FREEPORT, Maine — One day after Ku Klux Klan recruitment leaflets littered driveways in at least three Maine communities, including the neighborhood where Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon lives, Freeport residents will gather Tuesday night at a “community meeting to reaffirm Freeport’s values.”
The event, scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Freeport Community Center, will be hosted by Gideon, who on Monday said she was disturbed and angry about the fliers.
On Tuesday morning, Gideon left the speaker’s rostrum and told her colleagues in the House of Representatives about the fliers.
“They indicated they were awake and ready to defend neighborhoods,” she said. “One part of me thought, ‘We don’t need to give any credence to such a message.’ The other part of me thought, ‘We cannot be silent when such a message is delivered, and … to stand up as human beings or as state representatives or as Mainers and to reject the idea of the KKK or the message they deliver or racism in any way is our fundamental responsibility … A threat to any of us is, in fact, a threat to all of us.”
The single-page, multicolored flier announced a Ku Klux Klan neighborhood watch and encourages people to call a “24-hour Klanline.”
“You can sleep tonight knowing the Klan is awake!” the flier stated. “Are there troubles in your neighborhood? Contact the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan today!”
The Ku Klux Klan, the oldest American hate group, has typically targeted black Americans, but it also has attacked Jews, immigrants, gays and lesbians and, until recently, Catholics, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is based in Missouri.
Fliers also reportedly were found Monday in Augusta, and Topsham Police Lt. Fred Dunn confirmed Tuesday morning that about 10 similar brochures were retrieved Monday morning from driveways along Route 201 after one resident alerted police.
The flier drop in Topsham occurred just more than a week after another alleged incident with racial undertones in that town.
Rep. Seth Berry, a Democrat from Bowdoinham, said Monday that on Jan. 20, the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated, a student at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham handed another student a dollar bill and a handwritten note using racial slurs to urge the student to use the money “to fix your [ethnic] features.”
Berry, who previously worked at Mt. Ararat High School, wrote, “In my 17 years in the [School Administrative District 75} family and 10 years teaching in other schools, I’ve never seen this much overt bigotry. I am sickened by it, and especially concerned for those targeted.”
Calls and emails Tuesday to SAD 75 Superintendent Brad Smith and Mt. Ararat Middle School Principal Joshua Ottow were not returned.
But later Tuesday afternoon, Ottow forwarded to the Bangor Daily News an email to the school’s students and parents alerting them that “a mistake has been made.”
“Recently, a very concerning behavior took place at our school: A student used disturbing and discriminatory language toward another student,” Ottow wrote, declining to be more specific due to confidentiality. “We want to assure all members of our school community that we took this incident very seriously. It was addressed through a thorough disciplinary process.”
Ottow described 10 ongoing programs and projects at the school designed to “promote kindness, respect for diversity and compassion,” and said he would meet with Smith on Tuesday to discuss hosting a community-wide event to share ideas about how to promote positive values.
Dunn said Tuesday morning that Topsham police, including the department’s school resource officer, were not told of the note.
A spokesman for Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said her office was not notified of the note, but added that only reported violations of the Maine Civil Rights Act — acts that involve physical force or violence against a person, damage or destruction of property, or threat of such — warrant action by the attorney general’s office.
“Like the KKK fliers, it is abhorrent, but not in and of itself a violation of the Maine Civil Rights Act,” Tim Feeley wrote in an email to the BDN.
Berry encouraged SAD 75 families to see the Mt. Ararat Middle School incident as “a teachable moment” to discuss the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust. Still, he added, “Given all the things going on in Maine and in the rest of the country, this is an opportunity — maybe even a wake-up call, to teaching tolerance.”
When asked during a weekly interview on WVOM about the fliers, Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday, “I find it appalling. I find it disgusting. There’s no room for that in our society.”
‘An old pattern’
Distributing fliers is nothing new for the KKK and is “part of an old pattern used to intimidate, coerce and otherwise entice people” into the organization, according to Ryan Lenz, editor of the Hatewatch blog at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Sometimes the Ziploc bags used in Freeport are weighted down with candy instead of pebbles, to appeal to children, he said.
Nearly 200 Ku Klux Klan groups were active in the country in 2015, according to the SPLC. The organization’s 2015 Hate Map lists two groups in Maine, the Militant Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the statewide Neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.
Lenz said an up-to-date Hate Map would be online soon, and added that it’s difficult to tell whether the current fliers were distributed by an organized KKK group in Maine.
“This is part of a larger effort to capitalize on the news of the day and these times during which racist ideas are being legitimized,” he said. “We have seen it across the radical right, across the racist right. More specifically, we have seen a feeling or a sort of behavior without government. The risk, the social stigma, that is usually attached to being a public racist is gone, or it’s perceived to be gone because of Trump. They feel Trump’s disavowal of racist ideologies is sort of wink, wink, nod, nod. There’s no longer any shame or stigma attached to being racist.”
Tuesday’s event in Freeport was organized as an opportunity discuss race relations and “to stand up as a community against hatred and divisiveness; the KKK and its message are not welcome in, nor are they reflective of, Freeport,” according to an email Monday night from the Freeport Democrats.
The email noted the forum will focus specifically on the leaflets and on what should be Freeport’s response, and “is not a political rally and not an opportunity to attack Trump and his policies.”