On The Right Side Of History: An Interview With The Black Officer Who Infiltrated The KKK
Netflix has confirmed among its content this month will be Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman'. The Academy winner (best-adapted screenplay, 2019) arrives on the 24th and along with 'Da 5 Bloods' marks the second Spike Lee title that the streaming service has acquired rights to this year. The addition comes on the heels of Netflix adding a Black Lives Matter section to its genre tab last June, responding to viewers' interest in titles relating to racial injustice, discrimination, and systematic racism. "I never expected my book to become a motion-picture. It happened all by surprise" remembers retired police officer Ron Stalworth, writer of 'Black Klansman', a memoir Stalworth originally drafted in 2013.
Both timely and timeless, the story loosely uses Stalworth's recollections of his investigation for its subject, with a film that revisits and invites discussion about the enduring influence of supremacist ideology in American political, social and cultural life. It also brings up Hollywood's longstanding complicity in racism, sexism, and patriarchy, in the forms of the Me Too and Black Lives Matter Movements.
Stalworth explains on a call from his home in Santo Texas, "My story tells the events that I lived through back in 1978 - 1979 in which I infiltrated in an undercover capacity the Ku Klux Klan in Springs Colorado". In 1978, Ron Stalworth was a 25-year-old officer on the Colorado Springs force - the first black detective in the city's history - when he rang David Duke, the Grand Wizard of the KKK. That call, part of a successful, if highly improbable, seven-month undercover operation Stallworth conducted into the Klan’s local chapter.
We talked to Ron Stalworth amid a global rallying cry against racism and police brutality to reflect on his legacy and one of the most unique undercover investigations in world history, the infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan, the oldest and most infamous of American hate groups.
For the sake of your contextualising your story, I was wondering if we could navigate your starting point. Prior to starting an investigation into the Ku-Klux Klan, you already had four years of history working as an undercover investigator, having headed up many cases, but, you never grew up wanting to be a cop, did you?
That's right, when I joined the police department at the age of 19 in 1972, it was with the specific intent of gaining enough money to put myself through college and become a high school physical education teacher. After one year of being with the department and doing the job; A, I was having too much fun and B, I was making twice as much money as a recent college graduate than in the teaching profession, so I decided to stick with law enforcement.
There's an ugly history of racist policing in America and you could understand why somebody might feel inclined to make the case that the klan has infiltrated police departments today. What was your relationship with the police like before joining the Colorado Springs police department?
I had no relationship, I never had any problems with cops.
Your introduction to the police department begins in 1972 as a cadet, can you walk me through the process of being a police cadet at this time?
You basically did civilian support jobs because you were not yet 21 years old, which was the required age to be a police officer, so you did support jobs within the department. You wore a brown uniform instead of the standard blue uniform, you did not carry a gun because you were not allowed to carry a gun at that age and you just did jobs around the department. For example, I worked in the identification records bureau for a while. At one point I was a meter maid writing parking tickets. You just did various support jobs like that. They did put me through the police academy as a cadet and once you turn 21, you started your field training program.
How would you describe race relations in Colorado Springs at the time?
Uhmmm, standard, nothing unusual.
You then make history in Colorado Springs as the first black man to graduate from the ranks of the police cadet program, but as is often the case, progress being made rarely happens without any pushback. How challenging was it picking your moments to challenge the system within a department who prior to yourself had no black officers?
I didn't pick my moments to challenge the system. I started challenging the system when I was still a cadet and I was listening to black jokes, n****r jokes coming from some of the officers who would come to my counter at the identification bureau asking for criminal history on the people they were investigating. I would hear these jokes and I basically kept my cool and spoke out when I could and go into some arguments, but for the most part, I was challenging from the very beginning, just in a subtle way. When you're on probation for a year, you learn to watch what you say and do because you can be fired without cause during that year. If you wanted to maintain a job or a career, you have to watch your step until that first year is over. Once that year expired I became more vocal and adamant in my objection to what was going on around me.
Fast forward and your undercover career starts with your first assignment into the investigation of Stokley Carmichael, the other side of the coin as you say in your memoir. Do you think your experience undercover changed your relationship with the assignment?
My first undercover assignment was to go have a face-to-face meeting observation if you will with Stokely Carmichael who was a Black Panther leader. He was making an appearance in the city and giving a speech and I was told to go to this nightclub that catered to blacks and monitor his speech for the department to see what, if any, steps they needed to take to counteract anything that might transpire as a result of his highly charged rhetoric.
You write in your memoir that although it was never said out loud the department believed Stokely's talk would lead to a riot. Did they feel the same way after his presentation was over?
They were concerned about some possible pushback from the black community but that was quickly dispelled within a matter of 24-hours. They felt that if something was going to happen it would have happened within those 24 hours but nothing happened.
What was your experience like meeting Stokely having watched him on TV just a few years prior?
I was honored to meet him. I mean, I recognised we were in an adversarial role but I was honored to be standing in front of him having heard him just speak. I was honored to be there and have the opportunity to ask him a question or two in the receiving line. I was partially in awe of him because like you said less than 4 years earlier, I was watching him on TV raising hell across America, so to be in his presence in an undercover capacity was a unique experience. I was in awe of him and I was honored at the same time.
Among his organisational efforts was the building of a large movement resisting military draft at the height of the Vietnam war. The scars of the late 1960's war and it's connection with PTSD today is the subject of Spike Lee's latest film, 'Da 5 Bloods', which like 'BlacKkKlansman' connects history's thread. Was the anti-war activism of The Black Panthers inspiring to you?
The Black Panther party was very anti-everything when the US government was concerned. The most visible aspect of that was obviously with the Vietnamese war. If I had been a part of the civil rights movement, an active part of the civil rights movement back then, I probably would have been a member of the Black Panther Party. They were more in line with my way of thinking. I could have never been a part of Malcolm X's organisation because I don't believe in the discipline that the Muslims go about their business, their dietary habits, and so on, and so forth, it just wasn't for me.
I would have not been able to be a part of Martin Luther King's army, even though I admired what Dr King did, but I think the whole concept for non-violence is an oxymoron and people are attacking you in some way, shape or form. I don't believe in turning the other cheek. They did what they had to do, it turned out that history proved that what they did was the moral arch that changed things for the better, I just couldn't have been a part of it back then. I probably would have joined the Black Panther Party in those days.
At which point do you decide that you're going to initiate an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan?
It started when I observed an ad in the classified section of the newspaper. It said Ku-Klux Klan for information and there was a PO box, so I wrote a note to the PO box pretending to be a white racist supremacist type individual and mailed the letter off and about a week or two later I got a response.
Wow! The information contact was for a town called Security, which you write in your memoir had no known Klan activity at this point time, what was your relationship and experience like with the community of Security? Did you ever experience any racism in the area yourself?
No, Security is a little suburb of Colorado Springs. It's located across the inner-state highway from port cross Colorado and most of the people who lived in the Security area were predominantly military personnel.
What's going through your head in the two weeks leading to you getting a call on the police departments undercover operations line?
Nothing, nothing was going through my head. I dropped the letter off and forgot about it.
So, you're not anticipating a call-back? It's not occupying your head-space at all?
Not at all. There was nothing unusual leading up to receiving the call. After two weeks, I just got a phone call and once I learned who was on the other end of the line I did say to myself, "Oh, shit" and I had to come up with a conceivable story at that point, which was technically when my investigation officially got started. Obviously, I couldn't meet them because of my skin colour, so I postponed our meeting for a week to give me time to set something up.
Were they at any point suspicious of talking to you on the phone or was the call as effortless as it's depicted to be in Spike Lee's account of what happens in 'BlacKkKlansman'?
It was depicted very well in the film. I was a trained undercover investigator. It was just a matter of doing my job and answering questions on the phone and pretending to be somebody that I wasn't. To pretend in a convincingly enough fashion so much so that they believed me and we pulled it off.
What you did undercover was very much like what David Washington does in the film in that you were acting but acting in a different reality in terms of the risks involved. The only difference was that it was over the phone and not behind a camera. Was it challenging to carry that persona at first?
No, no. Undercover-work is nothing but acting but it's acting it real life in terms of the consequences as opposed to a movie. There was no challenge, I just started performing.
Did you always know that Chuck was the right guy for such a personal job?
I didn't. There was no metaphysical thing involved in selecting him. He was a friend and a good undercover cop. He was about my height and weight and I picked him.
Walk me through the process of addressing and trying to understand the KKK as a subversive group in your research after the call?
There wasn't a process. You learn a little bit about the KKK in this country going through high-school and I knew a little bit about it but I did go to the library and research a little bit more, that was all it entailed in terms of me researching for the investigation. At the top of a very simple organizational chart you have the Grand Wizard and in that case it was David Duke, you had him at the top. Each state that was a part of his organization had a grand dragon at the top of the state, then you had chapter presidents. In my case, Colorado Springs had a chapter president that I was dealing with on the phone. That's just a very simple organizational structure.
The klan is nothing more than a reflection of society at large of which they are a part, so if you have high ranking people in society, it stands to reason that you can have some members of the klan who are a part of that high ranking society. People need to understand that the klan is not a single homogeneous group. It's a very loose confederation of like-minded, like-thinking people - white supremacists. For example, you may have a grand wizard here in El Paso Texas where I live and he is totally independent from a grand wizard in another part of the state of Texas because he has a different Klan organisation, they're not connected. There is no single unified organisation known as the Klu Klux Klan. Each group is its own special significant entity. David Duke was arguably the premier klan leader of the '70s but David Duke was just one Klan leader, there were numerous others who had nothing to do with David Duke. They were independent of David Duke.
Can you talk about speaking to David Duke on the phone for the first time. How does that transpire?
Well, I had sent the application off to join the klan and you were supposed to get your membership card within a couple of weeks and when that two week period time passed and I hadn't gotten it; I decided to call his headquarters and talk to him and find out, you know - why - or talk to somebody. He happened to pick the phone up and that was my initial call with David Duke.
The first time you spoke to Duke is also the same day a public counter-protest against the presence of the Klan is reported. How would you compare the Colorado Springs department and it's a response to protesting then to what's happening now with police and their treatment of protestors in America?
Well, you can't make a comparison because the time-frame is totally different and the nature of the complaint of the issue is different. We weren't accustomed to having a protest in Colorado Springs, so it struck and caught everybody by surprise and we definitely weren't accustomed to dealing with white supremacists, so it was no big deal. It was just a bunch of people walking around with signs denouncing the Klan and that was the nature of the protest.
For a lot of people Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman' might have been their entry into your story, as such, any dramatisation implies change. What's the ratio between fact vs fiction in the film?
Well, there was no Patrice, she was a product of creative script-writing. There was no love interest with anyone named Patrice, that's creative script writing. The bombing of the car that you see at the end did not occur in real life, although, the Klan people I talked to on the phone spoke with me about bombing two gay bars in Colorado Springs. They only wanted to bomb them because they were gay bars, no other reason, but, they did a lot of talking, they had the knowledge and the training to do it because they were military people trained in explosives but they never carried it out, so the bombing scene in the movie was alluding to those conversations that I had with them on the phone. That's just some of the fact versus fiction.
Spike's a wonderful guy. He's very controversial in the eyes of a lot of people because of his mannerisms, how he communicates, and whatnot but what you see is what you get, there is no pretense with Spike Lee. He is how he is and as you see him and he challenges you to accept him as he is or quite frankly to kiss his ass. He doesn't care and I respect him for that. Not to mention he's a great filmmaker and a supporter of black cultural art. Since the movie, I've had several text message conversations with him. If I text him, he'll respond in a fairly quick time but I don't take advantage of the fact that I have his personal number and can contact him at any time. I pick and choose the moments that I feel the need to reach out to him.
Were you ever contacted by David Duke after the film came out?
He contacted me one week before the film came out! When he contacted me the trailer with Topher Grace portraying Duke had just been aired and people were seeing that for the first time, which didn't paint a very positive image of David Duke. Topher Grace's performance portrays him as kind of an idiot, a buffoonish, and kind of a cartoonish character and he took offense to it. David Duke was not a buffoon, he was very intelligent but was just a typical white supremacist who happened to have a master's degree in public administration, so he contacted me trying to convince me to convince Spike to change things, which I got a laugh out of.
That's insane. The film puts forward a dialogue between a radical who wants to dismantle the system versus the moderate who seeks change within the system. Do you still maintain the belief that change within the system is effective in 2020 as it was for you in '79?
Yes, you have to work within the system to change it. There's a place for both perspectives, people working from within the system, and those who want to agitate the system from on the outside. They're not exclusive with one another, they go hand in hand in fact.
Has there in your experience been any genuinely good policing trends or anything that police departments have developed to succeed in building trust with policed communities and policing them less?
Well, I have faith that police will recover from this but it will take time. You have to remember and understand that it's only a very small percentage of cops that are the bad ones who are committing the offenses that we keep seeing and hearing about. It's not police in general, although a lot of these protestors would like to argue otherwise. You have protestors out there that hate cops and there's nothing positive that they're going to find about cops no matter what argument you present and that's just a bunch of noise. The police are a reflection of society as a whole and unless you're willing to say that all people are bad and that all blacks are bad, all whites are bad or whatever, you can't go out and say all cops are bad. It's simply wrong.
One of the powerful things Spike Lee's adaptation does is connect the historical thread from the confederacy to the Charlottesville rally in 2017 and the events in between. How do you think the protests today compare to those taking place in the '60s?
In terms of then versus now, the biggest difference is the fact that you have protests going on right now in America and around the world where if you look at the videos of these protests you see white interlaced with black faces. You didn't see that back in those days to a great extent. Yes, some of it took place - but- not to the extent to what we're seeing now. What we're seeing is a youth movement that's going on as opposed to back then. The youth are dominating the news with their protests and quite frankly these young people that are protesting are going to change American society starting with the elimination of Donald Trump from the highest office in the land. They're going to change society for the better. I wouldn't have imagined it in the '70s and I stopped being surprised by the protests about two weeks into them. You can see the change that was going on by the makeup of the various people that were involved.
What's your sense of where the KKK stands in 2020?
Well, under Donald Trump the Klan is seeing a resurgence of such. Not only with the Klan but white supremacy groups as a whole. There's a resurgence because they have the white supremacist leader, if you will, sitting inside the Whitehouse, that's dangerous within itself. America made one of the biggest and stupidest mistakes in its history four years ago and hopefully, in about four months we can fix the mistake that was made. We have a political system where the minority in this case 60 million voters were able to overrule the majority, 63 million who voted for Hillary based on how our political system is set up. Hopefully, that won't happen because the majority this time will make the right decision and vote that idiot out of the white house. Right now I have strong faith it will happen and the only thing I hope for after that is that they get rid of the idiot that's running your country right now, Boris Johnson.
Are you versed in the wide-spread protests over here forcing the United Kingdom to confront the fact that racism remains prevalent in towns and villages across the country?
Oh, I've seen some of the protests going on. I like the fact that they are calling for an end to statues that are promoting the colonial racism of the British past. I like that and I hope it continues. I just hope that they recognise that Boris Johnson is a British version of Donald Trump, probably has a little more sense than Trump, I don't know - but - I just hope that they recognise that and ultimately get rid of him.
Can we expect another book from yourself in the future?
I'm working on a new book, which will be a follow up after the events of 'Black Klansman' and what I went through on my continued journey through law enforcement. We're still a long way from finishing it but it's in the works.
Spike Lee's BlackKklansman is available to watch on Netflix from 24th July.
Interview by Luke Bailey