If you ever plan on wearing a Klan robe around Orange County, (either attempting to intimidate minorities or as part of an ill-conceived Halloween costume), the first thing you need to know is that the public response to the sight of your ludicrous cone-head will be immediate.
As model/guinea pig for Gustavo Arellano's latest cover story on the Ku Klux Klan's shameful history in the land of citrus (itself a continuation of his award-winning "OC Pioneers Who Were Klan Members" series), I speak from experience. I was the brave Weekling chosen to pose in a Klan robe, namely because I'm white, tall, can run fast, and have cojones of steel. In addition to quick responses from bystanders, residents and even Sheriff's deputies during our two-day shoot, the stares cast at my robed persona spanned disbelief and revulsion.
Let it be known that when Gustavo volunteered me for this task at last week's editorial meeting, I said I didn't want to do it. No final plan was announced and I assumed he'd find someone else. A couple days later art director Laila Derakshanian asked if I was ready to don the hood legendary Weekly photographer Jack Gould rented from Western Costume Company and go to work the next day.
The itinerary included shooting me in costume at nine sites around OC, from Seal Beach to Yorba Linda. At each I would pose in front of either plaques, streets, buildings, and even schools honoring the county's early pioneers who happened to be Klansters. Since angry responses from passersby were expected, we'd work with a skeleton crew (i.e., Laila, Jack and me). No fancy lights, no craft services table.
The first order of business? Orange County Sheriff's Headquarters in Santa Ana. (Yippee.)
On a windy Thursday afternoon, as school kids walked along Flower Street and Mexican men and women waited for a southbound bus, I struggled wobbly kneed to put the robe on. Once fastened, Jack began firing away. Laila attempted to explain what we were doing to a man who was strolling past, but he paid no attention, and kept his gaze trained on me.
Within minutes, a deputy's cruiser rolled up nearby. We quickly made our way across the sprawling lawn to the front of the building and continued shooting. Another deputy emerged from the concrete structure and in an authoritative tone yelled, "Ladies and gentleman, what are we doing today?"
We explained what the story was about, showed him a press pass and received a stern lecture about taking pictures of the jail building. He said that if we planned on shooting at the federal courthouse, we should notify their press liaison first. We thanked him and moved on.
We drove a few blocks south to the residential Lowell Street, also located in Santa Ana, and began shooting in front of a street sign. Within minutes a camera brandishing woman approached us and angrily asked if we were Klan members. When we told her we were doing a story for OC Weekly and that her street was named after a Klansman, she seemed stunned. She said she'd been a resident there for 30 years.
Against my better judgment I let her snap a picture of me with the robe but not the hood. It may come back to haunt me, but I felt my only other option was to bury my face in my hands and scurry away. Though dressed like a a coward, I didn't want to act like one.
The next day brought the most intimidating moment. While shooting in front of Hilgenfeld Mortuary in Anaheim, a man in a dually drove past us and mimicked a pistol with his hand. Angrily looking me in the eye, he imitated the sound of gun fire.
Before we began shooting in front of Plummer Auditorium near Fullerton College that evening, I noticed an African-American man skateboarding in the parking structure across the street. I ran across Chapman Avenue to tell him what we were doing. He flashed an incredulous smile, and asked "Right now?" Stammering as I tried to explain, I handed him my card. He thanked me and watched as we shot. When we left the area I could see him talking with a couple curious onlookers who'd gathered nearby.
At each site cars honked, drivers yelled, and one woman appeared to video us with her iPad while yelling "Racist!"
At the end of it, I felt immense relief. Before returning the robe to Laila I showed it to my coworkers in the office. Nobody expressed interest in putting the hood on. Editorial assistant L.P. Hastings recoiled when I handed it to her for inspection. I don't blame her. Though a Hollywood prop, the outfit contains bad juju.
As ridiculous as I felt doing this project, I'm glad our paper has the courage to tell a ignored facet of county history. People don't realize that within our shimmering beachside borders, the Klan's presence continues to resonate. Those who don't believe me should take a trip to Santa Ana cemetery where former mayor Gordon Bricken erected a monument honoring Confederate soldiers and their brave attempt at gaining Southern independence. History is studded with warts, and how they get overlooked so often says a lot about humanity.
To those we encountered during our two days of shooting, it's my sincerest hope you'll look at this issue and see that we were trying to do something both irreverent, and meaningful. And thank you for not throwing tomatoes at me.