When Geraldo comes to town: KKK fight put Janesville in national spotlight
JANESVILLE—What started with a bitter former police snitch courting the KKK ended with so-called journalist Geraldo Rivera scuffling with a neo-Nazi at a dead end on South Cherry Street and making national news.
“When Geraldo came to town” is a bizarre episode in Janesville history.
Google “Geraldo” and “Janesville,” click on YouTube and all the drama of the skirmish is there for the viewing. Later, reporters discovered Rivera orchestrated the confrontation in a bid to get higher ratings for his talk show.
It was August 1992. Racial tensions had been simmering since January, when Ken Petersen placed ads in area newspapers soliciting members for the Ku Klux Klan.
The information here is gleaned from accounts in The Gazette written by now-editor Sid Schwartz and former reporter Mike DuPre and the book “Century of Stories,” written by DuPre.
Petersen had a checkered record as a paid drug informant and a used car dealer with questionable business practices.
Over a period of months, the newspaper featured accounts of a burning cross; confrontations between Petersen and the racists he attracted to Janesville and his Cherry Street neighbors; a debate between the grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and James Yarbrough, a black man from Janesville; and gatherings organized to show racial harmony.
Events and confrontations sometimes attracted hundreds of people, most of them radicals from out of town.
In August, Petersen scheduled a white power summit. Doug Seymour, an anti-Klan investigator, acted as liaison between the bigots and Rivera's staff. His goal was publicity and exposure of the racist leaders.
Petersen later cancelled the meeting, but 60 members of 13 white supremacy groups, including the KKK, skinheads and neo-Nazis from 11 states, still showed up at Petersen's house on Cherry Street.
Meanwhile, more than 100 people gathered for an anti-Klan rally at the Rock County Courthouse.
The two groups wouldn't have met. But Rivera and his producer went to the Rock County Courthouse and told the group of the racist gathering. Soon the anti-racists were marching to Cherry Street.
News reports painted quite a picture. The racists carried clubs, ball bats, pipes and metal poles wrapped with wire and chains, sticks, boards, tire irons and spike shields. They wore Klan sheets and hoods, swastikas, combat fatigues and boots, gray shirts with military insignia, berets, ball caps with racist logos, and black bandit masks, fishnet stockings and ski masks over their faces.
A handful of police tried to keep the two sides apart.
The tape shows neo-Nazi John R. McLauglin of Chicago pushing Rivera. Rivera pounces on him, punching. Rivera's two bodyguards did not interfere.
As two officers dragged Rivera off McLaughlin, the talk show host continued trying to kick the neo-Nazi.
Rivera, his face bloodied, was led away in handcuffs. He was arrested for misdemeanor battery, and McLaughlin was arrested for disorderly conduct.
Later, in an Associated Press interview, Rivera said: “I didn't get all this way letting little Nazis push me around.
“He first called me a spic, then a dirty Jew, then threw something at me and kicked me in the left leg,” Rivera said. “Then I hit him back. Then we fell to the ground, and I got on top, and we were both arrested.
“Obviously, because of my history with some of these organizations, I expect hostility and some suspicion, but I'm not accustomed to an out-and-out assault.”
Four years earlier, a flying chair broke Rivera's nose when a brawl erupted on the set of his talk show. He'd been interviewing young white supremacists and a black civil rights leader.
Rivera said his thumb was bitten severely by McLaughlin and that he sustained other cuts and abrasions.
“I think the march on Cherry Street would not have happened if Geraldo was not there,” said George Brunner, then second in command at the police department and later Janesville's police chief. “It created a very dangerous situation.”
Rivera's scuffle in Janesville made news on national programs Sunday and Monday.
He said then that footage of the scuffle would be used in a segment on white supremacists later that year.
“I'm afraid if it can happen here in the heartland, the worst is yet to come in terms of hate crimes,” Rivera said.
When he was criticized for giving the racists publicity, he said: “You can't blame the messenger for the bad news.”
This episode just keeps giving.
In November 2014, Yuri Rashkin, a former city councilman, interviewed Ken Petersen, the man who started it all, for Rashkin's “Discover Janesville” podcast.
Rashkin credits Petersen with saving his life in 2008, when the husband of Rashkin's girlfriend approached Petersen, asking him to find a hit man to kill Rashkin.
Petersen reported that to police, who were able to thwart the hit.
Petersen told Rashkin he is not racist, “but people automatically tend to identify the Ku Klux Klan with racism.” He said he turned to the group because he was angry after being dumped as an informant when the undercover police drug unit was shut down.
That day in August 1992, Petersen said, he “saw the hate” and quit the KKK.
But the damage to his reputation was done.
“People don't forget,” he complained to Rashkin. “It's been 23 years, and I hear it every day.”
Petersen now lives in Beloit. He lived in Milwaukee for three years, and people there knew him by name, he said.
“It hurts, to be honest with you,” he told Rashkin, saying he wants to be known as a “caring, giving man.”
Rashkin asked Petersen's thoughts on how the country can move forward after the Ferguson, Missouri, race riots. Petersen bemoaned the division between the races and opined, “We got to come together as a people.”
This sordid incident should just be put in the category "You can't make this stuff up."
Last updated: 5:40 am Monday, August 3, 2015