I started my Tennessee sabbatical with a story about three peace activists who recently shut down the Y12 bomb plant here in Oak Ridge with a stunning protest, armed only with a bible and flowers.
I figure I’ll end my sabbatical with another great story of East Tennessee mischief.
This is the story of one of my favorite flash-mob actions, which happened right here in Knoxville. And this year marks its five-year anniversary.
It all happened on May 26, 2007.
Word had begun to spread that a group of white supremacists — including members of the KKK — were converging here in Knoxville, Tenn., for a rally in a park downtown. It was on the news and in the papers.
Many locals were pretty upset by the public display of racism and hatred. Even though many of the folks connected to the hate-group were coming from other states, they had obtained a permit to gather and publicly proclaim their hate-filled message of White Power.
But they had no idea what was coming.
A group of locals had decided neither to cower away in fear nor to fight fire with fire....Instead they decided to meet hatred with humor.
They organized a counter-protest, but not your typical counter-protest. They showed up with an army of clowns — with stilts and unicycles and red-noses — and they far outnumbered the white supremacists.
In fact, they stole the show.
The clowns seemed to have slightly missed the message of “white power." They began yelling, “White Flour! White Flour!” Pulling out bags of flour and throwing it all over each other, they created a hysterical cloud of dust. Needless to say, the spectacle quickly hijacked all the attention from media and bystanders – it may even have distracted some of the haters themselves.
They were hard ignore.
Before long, one of the clowns pointed out that they had messed up the message, which was not “white flour” but “white flowers." So they dusted themselves off and were conveniently met by a mob of new clowns that had tons of white flowers. They ran enthusiastically through the streets giving them away to everyone they met and spreading the flower power through the downtown streets… all the while chanting in unison the revised warcry: “White Flowers! White Flowers! White Flowers!”
I think even a couple of the white supremacists accepted a flower from a clown with a smile.
But it wasn’t long before someone again pointed out the error of their ways. The clowns still had the message wrong.
“Ohhhhhhh,” said one of the clowns, “how silly of us – we’ve got it now… WIFE POWER!”
A mob of clowns decked out in wedding dresses came out of nowhere, wisked some of the men from the crowd into their arms and led everyone in a new cheer… “Wife Power!”
Wife power it was.
And on they went. I think they went on to have a “tight shower” with a 10-foot clown on stilts spraying a smushed-together crowd with a showerhead… maybe they even handed out some “white sours” or built a big “white tower”… and so it goes.
It was a beautiful day. The white supremacist group was so outmatched, upstaged, and overwhelmed that they called it quits a couple of hours early. But the clowns marched on, their charade snowballing into a full-on street parade marching through the city streets with police escorts smiling by their side, proclaiming a contagious message of love and laughter.
It’s a true story. There’s even a children’s book inspired by the whole wonderful fiasco.
The event is a great reminder that we need imagination as we confront evil, so that we do not mirror the hatred we seek to end.
And, even as we fight serious injustices, we need humor — as old Emma Goldman once said, “If I can’t dance… then it ain’t my revolution.”
The clowns remind us that mean people can be resisted without being emulated, and neutralized without being destroyed. Before long, we might even see that some of our enemies have become our friends.
After all, it takes a lot of energy to hate, but love sets all of us free — both the hated and the haters.
Shane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with Chris Haw, of Jesus for President.
Photo credit: Jumping clowns image by Alex Valent /Shutterstock. Photo of the anti-white-power clown protest in Knoxville courtesy of the author.