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05/13/2007

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Bruce Belanger owns a café in Rapid City and belongs to a local business group that sponsored a community picnic where a Confederate flag with white supremacist language was flown. “Everybody has a right to be offended by whatever they want. If this was a KKK rally or something, I would never have participated in it and you would not get one business around here involved, either,” he said.

Klan flag flies at picnic

Some attendees offended, others say it's no big deal

smcwhirter@record-eagle.com

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A Confederate flag flies over a community picnic in Rapid City. The words “White Power” are printed above the circle with the cross, and “Ku Klux Klan” printed under it.

RAPID CITY — County Road 593 is the main drag in this tiny Kalkaska County community, where a handful of mom-and-pop shops cluster around a yellow blinking light that signals the town center.

Everyone in Rapid City knows just about everyone else and many gather on summery weekends to grill steaks, roast pigs and chew the fat.

At a May 6 barbecue, organizers served up a T-bone steak, baked potato and all the fixings for just $10. Overhead flapped a Confederate flag that bore white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan markings.

A Klan banner smack in the middle of a northern Michigan, small-town cookout sponsored by the Rapid City Businessmen's Association caused a stir among some who attended. The flag also focused unwanted attention on this spot-on-the-map about 20 miles northeast of Traverse City.

"When we drove into the parking lot and got out of the car, I was shocked and disgusted and wanted to get back in the car,” said Dick Ault, of Alden, who said he stayed because a group of friends had gathered there. "Some thought it was a Confederate flag, which was bad enough, but then we saw it was a KKK flag.”

The flag included a cross inside a circle, accompanied by the phrases "white power” and "Ku Klux Klan,” but its message didn't bother everyone who attended.

"I didn't care one way or another about the flag being up. It's not a big deal,” said Tom Tucker, of Rapid City, a cookout volunteer. "Should it have been up? No. I stood the pole up myself. Whoever put the flag up, I don't know, but I put the pole up. If anybody is going to holler at anyone, it should be me.”

A tattered American flag arrived with the pole and they couldn't fly that, Tucker said, so someone retrieved another flag to run up the line.

Event organizer Stuart McKinnon, owner of Torch Plumbing in Rapid City, said the Klan flag was not meant to be there, but he knows who raised it. He refused to identify the owner.

"I'm not going to say because it doesn't matter who did it,” McKinnon said.

The man who raised the flag thought it might be a joke, but later realized it was a mistake, McKinnon said.

"He just wasn't thinking,” he said.

'People can fly what they want to'

Kalkaska County Commissioner Rob Crambell, of Rapid City, attended the event and saw the flag, but didn't stop to read it. He thought it simply was a Confederate flag and didn't mind because he "doesn't have a problem with people voicing their opinions in this country,” he said.

"You see them everywhere, so no, I wasn't (offended). I don't think all those flags mean racism. If they did, you wouldn't see them on NASCAR cars and all over the place. Do they question it when they see it on NASCAR or anywhere else? This is America, after all, and people can fly what they want to. It's unfortunate that it was more than just a Confederate flag,” Crambell said.

Both Crambell and fellow county Commissioner Louis Nemeth, who also attended, said the situation is being blown out of proportion. For his part, Nemeth said he never really saw the flag, despite it being planted right next to the main line where people gathered for food.

"I didn't look up to the top of the flagpole at all. I didn't see any flag. I saw the pole because it was near the serving line. The people who did look up saw something they didn't expect to see,” Nemeth said.

Organizers said if anyone had complained, they would have removed the flag.

"I don't have a problem with any flag you fly. I didn't see the flag. Apparently, it was a mistake to fly a flag like that because it offended some people,” said Bruce Belanger, owner of the Valley Street Café in Rapid City.

'A little sick to my stomach'

Count Joe Mariage, of Rapid City(*), was among those offended by the Klan symbol.

"I was a little taken aback by it. I didn't understand why that flag was flying. It was kind of a laid-back thing until the talk about the flag,” Mariage said.

He and his wife were among 300 or so people who bought tickets to the sold-out event, designed to thank community members for supporting local businesses.

"The purpose behind it was great, to get the community out together, but somebody had a personal agenda. The whole thing was very emotional,” Mariage said. "I felt a little sick to my stomach by Sunday night. I can't condone this kind of thing.”

Bill Bocksthaler, of Alden, said he was appalled to find the flag above the picnic and regrets not leaving right away.

"We should have followed our instincts and got right out of there, but we had 25 or 30 people who are our friends there,” he said. "A lot of us feel like we were duped into attending a Klan rally,” Bocksthaler said.

Organizers scoffed at that notion. The event was neither a Klan rally, nor a recruiting effort and nobody there belongs to the KKK, they said.

"I'm Catholic, so how can I be a Ku Klux Klan member? They'd hang me,” McKinnon said.

Hate groups not a thing of the past

Anthony Griggs, a research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said KKK members typically don't wear robes and hoods in public, but instead dress in plain clothes.

"It's not uncommon for the Klan to hijack an event,” Griggs said.

The SPLC monitors hate activity across the country and recorded a nearly 20 percent climb in recognized hate groups over the last five years, he said.

"This is proof that this kind of thing still goes on. Some think we've moved past this. Some think it's no big deal. Hate groups are not a thing of the past,” Griggs said.

Statistics from the SPLC show there are 25 identified hate groups in Michigan, including chapters of the KKK, neo-Nazis, White Nationalists and Black Separatists.

In Grand Traverse County, hate literature occasionally pops up and is left on lawns, or stuffed in mailboxes.

And in Wexford County in May 2005, Cadillac officials presented a certificate of appreciation to the Nazi group National Socialist Movement after members from a local chapter participated in a citywide park cleanup.

The Klan flag won't fly over the next Rapid City cookout, Tucker and Belanger said.

"The businesses and people who participate in putting these events together apologize for offending anyone,” Belanger said.

"But for anyone to assume we were having some kind of Klan meeting is absolutely ridiculous.”

Clearing the Record
Because of a reporter's error, the wrong town of residence was originally attributed to Joe Mariage. He is from Rapid City, not Alden.


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