A Merced County sheriff's deputy drove past a small gathering in early 2009 not often seen in this rural county whose population is mostly Latino -- a Ku Klux Klan meeting.
The Klan, which has a presence in other parts of the state, hasn't been reported here for some time.
While local law enforcement's reaction has been guardedly concerned -- there is little they can do unless laws have been broken -- some academics argue that despite a shrinking number of racist groups nationally, smaller, more isolated groups can be more dangerous.
On Feb. 22, 2009, according to a police report obtained by the Sun-Star, a Merced County sheriff's deputy rolled up on a gathering in the backyard of a house just outside of the town of Dos Palos.
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Ten men stood behind a low chain-link fence in the backyard of the house. They wore white robes and pointed white head pieces. On their chests they wore circular badges with a black cross at the center. One of the men wore a purple robe, another a gold robe. Several children played in the yard on that section of Lexington Avenue.
When the group noticed the patrol car, they started yelling at the deputy and then retreated into the house. Soon people began leaving the house and started to get into their cars parked along the road. One man crossed the road towards his truck and covered his face.
About a half hour later, three more deputies arrived at the house and knocked on the front door. Rudy Lish opened the door and said he had just gotten home and didn't know of any gathering. He said his brother, Bobby Lish, who is involved with racist groups, may have been in the house while he was gone.
Then Rudy Lish's father, William Silva, came to the door and told deputies, "I ain't had no damn Klan meeting here!" The two men then asked the deputies to get off their land. No further action was taken.
The towns of Dos Palos and nearby South Dos Palos, both in the center of the San Joaquin Valley, are depressed farm towns whose main problems are poverty and gangs, not white power groups.
But beyond the sheer novelty, the meeting raises questions about racial amity in Merced County: Are these sentiments more widespread in the white community? If so, did such a meeting signal a souring of racial harmony? Or was the meeting just a one-off?
Local reactionDespite the reported meeting, local reaction has been muted.
Dos Palos Police Chief Barry Mann, who is black, said he heard about the Klan meeting, but the sheriff's office didn't notify him about it, so he didn't think it was a problem. "I have no verified facts that there was (a Klan meeting)," he said. He said there have been no race-related issues like that in Dos Palos. "Race relations in town are no different than the majority of Merced County. There's always some residual effects from some long-standing issues, but overall in the city of Dos Palos I don't see any race issues."
Mann said he's read the police report and knows some of the people involved. But he didn't want to classify any one as a KKK member without validation. Even if that were so, he said, people carry biases, but as long as they don't interfere with the freedoms of others, there's nothing he can do as a law enforcement officer.
The president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Dos Palos, Gustine and Los Banos, Jon Grissom Sr., said he hadn't heard of the event and couldn't comment on the issue, since he had no information.
Dos Palos City Council member Johnny Mays said he hadn't heard of the meeting either. "That's the first time I've heard of it," he said. "I don't know what to think, I've never seen any kind of KKK involvement here. I don't know of any."
The reaction from county law enforcement officials, whose deputies made the initial report, was also muted.
Mark Pazin, Merced County's Sheriff, said that while this "concerns him," people have the right of free assembly and can believe what they want to believe. If their actions go further than a meeting, his agency might step in. "We don't tolerate certain associations which are categorized as extremists groups," he said.
Merced County Sheriff's Department Spokesman Tom Mackenzie said there hasn't been any Klan activity reported in recent years. But, he said, they are considered a gang. "It did appear to be a KKK meeting that he interrupted," said Mackenzie of the police report. But they can't be 100 percent sure that's what it was, he said.
While none of the other people connected to the gathering could be identified, Rudy Lish's brother and his wife were contacted by the Sun-Star.
Bobby Lish, whose brother said he may have been at the house during the meeting, had little comment when called. He said, "This happened last year." He threatened to sue the Sun-Star if the newspaper wrote about the event. "If you do it, you will be sued," he said and then hung up the phone.
His wife, Lenea Lish, said, "I'm Portuguese and he's Mexican," referring to her husband. She then said if the Sun-Star published her name, she would go after the newspaper.
A local historyWhile the event shows there are groups like the Klan in Merced County, their activity over the past 40 years has only been recorded in a few instances.
In a historical account of life in Le Grand, written in 1962, a Carl Clausen wrote about the Le Grand band's honorary membership in the Klan. "The Klan had quit a large organization, one in Chowchilla and one in Merced," he wrote. The band played for the Chowchilla and Merced Klans at outdoor meetings, he wrote.
Since the Merced Klan didn't have enough money to pay the band, they made them honorary members instead. Clausen described the event: "It was an enormous event with about 500 men present. There were about 40 men in robes and hoods but no masks. The men formed a square, and each man held a seven-foot staff with a lighted coal oil torch at the top."
Sarah Lim, Merced County Court House Museum director, said it doesn't have much information on the Klan's history in Merced except for this account. "I have not come across anything other than the story about the Le Grand Band," she said.
Since then, newspaper archives show some activity. In 1981 a planned Klan rally in Merced was met with a counter-rally called the "unity celebration." The Klan meeting wasn't held since no Klan members showed up.
In 2005 the Sun-Star reported two incidents of vandalism -- a Swastika and "KKK" -- in front of two black women's homes.
In 2006 the Madera County Gang Enforcement Team began investigating a planned two-day rally where more than 1,000 people and about 12 skinhead bands were expected. The home of Bobby and Donna Hubbard -- where the rally was to be held -- was searched and an assault rifle and a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood were netted. They also found a Nazi flag and regalia. In the backyard, two metal Celtic crosses that were to be burned at the "Unity Fest" were also found.
Trends and the KKKThe Anti-Defamation League's Web site is unambiguous in its description of the Ku Klux Klan. "It is a racist, anti-Semitic movement with a commitment to extreme violence to achieve its goals of racial segregation and white supremacy," according to the group. There are more than 40 Klan groups nation-wide, which are not always affiliated with one another, according to the ADL.
One of those groups, KKK LLC, located in Arkansas, talked to the Sun-Star.
Travis Pierce, their national membership director, said he could neither deny nor confirm the presence of his organization in Merced. They don't divulge membership numbers or the existence of local branches. "If there were affiliates there, we wouldn't be at liberty to discuss them," he said.
KKK LLC, which Pierce said doesn't associate with violent groups calling them selves the Klan, is a legitimate organization with political aims. "We are concerned with actually doing the work of the Klan," he said. "This is a professional organization; we are not playing silly games."
Pierce said accusations by the ADL and others are unfair. "When they say Klan, they are talking generically," he said.
"The Ku Klux Klan is the only organization dedicated to preserving white culture!" notes Pierce's Web site. "The Negro has the NAACP, the 'Native Americans' AIM, the Hispanic, La Rasa." It continues: "White people are not allowed to be represented in any way to any degree or they are racists! Simple dignity is not permissible for the white Christian, he must grovel in shame to be politically correct."
Kathleen Blee, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who follows such groups, said Klan groups, of which there are many -- some even at odds with each other -- have always said they are connected to the original. But they have come and gone since the end of the Civil War. Most are quite small and short-lived and have relatively few connections outside their immediate circle, she said.
The KKK has become less important in the last 20 years, she said. The more vibrant groups in the organized racist movement include Neo-Nazis and skinheads. The confusion, she said, is that there is some overlap between the KKK and other groups. The overlap, she said, is often embodied in the Christian Identity movement, of which Pierce is a part.
Blee described the movement as a "racist rewriting of Christian theology." They believe that Jews are descendants of Satan and that people of color were beings created before Adam, so not fully human. "It's a virulently anti-Semitic racist philosophy," she said.
While the organized racist movement may have seen a shrinkage in its numbers over recent years, said Blee, that's not always a good sign. "It may be becoming increasingly focused on violence and terrorist activity," she said.
Just because they are shrinking doesn't mean attitudes are changing, she said. One theory is that they are becoming cell-like and so, like al-Qaida, harder to track and prosecute.
Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.