By Leona McElevene
I live in Warren, Michigan, the third-largest city in Michigan. It was founded in 1957, but it saw its greatest growth in the 1960s when Detroit's "urban rebellion" led to massive "white flight" into the suburbs. The 2010 census put Warren's population at 86% Caucasian. I'm part of the 14% population of color in Warren.
On Friday, October 14, I drove the 10 miles from home to participate in Occupy Detroit, downtown in Grand Circus Park. I crossed the street from the park to Central United Methodist Church, which houses the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO)--a group I know well and have worked with since 2009. I borrowed one of their signs protesting DTE Energy's power shutoffs, which have killed children and the elderly.
Back in the park, I took in the vibe of the gathering, saw friends I hadn't seen in some time, and talked about the Occupy Movement and DTE to people I encountered. When breakout planning sessions started at 7:30, I decided to make my way west to Woodward Avenue to find something to drink. A woman identifying herself as a photographer for Occupy Detroit media asked to take my picture, and I said okay. Occupy Detroit's participants that evening were mostly Caucasian and young, but one man caught my eye and put me on guard.
I walked toward the young man (pictured above), who saw me and called out, "I know you." I replied, "No, I know you. You're Evan Thomas Kuettner." Flabbergasted at seeing him there, I blurted out, "What are you doing here?"
There was good reason for my shock and wariness: Evan Thomas Kuettner, who also goes by Tom Kuettner and Evan Thomas, is president of the Warren Tea Party. I first encountered him at a meeting attended by state legislators, county officials, and members of the Warren City Council in 2010. The big issue was Obamacare, and the discussion was lively, to say the least.
It was at that meeting that Kuettner circulated a petition he explained was to reduce the number of seats on the Warren City Council from nine to seven, which Kuettner explained would give the southern part of Warren--closest to Detroit and where most of its low-income residents live--better representation. When he came to me, I asked him who was behind the petition, but he didn't reply. So I didn't sign the petition.
The petition made it onto the ballot the next election, and it passed. What Kuettner didn't mention that night in 2010 and was downplayed during the election was that redistricting Warren into wards was part of the package. When it passed, this changed the Warren charter. Redistricting didn't help the people in south Warren at all, and when some people realized they'd been duped, they filed suit to have the changes reversed. They lost.
In August 2011, Kuettner ran for one of those seven City Council slots, and he lost the primary by only a hundred or so votes. Kuettner's campaign pushed me into doing more research on him. Not only was Kuettner president of the Warren Tea Party, I discovered he had been actively involved in bringing Paul Fromm, notorious Canadian white supremacist and Holocaust denier, to Lansing as a speaker at an event aimed at members of Stormfront and other racist, right-wing groups.
I learned that Kuettner is well known in the white supremacist movement, organizing and active under various names, especially the misleading "Evan Thomas" and David Starr Jordan, borrowed from the early 20th century pacifist, ichthyologist--and eugenicist. The more I read about him, the more chilled I became and the more grateful I was that he lost in the primary for City Council.
And here he was, standing in front of me at Occupy Detroit. I reeled in confusion, but my adrenaline started pumping overtime. "Are you a white supremacist?" I asked him point blank. He said no, but I pressed on with the conversation. It ranged widely, mostly about politics, but again I brought up white supremacy. He replied as if he'd prepared his responses ahead of time.
There's always been slavery, he said. Yes, I agreed, but never before American slavery had there been cradle-to-grave slavery based solely on race. All his responses were in measured tones and phrases, but I kept pressing him about the ingrained white supremacy that is uniquely American and that is financially based. I wish I could remember everything he replied, but my mind was racing too quickly--and I was distracted by a hovering presence behind me.
I took my eyes from Kuettner for a moment at a time, and each time I got a glimpse of the woman who had taken my picture. I kept on with the debate for at least 15 minutes, even telling him I was impressed with how he managed the City Council/redistricting changes. I told him I didn't agree with the end results--which effectively diluted any potential black voting bloc--but he got it done.
In talking about the southern part of Warren (and how things didn't turn out well there, the way he'd promised they would) we got onto the subject of ethnicities' naturally banding together, and all his assertions sounded canned and pat. I called him on that, but he had relaxed a great deal from the start of our encounter, and was comfortable enough not to bristle at my comments.
A woman I knew slightly came up to me at this point, saying she wanted to find out more about the DTE Energy protests, and at this point Kuettner said he needed to find his friend. I offered him help in finding his friend, but he declined and moved off into the crowd. I turned my attention to the DTE questions, which occupied a few minutes.
I was still pumped up from seeing and talking to Kuettner, and I told several people about it as I walked through the park again. Each person was surprised and horrified that Kuettner was at Occupy Detroit. I had my camera with me, so I took some pictures, talked to more people, listened to speakers, and then decided it was time to leave.
I crossed the street again to return my sign to the MWRO office. I saw Maureen Taylor, MWRO's state chair, and Marian Kramer, decades-long activist and National Welfare Rights Union chair, in the lobby and said hello before I went up to the fourth floor in the elevator. Marie, a volunteer, was at the table in the MWRO lobby, and I asked her where I should put the sign. She indicated the main office area, and as I walked into the room, I saw three people sitting at the table in the center. The one man among them turned away from me quickly, and seemed to be trying to hide his face--maybe even his body--from my view. But I recognized him, as well as the two women with him. It was Kuettner.
I took my sign to the table, looking at him, but he fixed his gaze on his companion, the photographer from the park. I sat down at the table and, obviously very uncomfortable at my arrival in the office, Kuettner avoided all acknowledgment of my presence. Though I had recognized the back of Kuettner's head and his jacket, there was no doubt it was he who was sitting in the office of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. First, Occupy Detroit, and now, MWRO. What was going on here?
As we sat there, people came and went, because the office was buzzing with activity. The Central United Methodist Church had offered its facilities to Occupy Detroit protesters, and many people from the park had been using the restrooms and the kitchen. It flashed through my mind that Kuettner and his companions were here for a break from the protest, but I was still left with my questions from the park: Why was Evan Thomas Kuettner, president of the Warren Tea Party and known for his associations with white supremacist groups, at Occupy Detroit? There wasn't anything in the slightest there that related to his politics and views. If he wasn't a participant, what was he?
I broke the silence at the table. I said, "I've been trying to tell people why you're here at Occupy Detroit, but I don't know what to say." There was no response or even acknowledgment from the three.
Maureen had come into the office, so I called out, "Maureen, did you know that you have the president of the Warren Tea Party sitting in your office?" She acted as if this was nothing, replying that she'd talked to the head of the Willow Run Tea Party the night before as a panel member on Fox News' "Let It Rip."
I turned back to Kuettner and stated, "You're on the Michigan Racism Watch Website." This got a reaction. He snapped, "That Website's been taken down." (This turned out to be true, but I had archived data from it sometime before.)
Now I had nothing to say, so I pulled out my camera and took a picture of my tablemates. The photographer pulled her carry-on-sized bag up onto the table and blocked herself with it before I got the picture. If he wasn't happy before that I was there, he definitely wasn't now.
I got up from the table and went back out into the hall to talk to Marie. She'd heard my announcement, and she asked me if Kuettner was KKK. I replied that I didn't know. I asked Marie if she knew why he and the women were there, and she said she didn't.
Soon, the three came out from the office single file--the two women first and then Kuettner--as if it was choreographed. It seemed to me as if it was a defensive arrangement. Marie asked, "Is that him?" and I said yes.
She got up from her table and took some MWRO literature over to them, especially about the Resurrection march for the DTE Energy protests every Thursday. She had to run to catch up to them. While Marie handed out the literature, I took more pictures. I had to document this, and here was my opportunity.
Kuettner was sizzling mad as he took the fliers from Marie, but I wasn't feeling too great myself. Perhaps they left so quickly because they thought I had gone to get security, or maybe because I'd outed them they thought it was time to leave. He seemed angry enough to have spouted blazing fire if he'd spoken. Seconds later they were in the elevator and gone.
I spoke to the women I know there after they left, especially wanting to know if Kuettner had said who he was when he came in. I felt that in his position--certainly no supporter of welfare, let alone welfare rights--that he should have stated who he was, since he's a public figure, and what he was doing there.
Marie and Gwen, another volunteer, were disturbed about it, too, but Maureen took it all in stride, certainly having had worse encounters in her career. She was worried about me, because I was so upset. She said that now that she knows what he looks like, she can say hello the next time he came in.
We speculated some more, but reached no conclusions. But I am left still uneasy about the whole thing. I've since heard about other Tea Party people at Occupy protests, and I worry that they are trying to infiltrate the movement to discredit it. I wrote up a report about this incident, and I posted it as well as emailing it to my activist list.
I also heard Joe DiSano, from Main Street Strategies, on the Tony Trupiano show via podcast a few nights ago, and their discussion included the mention of Kuettner's being at Occupy Detroit. DiSano said he knows Kuettner and that he's a "troubled" young man. But he made a sobering prediction: The right wing is infiltrating the Occupy movement, under the guise of being protesters. They'll make trouble when they're embedded, he said, and this could too easily lead to violence.
I may have stumbled over the tip of an iceberg.
Leona McElevene serves as the PDA Michigan State Coordinator. Edited by Roberta McNair.