Orlando, Law Enforcement, the KKK, and “Post-Racial America”

In their Broadway hit Book of Mormon, one of the jokes Trey Parker and Matt Stone run throughout the show centers around two geographic locations: Orlando, Florida, and the African country of Uganda. The heart of the gag centers on how the sheltered, young, white missionary has spent his life dreaming of being sent to the home of Epcot to spread Joseph Smith’s good word, but is instead sent to a foreign land surrounded by people who terrify him. It’s not an overly subtle running joke, but it’s amusingly done, and the near-all-white Book of Mormon audiences eat it up.

It was hard not to think of Parker and Stone’s gag this morning when I read over at TPM that two Fruitland Park, Florida police officers — one the department’s Deputy Chief — were dismissed for allegedly being members of the Ku Klux Klan. And you can take that obligatory “alleged” for whatever it’s worth: The revelation comes from an in-depth FBI investigation, and one of the two simply agreed to resign when confronted with the accusation.

Of course, being a member of the KKK is not in fact against the law. And membership to white supremacist organizations is not, curiously, officially grounds for dismissal from law enforcement organizations in the state of Florida. Nonetheless, the city is choosing to let the officers go since, as Chief Deputy State Attorney correctly notes, “if [there] was a black suspect and the officer was in the Klan, that’s something the defense could bring out.”

At first blush, this is a classic the-system-works, happy-ending story: Two police officers go rogue, are caught by their fellow law-enforcement kin, and immediately removed from office. When you broaden the context, however, the story — and what it says about our supposed “post-racial America” — becomes far more troubling.

For starters, there’s the matter that this isn’t the first time the KKK has been in the news in the area surrounding the police officer’s beat. Fruitland Park is not a hick, backwater town, but rather a middle-class suburb of Orlando. This past winter, the Klan was leaving flyers in predominantly black neighborhoods in Orlando’s Orange County. Though the flyers declared that area whites “[wouldn’t] stand for our area to be invaded,” local authorities decided they were non-threatening and therefore protected by the First Amendment. The black community was assured, however, that police throughout the county would investigate this new curiosity to make sure local minorities had nothing to fear. That  some members of the police were involved with the Klan at the time the Klan was being investigated is troubling, to say the least. (It is not, however, unprecedented. A county sheriff, Willis McCall, initiated the Klan’s initial installation into Florida area in the late 1940s.)

And if seeing the concepts “Orlando suburb” and “racially charged” so closely in juxtaposition are tugging at something in your memory, you are not alone. Orlando’s many suburbs also include Sanford, Florida. Sanford, of course, is the home to the very police department that set cable-news-ratings wheels a’ soarin’ by releasing George Zimmerman without doing their due diligence, noting that Stand Your Ground relieved them of the responsibility of doing so.

Critics will point out, correctly, that all of these are data points are not necessarily related. And yet it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that together they tell a larger story.

For example, there’s the whole need for the FBI to be a whistle-blower at all. The two Fruitland Park officers dismissed this week were not fresh rookies that had yet to learn the ropes. Each was a longtime member of the force; one was its second-highest ranking officer. Now, is it possible that two officers can be both so wrapped up in a white supremacist lifestyle and so short-sighted that they would be stupid enough to join the KKK — and yet still somehow never do or say anything that might raise red flags in their own department? Maybe — but I have to say to my eye that’s a pretty damn weak maybe, and to be honest even as I consider the possibility I can hear Occam screaming at me to take his damn razor already.

Also, I’d be lying if I said the response from the State Attorney — “if [there is] a black suspect and the officer was in the Klan, that’s something the defense could bring out” — doesn’t make me cringe. How a jury would look at evidence provided by Klan member against a black defendant might indeed be worrisome for a multi-racial community, but not nearly as worrisome as the fact that a Klan member was compiling evidence on black defendants. Somehow the State Attorney’s office took the news that there were Klan police officers and managed to make their big public message one that slyly stated whoever the black guy in court might be, he is totally guilty and needs to be put behind bars.

For me, it’s hard not to see this as more grist for Ta-Nehisi’s mill.

Follow Tod on Twitter, view his archive, or email him. Visit him at TodKelly.com

 

 

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74 thoughts on “Orlando, Law Enforcement, the KKK, and “Post-Racial America”

  1. Sanford, of course, is the home to the very police department that set cable-news-ratings wheels a’ soarin’ by releasing George Zimmerman without doing their due diligence, noting that Stand Your Ground relieved them of the responsibility of doing so.

    Considering that Zimmerman was found not guilty, I would say they did just fine.

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  2. Meh, it’s Florida. You know… I drive all the lower 48 states. There are some I’m happy to see in my rear-view mirrors. Florida is on that list.

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  3. So how do they square careers in law with membership in an organization that for decades took the law into its own hands through beatings, murders, arsons and vandalism? Kind of a textbook instance of conflict of interest, wouldn’t you say?

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  4. Warning: I am still sick and cranky. Apologies in advance for the following rant.

    I think I’ve made it clear that I don’t really trust cops in general. And I trust KKK kops even less. And there’s ALWAYS something screwy going on in Florida, guaranteed. None of what follows should be taken as exculpatory of any of the nonsense reported in the OP.

    But it would perhaps be instructive, Tod, to widen your scope of inquiry. The pattern you identify has threads closer to home as well. Maybe you could write about those sometime.

    Or, we can all just keep being appalled at those Southern rubes, secure in the knowledge that such shenanigans only happen in their benighted lands.

    From 2008, almost an eternity ago:

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=__2SJOjafHs

    Medford is the 4th largest metro area in Oregon. I’m sure there are no KKK kops there now though, so rest easy. I mean, it’s not like the 1920’s when Oregon was one of the strongest KKK states in the West (though, to be fair, they were mostly probably about hating the Catholics, with just a sideline in hassling Jews, Asians and African-Americans).

    Some Oregon/Portland race relations history, thumbnailed, that helps explain its glaring whiteness:

    http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2012/11/28/why-arent-there-more-black-people-in-oregon/#sthash.bi1HEq9o.dpbs

    A little bit on Oregon’s own “Katrina”, in Vanport:

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanport,_Oregon

    Maybe I am just feeling defensive because I grew up in the South; but I saw more black faces there, in all walks of life, than I ever saw in Oregon.

    And so it feels a bit finger-waggy to see a near-constant focus on the South (remember the [very good] Tuscaloosa school resegregation piece? Tell me, how integrated are Oregon’s schools? Are there even very many black people remaining in Oregon, to integrate?) when it comes to racial matters, no matter how deservedly-effed-up a reputation the South has in that arena.

    OK, rant over. I still love ya, my Tod. But I had to say it.

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    • ???

      I do not use any form of the word “South” anywhere in my post. In fact, I felt like I was pretty clear in my post — as well as the FP into — to describe this as a microcosm of a national and not a regional issue. I even describe Orlando as a “cosmopolitan” city.

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      • Sorry, I’m probably reading too much into the piece explicitly connecting one Orlando suburb/incident (Fruitland Park) with another (Sanford), and the State/State’s Attorney, and my own memory of the Tuscaloosa school re-segregation piece I mentioned.

        But you are correct, nowhere does it say “The South”.

        Like I said, I may just be feeling cranky and defensive; but next time it’s time for one of these “look how far we still have to go on race” pieces, maybe it’d be possible to pluck an example from any state NOT in the South, just for the sake of diversity?

        Gah. It probably is just me. I’m gonna go finish making dinner.

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      • IMO the main problem with “look how far we still have to go on race” posts is that most of the time they’re really “look how far those ignorant retrograde bastards over there still have to go on race” posts.

        Oh, on a totally unrelated note, I uploaded that simple commenter-ignoring script I mentioned a long while ago to GreasyFork here.

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      • I think if you go back, you’ll see that I talk about Portland’s race stuff more than any other single locale. For example, I’ve already written about how Portland gentrifies minority neighborhoods and pushes those minorities out of the city. I’ve also written about how housing in this city was segregated by law far longer than most other places in this country, and that I now actually live in a neighborhood that would not have allowed blacks in my lifetime — and how the effects of that stay for long time. And usually when I talk about race issues, I think I tend to talk about it in a national sphere.

        On the other hand, regarding the whole segregated proms thing…

        I’m sorry, that shit was weird.

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      • Yeah, well, I got sorta the same vibe, especially with the first set of commentators bashing Florida. Smacks of “liberal distain for flyover land”. Now, I don’t like Florida for a variety of reasons, weather primarily, but still…this coastal “we’re better than the rubes in Ohio” attitude is rather tedious. As I’ve said, I’ve seen and experienced more racism on the east coast mid atlantic than I did on the West or the South.

        And let’s not get all self righteous about the coasts. When I grew up in Washington state, there were not a lot of black folk. The racism that was there was directed towards the native tribes. Racism is all over and in every ethnic and creed. Some folks are better at hiding it and some refuse to see it.

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      • On the other hand, if you are in Florida and get attacked by a gator (or, the other way round), you definitely want these kids nearby.

        http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v4HpFJBVoqs

        The kid in the blue UF shirt cracks me up with how articulate and matter-of-fact he is about the story; and the doofus involved with the gator might not have lived if not for the quick thinking of the other kid, who jumped in to save him and also tourniqueted his arm.

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      • Now, I don’t like Florida for a variety of reasons, weather primarily, but still…this coastal “we’re better than the rubes in Ohio” attitude is rather tedious. As I’ve said, I’ve seen and experienced more racism on the east coast mid atlantic than I did on the West or the South.
        On a related note, I find the insistence in some quarters that Ohio is somehow ‘real America’ in a way the coasts aren’t equally as tedious.

        Everyone seems to define ‘real America’ as “people like me, here” anyways — except the media and politicians, the media’s definition varies but often seems weirdly stuck in an America-that-never-was — and politicians, of course, define it as “the people I’m talking to, right now”

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      • Yeah, well, I got sorta the same vibe, especially with the first set of commentators bashing Florida. Smacks of “liberal distain for flyover land”. Now, I don’t like Florida for a variety of reasons, weather primarily, but still…this coastal “we’re better than the rubes in Ohio” attitude is rather tedious

        Your U.S. map must look a hell of a lot different than my U.S. map.

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      • Just for the record, my comment above was aimed mostly at the way so many “News of the Weird” stories seem to emanate from Florida. My personal theory is that living in a place where being eaten by a large reptile, basically a leftover dinosaur*, is a nontrivial possibility triggers deep mammalian anxieties that manifest in odd behavior. I lived in New Orleans for a year. Lots of coolness there but an ineffable sense of oddity permeates it as well.

        * Crocodiles and alligators have been around for about 300 million years, IIRC.

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      • There is a noticiable distain from the coastal city dwellers for “flyover” land. This is rather pronounced in NYC, LA, SF, DC and similiar places. It’s in the media too and politics. I’ve seen it, heard it, witnessed it. Hell, I’m even guilty of doing it myself once or twice, sadly.

        It has nothing to do with “real america”. It has everything to do with urban upper class and elites thinking they are better than the rest of the folks who don’t live in those bubbles, for whatever reason. I could speculate but it really doesn’t matter to me why, they just do.

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      • I believe you missed the point.

        The coasts, supposedly — according to you, at least — ‘disdain the interior’. And the interior, of course, holds itself up as real America rather than the ‘urban elites’ and ‘upper class’, I believe you called it?

        Hilariously, in bashing the coasts for their elitism, you did the same thing — just in favor of the interior.

        All without any actual proof that such views are widespread — in fact, a quick glance at media and TV (the product of that liberal elite Hollywood) shows quite a few examples of the interior held up as a more true America than those ‘coastal elites’.

        But thanks for demonstrating my point. Doubly so in the mistaken attempt to ‘correct’ me.

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      • I did no such thing as support the point that the interior is the “real america”. You’re mistaken if you thought that. And, as for my proof, “I’ve seen it, heard it, witnessed it. Hell, I’m even guilty of doing it myself once or twice, sadly.” Pretty much covers it for me. What, you want hyperlink to what some smarmy guy said to me 10 years ago?

        The fact that there are some tv shows extolling the virtues of the heartland doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of distain still out there.

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      • Damon,
        Ahem. To quote you, about “coastal city dwellers”: ” It has everything to do with urban upper class and elites thinking they are better than the rest of the folks who don’t live in those bubbles, for whatever reason”

        Urban upper class and elites is not, as one would say, objective language.

        It’s pejorative, in exactly the same way “flyover country” is.

        40% of Americans live pretty much directly on the coasts. (In a county boarding the coasts). Over half live within 100 miles of coast. 75% of the US population is ‘urban’ — 80% if you count suburbs too.

        If you’re gonna gripe about ‘flyover country’, try not to bash the half of America who doesn’t happen to live in the ‘heartland’ (which is true geographically, if not else) and certainly not the 80% or so who are you know, urban.

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      • Hmm. Maybe. People use varying definitions or urban.

        Then again, in this context it’s generally an insult — like living in a city is somehow not truly American. A weird twitch of American life and politics that always annoys me, and I live in a small town.

        In Texas. I’m not exactly a native New Yorker, although the nearest city to me (Houston) has the population of roughly twice that of Montana, and a fifth of Ohio.

        The gripe about coastal elites and ‘flyover country’ just amuses me, mostly because it comes from the same place as assuming Ohio or Iowa or Wyoming is somehow ‘America’ in a special way New York City or California is not.

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      • I’m skeptical that there is a definition of urban that does not include suburban but does include 75% of the population.

        I’ve actually been trying to find some good definitions. Haven’t had any luck, because it’s a hard thing to measure, but the main thing I have learned (or had confirmed) is that both city core and rural populations are dwarfed by suburbs, by most measurements. If we look at “principle municipality vs others” the difference is huge (Houston has two million people in it, the MSA has six). If we start looking at things like car-centrism, it almost certainly goes up from there.

        Your comment about 80% if we include suburbs was about right.

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      • Will,

        I was looking at a couple of sources. Wouldn’t surprise me if they both said “urban” meant different things and I grabbed the numbers wrong. I know 20% rural is right though — I’ve seen that LOTS, and rural is pretty easy to define. (Whereas urban/suburban/small town/etc is more fuzzy).

        Anyways, my basic point was that sneering at coastal elites for sneering at fly-over country is ridiculously funny, because it’s the exact same thing, just aimed the other way.

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      • Rural is pretty easy to define, though we still get it wrong a lot due to the “small city vs rural” distinction your refer to. I referred to a town where I lived with about 50k people as “rural America” for years when actually that’s considered a part of that state’s urban population.

        It’s less that 50k itself is looked at and said “rural”… but if it’s surrounded by nothing, it seems to get incorporated into the “rural” when we think about it (the same way a suburb of 50k can get incorporated into “urban” if it’s near a large city). Or, at least, this was the trap that I fell into.

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    • The Pacific Northwest and Idaho/Montana have pretty large neo-Nazi populations (as large counts for hate groups) because these areas are not diverse largely and also sparsely populated/wooden.

      There was a huge controversy a year or two ago with the Seattle* artist Charles Krafft. He got famous with his disasterware series of AK-47s and Grenades done like delftware. Everyone thought it was a comment until the Strange did some investigating and found out Kraftt was a real neo-Nazi and would brag on-line about snookering liberals.

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      • This is very true; they had a huge spike back in the late 80s and 90s.

        And actually, the Orlando story most brought to mind two stories from different parts of the country, one of which was from here in PDX. (The other was actually NYC’s S&F.)

        Back when I was in high school, Portland police officers took four dead possums they found somewhere, took them over to an almost-all black neighborhood, and dumped them in front of a popular soul food restaurant as a “prank.”

        The city commissioner who oversees the police* fired the officers, but the police department revolted and a whole lot of white Portlander angrily protested their firing. They were eventually reinstated with 30 day suspensions, time served, and given back pay for the remaining time they hadn’t worked.

        The restaurant owner sued for a few million for civil rights violations. He eventually won, but was only awarded mid-five-figure damages, a lot of which was eaten up by legal fees.

        Here’s an Oregonian story about a rally that was held to reinstate the officers:

        http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1338&dat=19810404&id=GFdOAAAAIBAJ&sjid=WPkDAAAAIBAJ&pg=5738,1149162

        *In PDX the city commissioners don’t work as a committee so much as they do mangers for particular departments to which they are assigned.

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      • I was in Portland in January 2011 and vaguely remember seeing stories and hearing a friend speak about Portland cops having PR issues because there were a bunch of incidents of “shoot first, ask questions later.” I remember seeing a story about it in the Oregonian. And I really did like Portland, I thought it was a charming city but I was a bit shocked about how white the city was demographically. I know Seattle is starting to get a large influx of African immigrants, is the same true in Portland?

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  5. Hey, maybe they joined just for the social aspects of the group, rather than endorsing all of its beliefs.

    Sort of like the Catholics I know…

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  6. What happens if/when the KKK organizes themselves as a religious organization?

    Or, rather than hypotheticals, what if these officers were found to be members of the Westboro Baptist Church? Could they have been dismissed for participating in an similarly hate-filled group (albeit one with less history and which targets a smaller segment of the population)?

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    • What happens if the KKK incorporates? That’s the question.

      Although if I remember my history right, the KKK was formed mostly to sell expensive merchandise to racists. And it worked quite well — got a few people quite rich. It’s mutated since.

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  7. We will obviously never have a truly post-racial America with no racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, or other forms of bigotry. IIRC the story from a few months ago about Hispanics starting to identify as white gave hope to the GOP and was just more evidence of hoping not to court black voters. There is some history of “becoming white” where previous “non-white” groups like Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Greeks, and Jews were able to ascend into “whiteness”. Park of Nixon’s strategy was to appeal to so-called “white ethnics” who previously were steadfast Democratic voters because of their immigrant and blue-collar backgrounds.

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      • Be fun to tease out how representative that is. (After all, they’re limited to people who identified their state). Age would probably also be subject to bias — young people are more likely to congregate online.

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      • I don’t know anything about the hate site mentioned in that article, or what “joining” it entails. Could an anti-racist “join” it in order to see what the racists are saying, in order to better combat them? (I’m not going to that site to find out, mind.)

        Also, I wonder how much membership in that site tells us. Illinois, apparently, has the lowest membership of those who declare their state and age, but it strikes me as one of the most racist places I know. (All of that is subjective, of course, especially because I don’t “know” very many places.)

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      • Those statistics aren’t particularly illuminating. That site is virulently white-supremacist, so it’s a very safe bet there are exactly zero non-whites registered. So if precisely a constant percentage of whites nationwide registered there that map would pretty much look exactly like the one shown. Mostly what you’re looking at there reflects the geographic distribution of minorities vs whites.

        Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a geographic distribution to racism. There very well may be. It’s just that those are poor (lazy, actually) statistics for teasing that out. For this purpose, given the nature of that site, registrations per 100000 whites rather than 100000 residents would give you a better picture.

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  8. Somehow the State Attorney’s office took the news that there were Klan police officers and managed to make their big public message one that slyly stated whoever the black guy in court might be, he is totally guilty and needs to be put behind bars.

    Isn’t this how all prosecutors think, no matter what the race of the suspect is (despite what the noble DAs on TV cop-dramas would have us believe)? I mean, if the police brought the case to the DA, the suspect must be guilty, right? Although I will admit that the darker skinned the minority, the more certain the prosecutor probably is of the guilt.

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    • It’s a notable characteristic, yes.

      At least publicly, the district attorney of any jurisdiction will usually walk up to a mike and defend the most outrageously corrupt investigations under the guise of “we got the right guy”, even if that investigation took place prior to their time in the DA seat.

      The day a district attorney does otherwise, the sun will stop moving in the sky.

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    • You’re assuming the police department felt it was something they shouldn’t do. Which may be true, but may not be.

      It’s entirely possible it was fairly widely known, but kept quite because of “PC liberals raising a fuss”. I’ve see plenty of that from mid-50s management dealing with sexual harassment, although I that the larger the company, the less likely that is to be tolerated. But tiny organizations, especially when almost entirely local, can get really weird compared to — well, everyone else.

      It’s always a fun experience listening to a friend of mind talk about his previous job — small, less than 30 people, engineering consultants. Oil and gas industry. Seriously, half of what he talks about would be a firing offense most companies — harassment, total lack of accountability for expenses and payroll (with predictable, embezzling results) — all taken from the viewpoints an attitude of the owner and his small cadre of top people. It was acceptable because the guys running the place found it acceptable, and people found other jobs quickly. (They folded not too long ago. You can’t keep up that sort of stuff and not have clients eventually pick up on it. Turnoever among their skilled staff alone was gonna doom them).

      I suspect that small town police and the like run similar risks. (There’s benefits to small and flexible. But there’s drawbacks too).

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  9. Also, I’d be lying if I said the response from the State Attorney — “if [there is] a black suspect and the officer was in the Klan, that’s something the defense could bring out” — doesn’t make me cringe.

    Tod,

    It might appear I’m bending backwards to defend the state’s attorney, but as cringeworthy as the statement is (and you do a good job in the subsequent paragraph explaining exactly why it’s cringeworthy), maybe it’s the statement the he had to make. It’s iffy firing someone just because of the organization they belong to in their spare time. It’s not a content-neutral firing. The state’s attorney has to at least try to demonstrate how membership in the KKK, by itself, means impairing the officers’ effectiveness.

    Please note that this doesn’t mean I think the Klan is okay or that it’s okay for a police officer to be a member. But it is one of those freedom of speech things, and if I would endorse the government firing an employee because of an organization the employee belongs to, the government ought to at least demonstrate the harm beyond pointing out that the organization expounds unpopular and/or repugnant ideas. Perhaps (perhaps!) that’s why the state’s attorney had to adopt that more or less utilitarian justification. (Of course, nothing stopped the state’s attorney from adding your objection to the mix about it being a big problem for a Klan member to collect evidence on “criminals.”)

    I feel dirty writing that because it looks like a defense of the Klan. But I do think the state’s attorney has to deal with freedom of speech objections and the “it might not hold up in court” statement is the type of thing that is presumed to be in a state’s attorney’s purview in a way that his employees’ membership in private organizations isn’t.

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    • I can see that point and agree with it to a certain extant. But as pro-first amendment as I am, I think a line can reasonably be drawn at organizations with a well documented history of terrorism and as high a body count as the KKK has. Not that I would condone making joining the KKK, or al Qaeda for that matter, de facto illegal but I don’t think it is too much to ask that the people we pay to “protect and serve” and trust with legal violence NOT be a member of terrorist organizations. It seems like a clear conflict of interest to me.

      And it isn’t about their ideas, either. Let me be clear. It’s about the KKK’s history of actually killing people and destroying property.

      Of course, getting any white cop or politician in Florida, a state that until a few months ago had a high school named after Nathan B. Forrest, to admit out loud and proud that the KKK is a terrorist organization is another matter.

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  10. Can someone explain to me why racial supremacy groups aren’t considered terrorist organizations, but religious supremacy groups like Al Qaeda are? Why do we drone strike Ayman al-Zawahiri but not David Duke?

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