On November 3, 1979 members of the Communist Workers Party (CWP) of Greensboro North Carolina planned a “Death to the Klan” rally. In full view of news crews, members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party opened fire on the protestors. Five anti-Klan demonstrators were killed—César Vicente Cauce, Michael Ronald Nathan, William Evan Sampson, Sandra Neely Smith, and James Michael Waller—and ten others were wounded (among them one Klansman and a photographer). This dark day came to be known as the Greensboro Massacre. Clear footage of the event was not enough to hold the Klan and American Nazi killers accountable. Three trials took place; a state criminal trial where all were acquitted by an all-white jury; a federal criminal trial that also ended in acquittals by an all-white jury; and a civil trial that found Greensboro Police, the Klan, and American Nazi members jointly liable for the wrongful death of one victim.
Notably absent from footage are the Greensboro Police. Internal Greensboro Police Department (GPD) records and other evidence have since shown police were not only aware of the plan to confront protestors, but went so far as to provide information about the parade route to their informant, an admitted Klan member. Police even received a tip that a Nazi planned to bring a machine gun to the event with the intention to “shoot up the place,” but police dismissed the information as a rumor.
Despite past animosity between the CWP and Klan that made violence a real possibility, police intentionally stationed officers 5 to 20 blocks away and repeatedly directed officers away from the rally. They also did not monitor the situation with their radios or attempt to send tactical units to get between the two groups, even after observing a car caravan of white supremacists headed to where protestors had gathered. Aware that shots had been fired, police let the caravan of white supremacist drive right by them without detaining or arresting anyone at the scene. These actions lead to the inference that police within the GPD harbored hostile attitudes towards the CWP, the demonstrators, and the community where this traumatic event happened. These attitudes likely influenced the exercise of law enforcement discretion. The GPD withheld their services, and what ensued was an act of violence aimed at depriving the CWP members of their First Amendment Rights to Free Speech and Equal Protection under the 14th Amendment.
Strong evidence supports this charge—as stated previously the GPD was held civilly liable for the wrongful death of an anti-racist activist. Additional evidence suggests the police consistently dismissed the risks posed by the KKK. The failure to seriously account for the potential danger of a white supremacist organization with a history of racial terrorism exposes an ugly truth about the culture within the GPD at the time. The performance of their duty to the public that day hinged not on what the Constitution protects, but rather on their attitudes towards the protestors and their deference towards white supremacists.
It is important to point out, GPD officers maintained an informant relationship with a key Klan organizer, Eddie Dawson, who was central to planning the attack. The GPD paid Eddie Dawson to provide information about criminal activity and his handlers were aware of his role in planning the confrontation that took place, yet they did nothing. The GPD laid low and sat on the sideline.
Although many key facts regarding the events of that day will not fit into this post, I encourage readers to review the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an independent body with a mandate to examine “‘the context, causes, sequence and consequences of the events of November 3, 1979’ for the purpose of healing transformation for the community.” The report they compiled is based on court documents, GPD and federal law enforcement records, media representations, and hundreds of interviews and personal statements taken in private and at public hearings organized by the commission. Their work is a truly inspirational effort at community-based healing.
The circumstances and problems with policing that allowed the GPD to disregard the safety of protestors still exist. 40 years later and the nationwide Movement for Black Lives has spotlighted the racially disparate impact of American law enforcement. Despite the national attention, very little has been done to actually hold police accountable and black people have continued to die at a disproportionate rate.
Police brutality and accountability has been a leading issue of almost every social and racial justice movement in this country, yet local and state governments, the federal government, and the courts refuse to hold police to a higher standard. As any student of criminal procedure can tell you, the Supreme Court has been highly deferential to police discretion, excused misconduct where police can raise a presumption of “good faith,” and expanded police authority by deferring to their expertise and training when their judgement is questioned under the Fourth Amendment. These precedents taken together with the insurmountable doctrine of qualified immunity has made police accountability a practical impossibility.
The consequences of this deferential judicial posture are far reaching. But importantly, it promotes an ahistorical narrative that police departments are free from undue influences. Police in America from their inception have been aligned with structures of oppression, which promotes toxic cultures and practices that perpetuate racial inequity in law enforcement. This problem did not magically disappear after the civil rights movement—current racism within departments and police ties to white supremacist and far-right militancy are well documented. Even in cases where racial animus is not explicit, fraternalism in police departments promotes and glorifies violence against black and brown bodies. Instead of honestly dealing with the toxic culture within police departments, we have given police more responsibilities within society and perpetuated cycles of violence.
Police are often the public’s only option when faced with crisis, giving them tremendous power. So, when their personal beliefs, racial biases, or fraternal alliances are challenged, the exercise of police discretion can be dangerous. Similar to what happened in Greensboro, unhappy cops have jeopardized public safety, targeted political actors, and even collaborated with armed militant groups that show up to protests. Disparate police responses to Black Lives Matter protests and anti-lockdown demonstrations reveal their attitudes towards the free speech rights of those they dislike. Far from being neutral, police have acted as counter protesters at demonstrations directed at them, despite the fact protests against the police have almost always been peaceful. On the other hand, when faced with armed and threatening white protestors, police did not show up in riot gear or with bean bag guns.
Because we refuse to seriously account for police cultures that allow improper influences to dictate law enforcement priorities, what happened in Greensboro was repeated in Kenosha. A 17 year old Kyle Rittenhouse, illegally armed with an assault rifle, killed two Black Lives Matter protestors and injured a third, following the shooting of Jacob Blake. Although the details are not exactly the same, the similarity between these two events are shocking.
A group called the Kenosha Guard used Facebook to call on armed citizens to patrol the city during protests. Widely circulated video from that night shows police expressing appreciation and sharing water with the armed agitators. Another video shows a heavily armed man telling protestors that police said, “We’re gonna push them down by you, because you can deal with them, and then we’re going to leave.” But perhaps the most damning are the videos of the shooting and its immediate aftermath (which are widely available so I will avoid sharing here). Just like Greensboro, police were notably absent from the area where the shooting took place and made no effort to arrest the killer. After walking right by police, Kyle Rittenhouse went home to Illinois where he was eventually arrested. Following the incident, police blamed protestors for being out past curfew.
More details are needed to shed light on the extent to which police are responsible for disregarding the safety of protestors, and three pending trials—the criminal trial, a civil rights lawsuit brought by protestors, and a lawsuit against Facebook brought by victims—may eventually fill in those gaps. What we know so far suggests our failure to hold police accountable for their toxic culture continues to impact the safety and Constitutional protections of vulnerable communities and disfavored groups. It was a problem on November 3, 1979, and in 2020 not much has changed.