earlier in the spring, Yellow Springs’ annual Fourth of July parade was back on, local leaders announced with excitement in mid-June.
The parade had a new sponsoring organization — the HUMAN Project — and a new theme — Black Lives Matter — and on June 15, regional news organizations started to spread the word.
Then, the following morning, Yellow Springs Clerk of Mayor’s Court Elise Burns found this on her voicemail:
“Hi, my name is Chad Rickenberg. I’m the Imperial Wizard of the Old Glory Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”
The message continued, “I am letting you all know that we will be sending, in writing, that we will be there July Fourth to rally against the Black Lives Matter movement. We are tired of these n—-rs taking over and burning down our communities and we’re going to make a stand. We support law enforcement and we support our communities. We don’t want a bunch of thugs running around our community. We will see you July Fourth. Good day.”
The voicemail was immediately forwarded to the Yellow Springs Police Department, and shared with parade organizers. By the end of the day, the parade was canceled, again.
In public statements, organizers pointed to numerous reasons for canceling. Large crowds descending from outside town could increase the spread of the coronavirus here, they worried. The fears became acute after more regional media coverage than anticipated, combined with the fact that many other towns had canceled their July Fourth celebrations.
Yet all the organizers interviewed this week also said the decision was influenced by the voicemail from a man purporting to be affiliated with the KKK, a notorious hate group with a long history of violence against Black people.
After Yellow Springs Police Chief Brian Carlson called the man to inform him of the parade’s cancellation, he said his group would “stay away.”
Reached for comment this week, the man, who identified himself as Chad Burns of Bellefontaine, said the voicemail was a “stunt” and that he was not a member of the Klan. The name he used, “Rickenberg,” was a fake name, he added.
“I ain’t no Klansmen. I just called and left the messages down there so the people would know that there could be outside agitators coming in,” he said.
The man said he made the false threat because Yellow Springs is “my favorite place to go” and “a beautiful town,” and he worried it could be “burned and destroyed” by marchers.
“I pulled that stunt to hopefully get that damn Black Lives Matter rally canceled,” he said.
“Apparently it worked,” he added.
In recent weeks, law enforcement and public officials in Yellow Springs have been on high alert as the threat of counterprotest here has grown. What threats has the village received, how worrisome are they, and what has been the impact on the community?
A false threat?
In the case of the canceled Fourth of July parade, the threat remains unclear.
According to Village Manager Josué Salmerón this week, local police did investigate to determine the validity of the threat and found some worrisome signs.
“We took it as a viable threat,” he said. “We had no reason to rule it out as a prank.”
Additional research by the News this week has raised more questions. Although the caller said he was not affiliated with the Klan, the last name “Burns” may be another fake name. The phone number he called from is associated with the name Chad Burris of Bellefontaine, according to public Facebook posts. And in 2015, the name Chad Burris was listed in a release of names of alleged Klan members by a Twitter account linked to the hacker collective Anonymous. The listing included the description, “banished from other Klans,” with a link to a now-inactive Facebook account of Chad Burris from Bellefontaine.
By phone, the man said he found the group name, “Old Glory Knights,” from the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which maintains a database of hate groups. That group is headquartered in Vincent, Ohio, in the extreme southeast of the state. An “imperial wizard” is the head of a Klan.
Other KKK groups are believed to be active closer to this area, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center in a 2019 update. For instance, it lists the Brotherhood of Klans’ national headquarters in Marion, Ohio, and a chapter of the Alliance of American Klans in Dayton. Last year, a KKK-affiliated group based in southeastern Indiana held a rally in downtown Dayton.
The caller additionally said he heard about the Yellow Springs Fourth of July parade on the Facebook page of the Springfield News-Sun and thought, “Why there?” He said he and his family visit Yellow Springs one to three times per month and that they “love that town so much.” In the end, the threat worked, he said.
“I hope I saved a lot of people’s lives, at least the police’s lives,” he said.
Whether false or not, the threat was a factor in the canceling of the Fourth of July parade. It also had an impact on the anti-racist rallies that have taken place in downtown Yellow Springs on the last five Saturdays.
After the first impromptu anti-racism march following the June 6 rally, the Village’s Human Relations Commission stepped in to give the informal group permission to use its liability insurance for marches on June 13 and 20. But it revoked insurance for the weekends of June 27 and July 4 after the alleged KKK threat. The decision was made out of an “abundance of caution,” according to the commission’s Council liaison, Kevin Stokes.
“I’m not going to place anyone else’s well being at stake,” Stokes said. “People have said less threatening things and the results have been worse. We’re not withdrawing support, but the level of threat has risen in these two weeks.”
The voicemail from a man purporting to be associated with the Klan was the most direct threat the village has received in recent weeks. However, there have been other concerns about counterprotesters coming to the village, specifically to counter weekly anti-racist rallies held here since late May.
For instance, Yellow Springs Police were on “tier 1” alert along with the rest of Greene County law enforcement during the protest on Saturday, June 20, according to Village Manager Josué Salmerón, who explained that “tier 1” indicates that local law enforcement agencies are “prepared for combative response.”
According to Chief Carlson, the alert was activated due to concerns that a group of counterprotesters from southern Ohio might come to protest a Black Lives Matter event in the county. Earlier that week, a group of 700 counterprotesters — some armed — showed up at a Black Lives Matter rally in the small village of Bethel, Ohio, located on the Ohio River about 30 miles east of Cincinnati. Some counterprotesters became violent, and were seen in viral videos harassing and assaulting peaceful protesters.
Yellow Springs was not specifically named by the groups as a possible destination to counterprotest, Carlson said this week, despite rumors circulating locally that they had identified the village.
“We never got word that they were coming to Yellow Springs. The whole region was on alert,” he said.
The Village chose to respond with precautions in case they might come, according to Salmerón this week.
“If Bethel, as a small town, is a target for counterprotesters, we knew Yellow Springs would be up there,” he said.
Yellow Springs, as a progressive town in a more conservative area, also marks it as a potential target, Salmerón added.
Another precipitating event that could draw counterprotesters to Greene County was a confrontation between Beavercreek police officers and Black Lives Matter protesters on June 1 near the Fairfield Commons Mall, Salmerón said. There, police used tear gas to disperse protesters, who had blocked traffic.
So, during the weekly rally and march on Saturday, June 20, the Village was prepared. Six local officers, more than half the department, were on duty, and, according to Salmerón, instructed to keep their riot gear in their vehicles. Additional Village employees from public works were involved in road closures. And a team of deputies from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office were staged at the Miami Township Firehouse on Corry Street.
In the end, no outside protesters arrived, and the rally and subsequent march through the village took place without incident. Other than a few stray oppositional comments from passersby in vehicles — “All Lives Matter” is the most common — there has been no organized counter-demonstration here in five weeks of rallies.
But costs to the Village and township to prepare for the possibility of such an event are escalating. According to Miami Township Fire Chief Colin Altman, the overtime pay for staff to assist with traffic control at the rallies has gotten expensive, and, after internal discussions, the township has decided they may not be able to keep assisting.
“We’re happy to help out the police and keep everyone safe,” he said. “But our budget is tight this year.”
Outside anger, local response
There are other reasons some local officials are on edge. Over the last month, the Village has received an uptick in angry and sometimes hateful email and voice messages from people outside the community, according to Council Clerk Judy Kintner this week.
The level of vitriol and the volume of messages coming from beyond Yellow Springs both exceed the normal correspondence, Kintner added.
Those messages have largely addressed two topics: opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, and upset about the Village’s resolution stating its stance that face masks be required in downtown Yellow Springs to slow the spread of the coronavirus, according to Kintner.
Many of the mask-related messages seem to stem from inaccurate reports in Dayton-area news media that the resolution was actually an ordinance, or law, requiring masks, rather than a resolution, which is not enforceable.
For instance, on July 19, Kintner received a voicemail from an anonymous man who said he “just found out about your immoral, unethical and unconstitutional mask ordinance.”
“I want you to know that I do not believe in the ‘scamdemic’ and that the China flu is any threat,” he continued. “You are a bigger threat to America and our freedoms than this manufactured crisis and a fake virus threat. … Get the jackboots off of people’s throats. Remove the masks and return to normal. You are the problem. You should be ashamed of yourselves. You are disgusting. Good day.”
Someone who identified themselves as a “frequent tourist from Xenia” wrote, “Thank you for contacting news agencies about your ordinance about mask wearing. I now know not to spend one dime in your village. I will not financially support such tyranny and removal of civil liberty.”
An email writer from an unknown location wrote that, “The panic that the news media is spewing the overreaching of elected officials is out of control. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” while a Waynesville man argued, “You are violating my constitutional rights.”
Another angry message targeted the recently painted George Floyd mural in Kieth’s Alley. The writer, who “used to be a regular visitor to Yellow Springs,” said while they don’t “in any way condone” Floyd’s death, “this man was a horrible person!! Why would you choose to honor such a piece of human crap???”
“I am so disappointed in this sickening display,” they added. “I will not return to your village until this is removed.”
Hostility toward the village may be related to heightened partisan tension nationally. Still, villagers remain worried Yellow Springs could become a target in such polarized times.
But some also argue that outside anger shouldn’t keep Yellow Springers from continuing to protest in support of Black lives and in opposition to police brutality and racism.
Jen Boyer, who has helped organize the Saturday rallies since the first local action on May 30, said organizers were specifically concerned about a hostile counterprotest’s impact on local youth, who have organized the last three weekend rallies. Still, she doesn’t think it’s a reason to cancel local Black Lives Matter events going forward.
“I don’t think it’s a reason to not show up. I think it’s more of a reason to be present,” she said.
Co-organizer Bomani Moyenda said he has “mixed emotions” about not holding events in light of a threat of protest. On the one hand, he questions “letting these people keep us from expressing ourselves.” On the other hand, he worries about armed protesters who “don’t care about hurting people,” pointing to the recent shooting of a protester in Louisville by a man who has since been charged with murder.
“I just feel like we are in these very violent times,” he said.
A quiet Fourth
This week, Fire Chief Altman, Yellow Springs Mayor Pam Conine and Mike Miller of the HUMAN Project, who were involved in organizing the briefly revived Fourth of July Parade, all confirmed the role of the purported KKK threat in canceling the event. They also expressed their disappointment that it was canceled.
Altman had been looking forward to the July Fourth holiday, which the fire department has long participated in. At the time it was canceled, he was working with Greene County Public Health to get clear guidelines, and had found a new, safer route that would have taken the parade away from the often congested downtown.
But, Altman said, “given the atmosphere nationally,” the threat was enough to be worried about. The day after news about the parade hit the regional media, he personally received two voicemails on his phone from anonymous callers who he surmised were “upset we were mixing politics with patriotism.”
Altman said the last time the Klan came to Yellow Springs was “a wash” but expensive. According to previous News reports, on April 17, 2004 a group of seven Klansman handed out literature on the sidewalk along Xenia Avenue. They were met with a few dozen supporters and hundreds of counterprotesters, while standing by were 125 law enforcement officials from 14 jurisdictions and 49 firefighters and EMS personnel from six jurisdictions.
Ultimately, the decision to cancel the parade was made by the HUMAN Project, a grassroots anti-racist group modeled after the organization H.U.M.A.N., or Help Us Make a Nation, a human rights nonprofit active in the village in the ’70s and ’80s. In a Facebook post, its leader, Mike Miller, wrote that in addition to risk to public health, he felt the theme of Black Lives Matter was inappropriate after he learned that “many African Americans do not celebrate the 4th of July.” The event was also going to highlight the contributions of African Americans to the village throughout its history.
By phone last week, Miller said there was “a lot of enthusiasm” for the parade, but when the word got out to the greater Dayton area, he chose to cancel it for health and safety reasons.
“It was going to be festive and to the point,” Miller said. “But it was just not a good idea because of the publicity.”
Asked if the voicemail threat was a factor, Miller said, “absolutely.”
“As soon as I saw that [the event notice] had been published in the Dayton newspaper, I knew that it would be asking for trouble,” he added.
Mayor Pam Conine said that the Fourth of July is always a “great morale booster for our village,” but that this year it would have been hard to keep small due to the cancellation of many other communities’ celebrations. Yellow Springs’ fireworks display was canceled earlier in the spring, when the parade was canceled the first time.
In the end, it would have been too much for the village to deal with in these times, Conine said.
“As it happens, outside folks get ahold of what we want to do here, and blow it out of proportion or misconstrue it,” she said. “And it becomes something we don’t want to deal with, especially with everything else going on.”
Conine suggests villagers take time with family and friends on July 4 to reflect on the holiday, and on the “intersectionality of all the different issues in our society.”
“Let’s have an hour or two of quiet relaxation and celebration.”