Retired FBI Agent Who Investigated KKK: Did President Trump Open the Door for Racist Remark in Michigan?

The writer, an FBI agent for 31 years, retired as resident agent in charge of the Ann Arbor office in 2006. He is a columnist for 

By Greg Stejskal

In the late ’70s, I was assigned to the FBI Detroit field office’s surveillance squad. We spent most of the time following Detroit organized crime members, but we were also involved in other investigations. One of those resulted in information that a local group of the Ku Klux Klan were going to Tennessee to obtain dynamite. We were tasked with following them.

The Klan guys left for Tennessee in the evening in one van and drove straight through the night. They switched drivers every few hours — a challenge for us, as we only had one agent per car. A lot of coffee was consumed.

Periodically we would switch the lead car, so they didn’t see the same car following them. We ended up in rural east Tennessee on a two-lane highway. I was in the lead car when the van turned onto a dirt road. I let the van go over the first hill before I followed. There were several steep hills before the road led to an open field. Upon reaching the crest of the last hill, I saw something I didn’t think still existed.

The field was full of men in white robes with tall conical hats. Knowing I wouldn’t be welcome, I put the car in reverse, and backed down the road. I got on the radio and told the rest of the team to not come any further.

Later that night we saw the Klan burn a cross in a nearby town square. The Michigan Klan guys never got their dynamite, but that road trip left me with some indelible images of evil incarnate. No good has ever come from wearing those white robes and pointy hats.

I thought about what I saw in that field in Tennessee when I saw the reports of the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that left a counterprotester dead. President Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.” That’s only true if you can be a very fine person and be a racist and a xenophobe. 

Hate and racism are malignant

Greg Stejskal

Hate and racism are like some cancers. They may be in remission, but never go away. In the last few years, racism has seemed to metastasize.

When Trump announced that he was running, he said: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… . They’re sending people who have lots of problems and they’re bringing those with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some I assume are good people.”

His statement didn’t evoke Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty.

When Trump was criticized by four female congresswomen of color, he responded by saying that they should “go back” to the “crime-infested places from which they came.” All but one, who is a Somali refugee, were born in the U.S. and are elected members of the House of Representatives.

The Saline incident

Mexican American parent Adrian Iraola, standing,  is interrupted by Tom Burtell at right. (Photo: MLive video screenshot) 

So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that at a school meeting a few days ago in Saline, Mexican-American parent Adrian Iraola, was interrupted by another parent, Tom Burtell. Iraola was talking about his son distress over being called names like “taco” and “enchilada” while attending Saline schools. Burtell interrupted, saying: “Then why didn’t you stay in Mexico?”

The video of the Saline incident (bleow) went viral and precipitated a national discussion. 

I know Adrian and his wife Lori well. Our family has been good friends with his family for years. Iraola legally immigrated from Mexico in the ’80s. His wife Lori was born and raised in Ann Arbor. He is a civil engineer and worked for the city of Ann Arbor.

The American dream, achieved

They’ve both been very active in the community. It had been a dream of Iraola’s to open a restaurant featuring the Mexican recipes of his mother, Chela. The Iraolas have worked very hard and their three-restaurant group, Chela’s, is successful. All three of Adrian and Lori’s children attended college and are successful — a classic American story.

► RelatedSaline dares to revist the topic of racism
at a forum this weekend

The Iraolas have received tremendous support following the school meeting. But they’ve also been vilified and threatened online. One post on a particularly vile message board said: “It would really be a disaster if someone torched up the place. Seems like a good restaurant. Hope nothing happens to it. :D” 

I wonder if the litany of racist statements by Trump have emboldened people like Tom Burtell to make racist remarks in public. How do you discourage this when the president makes similar remarks to a national audience? If the president doesn’t think his words are inappropriate and racist, why should anyone else?

America is not about race, religion or ethnic heritage. America is an idea embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which we have not yet perfected.

We are all immigrants and Americans. It would seem the president should embrace this.

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