Though a Ku Klux Klan for a rally March 30 has not been approved by the city of Memphis' permit's department, city leaders are already prepping for the expected large crowd, which could turn volatile.
Police Director Toney Armstrong met with city council members on Tuesday to address concerns about the Klan's request. He said he plans to reach out to federal agencies, hold brainstorming sessions, and lean on others expertise for planning purposes.
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The city government is gearing up for what Armstrong says could be a massive event the day before Easter.
"This is a unique situation, certainly with all the freedom of speech rights we have we have to be careful and likely we don't want to do something that can come back and regret later," Director Armstrong said.
In Jan. 1998's Klan rally in Downtown Memphis, Director Armstrong was an undercover officer. In the wake the Klan might rally again in the same location downtown, the police director stresses the city is weighing several factors in the KKK's request. But he says the most likely reason for any denial is public safety.
"I won't ever do anything that is going to put our citizens in jeopardy," he said.
While Armstrong says he's reached out to local agencies for extra manpower and equipment, he says other precautions would need to be set. For example, Armstrong says those armed would not be able to wear masks.
"I have to know who you are if you're armed," Director Armstrong said. "I have to know who you are. Certainly I cannot allow people to walk around this city with masks or concealing their identity, even if you have a handgun carrying permit."
The permit ordinance requires the applicant to pay for expenses, including extra police officers. But Councilman Harold Collins said the council may amend the ordinance to include a possible security bond and clearer language.
"It does not spell out the safety measures police must take to protect the cities assets and citizens," Councilman Collins said.
Armstrong would not set a target date for responding to the Klan's request, but within minutes of the outcome, he expects you'll know too.
"This one is going to get more publicity cause in 1997 we didn't have the abilities to go viral," he said.
The amendments to the permit ordinance passed on the first reading during Tuesday's city council meeting. Collins says plans to amend the ordinance started before the Klan's rally request.
An applicant has the right to appeal any denial of a public assembly permit. They must make that appeal within five days after being denied.
While plans for the March 30 Klan rally move forward, a seven-member committee has been named to help decide the new names of three Confederate parks that were renamed by council in January. Council voted to change the names of Forrest Park, Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park.
This naming committee is made up of a cross-section of residents, Which include council members Bill Boyd and Collins, who will co-chair.
The renaming of the three Civil War parks prompted the Klan to voice their displeasure.
In response to the Klan's permit request to hold a rally, it was revealed Tuesday that city council is taking the first steps in changing the way you parade and protest in the Bluff City. The plan is to give the police director the power to impose conditions and restrictions on protests.
This would mean Director Armstrong could determine any threat to public safety that would require extra security. The Klan could be required to pay for the extra security or even a security bond.
The ordinance also adds language that would prohibit the carrying of weapons and wearing of masks at protests. The power will rest with the police director, not the council.
But still, there is some concern that this is the government infringing on the First Amendment rights of protesters.
"You could have a police director start claiming security concerns for any number of events, making it cost prohibitive for people to exercise their freedom of speech," said Councilman Shea Flinn. "It's a very delicate balancing test."
The Klan protest in January 1998 result in a riot, and the new ordinance says the police director can take into account past protests when creating perimeters for a new permit.
"Everybody will be free to say what they wish as long as it doesn't violate some of the state laws," Mayor A C Wharton said. "You don't have the right to incite a riot."
FOX13 News reporter Lauren Lee contributed to this report.
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