Earlier this evening, I was driving to McDonald's to pick up some supper, and my radio was tuned to KS95. The DJs, Moon and Staci, were asking for people to call in and tell them stories. Moon wanted folks to tell him stories about a time when they uttered the words, "Get out of my house!" Staci, on the other hand, wanted people to tell her a story about a time they were in a riot.
The moment I heard her story prompt, I started laughing, and I thought, Do I have a story for you! Sadly, I had left my phone at home and by the time I returned, food in hand, I couldn't call in. So instead, I Tweeted my thought.
Shortly thereafter, I found this reply:
I replied with a short version of the story. But that got me reminiscing and I felt the need to share.
So snuggle in, folks, and let me tell you the story of the four Minnesota kids who found themselves in a race riot sparked by the Ku Klux Klan.
When I was in college, three of my friends used to go on what they called "Cross Country Skips." Usually during spring break, they would pack up and drive to Toronto or New Orleans or Corpus Christi. But since my college was on the quarter system, our breaks never matched up. I never got to go.
Finally, in my second year in Seminary, we figured out how I could go. We'd head to Memphis for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. They'd drive down to St. Louis and pick me up early in the morning. We'd be there by Saturday morning, and we'd have a day or two to see the sights and hit Beale Street.
Everything went pretty well. We made the drive and arrived early on Saturday. As we pulled into town, we saw people walking around with what appeared to be civil rights inspired signs: "Keep the Dream Alive," that sort of thing. When we got into our room, we saw a big crowd gathering nearby. We thought that maybe it was a parade of some sort. So we figured we should go check it out.
Now pay attention, folks, and make sure you learn from our mistakes. There were certain stupid decision we made.
We left our hotel and drifted in the direction of the crowds. Much to our surprise, we saw a police checkpoint across one street. Confused as to why a parade would need a checkpoint, we asked a passerby what was happening.
"The Klan's in town and having a rally on the police station steps."
Now I'd like to think that it was sleep deprivation, but for some inexplicable reason, we decided that we should go check this out. NOT because we agreed with the Klan's rhetoric or beliefs, mind you. I think our reasoning was more along the lines of "We're four white kids from Minnesota who have never seen the Klan before." So we thought that we'd see what we could see. (THIS IS STUPID DECISION #1)
We went through the police check point, where we were patted down and the girls' purses were searched (STUPID DECISION #2) We then went down the block and we came upon the edges of the scene.
Let's see if I can set the stage for you: the Klan, about a dozen members in the sheets and everything, had set themselves up on the police station steps. The cops had made a no man's land around the steps, using police cars as a barricade. Pressed up against said barricade was an anti-Klan protest, a crowd that covered the street from building to building. We found a spot toward the back of the crowd, where I had a pretty good view of the proceedings (being 6' 6" has its advantages at times). I could see the Klan, the entire crowd, the Memphis riot police in full body armor watching us all warily (EVIDENCE OF STUPID DECISION #3).
As we watched, the anti-Klan crowd . . . well, "saluted" the Klan in an appropriate manner and then burned a Confederate flag. Then some sort of disturbance started working its way through the crowd, heading right for us (EVIDENCE OF STUPID DECISION #4). The girls wisely ran away; the other guy and I stuck around to see what was happening. As it turns out, someone had shown up wearing a jacket with a Confederate flag patch on it. A group of people were screaming at him, "Are you one of them? Are you one of them?" and hounded him out of the crowd.
It was at this point I turned to the other guy and said, "Let's find the girls and get out of here."
We found them on the edge of the crowd. We started discussing what we wanted to do next without really leaving the area (STUPID DECISION #5). That's when we noticed that a big chunk of the crowd was running. As in right at us.
So we turned and ran, but a second later, the people stopped running and started moving back into the crowd. Out of immediate danger, we did the only logical thing: we stopped where we were and continued our discussion of where we wanted to eat lunch (EXTREMELY STUPID DECISION #6).
As I recall, I was the one facing the crowd as we talked. And as we talked, I noticed these odd canisters sailing through the air, spouting what looked like smoke. And these projectiles were landing in the crowd. By the time I realized I was seeing honest-to-goodness tear gas canisters, the entire anti-Klan crowd (which, remember, filled the street from building to building) had turned around and everyone was running.
Right. At. Us.
I think I said something like, "I think it's time to run again." And we started running for our lives, a mass of humanity hard on our heels. One of the girls was yelling that if we got split up, we should meet back at the hotel. Thankfully, said hotel was just a block or two and we managed to dive into the lobby just as the desk clerk was locking the doors. In other words, if we had been moving just a second or two slower, we would have been trapped out on the streets.
We waited for the initial surge to go past the hotel and then we snuck out a side doorway to head for lunch (STUPID DECISION #7). It was then that we discovered that some people had decided to take advantage of the chaos and do some destruction of public property. Some teenagers came running down the streets, knocking over trash cans and newspaper vendors. One had his belt off and, for some reason, was whipping a bus. Another was carrying a 2X4. But then the guy carrying the 2X4 turned around, dropped it, and took off running. We soon saw why. The cops were after them, one with his weapon drawn, the other wearing a gas mask.
We got out of there quickly and went to the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch. We stayed out of the neighborhood until the later afternoon, when we went back to watch the news to try to figure out what happened. As near as we could figure at the time, the anti-Klan people started pressing up against the police barricade, prompting the cops to start spraying pepper spray to disperse them (that, we think, caused the initial surge of people). When that didn't work, they resorted to tear gas.
Anyway, we went out later that evening to hit Beale Street. As we left the hotel, one of the girls spotted the 2X4 the guy had dropped in the street. On the way back to the hotel, she saw it again. And she took it as a souvenir. So far as I know, she still has it.
Like I said, we made some stupid decisions. Looking back on it, I honestly have no idea what possessed us to go past that police checkpoint. It was just dumb all around.
At the very least, it gives me a great story to use when I play "2 Truths and a Lie" with people. Because really, how many of you would think a mild mannered Lutheran pastor would have witnessed a race riot started by the Ku Klux Klan?