MERCED -- A Merced County Sheriff's deputy drove past a small gathering in early 2009 not often seen in this rural county whose population is mostly Latino -- a Ku Klux Klan-like meeting.
The Klan, which has a presence in other parts of the state, hasn't been reported here for some time.
While local law enforcement's reaction has been guardedly concerned — there is little they can do unless laws have been broken — some academics argue that despite a shrinking number of racist groups nationally, smaller, more isolated groups can be more dangerous.
On Feb. 22, 2009, according to a police report obtained by the Sun-Star, a Merced County sheriff's deputy rolled up on a gathering in the back yard of a house just outside of Dos Palos.
Ten men stood behind a low chain-link fence. They wore white robes and pointed white headpieces. On their chests they wore circular badges with a black cross at the center. One of the men wore a purple robe, another a gold robe. Several children played in the yard on that section of Lexington Avenue.
When the group noticed the patrol car, they started yelling at the deputy and then retreated into the house. Soon people began leaving the house and started to get into their cars parked along the road. One man covered his face as he crossed the road toward his truck.
About a half-hour later, three more deputies arrived at the house and knocked on the front door. Rudy Lish opened the door and said he had just gotten home and didn't know of any gathering. He said his brother, Bobby Lish, who is involved with racist groups, may have been in the house while he was gone.
Then Rudy Lish's father, William Silva, came to the door and told deputies, "I ain't had no damn Klan meeting here!" The two men then asked the deputies to get off their land. No further action was taken.
The towns of Dos Palos and nearby South Dos Palos, both in the center of the San Joaquin Valley, are depressed farm towns whose main problems are poverty and gangs, not white power groups.
But beyond the sheer novelty, the meeting raises questions about racial amity in Merced County: Are these sentiments more widespread in the white community? If so, did such a meeting signal a souring of racial harmony? Or was the meeting just a one-off?
Despite the reported meeting, local reaction has been muted.
Dos Palos Police Chief Barry Mann, who is black, said he heard about the Klan meeting, but the sheriff's office didn't notify him about it, so he didn't think it was a problem. "I have no verified facts that there was (a Klan meeting)," he said.
He said there have been no race-related issues like that in Dos Palos.
"Race relations in town are no different than the majority of Merced County," Mann said. "There's always some residual effects from some long-standing issues, but overall in the city of Dos Palos I don't see any race issues."
Mann said he's read the police report and knows some of the people involved. But he didn't want to classify any one as a KKK member without validation. Even if that were so, he said, people carry biases, but as long as they don't interfere with the freedoms of others, there's nothing he can do as a law enforcement officer.
The president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Dos Palos, Gustine and Los Banos, Jon Grissom Sr., said he hadn't heard of the event and couldn't comment on the issue, since he had no information.
Dos Palos City Council member Johnny Mays said he wasn't aware of the meeting either. "That's the first time I've heard of it. I don't know what to think, I've never seen any kind of KKK involvement here. I don't know of any."
The reaction from county law enforcement officials, whose deputies made the initial report, was also muted.
Mark Pazin, Merced County's sheriff, said that while this "concerns him," people have the right of free assembly and can believe what they want to believe.
If their actions go further than a meeting, his agency might step in. "We don't tolerate certain associations which are categorized as extremists groups," he said.
Merced County Sheriff's Department spokesman Tom Mackenzie said there hasn't been any Klan activity reported in recent years.
But, he said, the Klan is considered a gang. "It did appear to be a KKK meeting that he interrupted," said Mackenzie of the police report. But the sheriff's department isn't 100 percent sure that's what it was, he said.
Kathleen Blee, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh who follows such groups, said Klan groups have come and gone since the end of the Civil War. Most are quite small, short-lived and have relatively few connections outside their immediate circle, she said.
The KKK has become less important in the last 20 years, she said. The more vibrant groups in the organized racist movement include Neo-Nazis and skinheads. While the organized racist movement may have seen a shrinkage in its numbers over recent years, said Blee, that's not always a good sign. "It may be becoming increasingly focused on violence and terrorist activity," she said.