The Auburn, Michigan high school where a group of pickup trucks brandishing Confederate flags surrounded the school and harassed minority students in a disgusting display of white supremacist sentiments was forced to cancel classes today after rumors began circulating that people were coming to the high school to confront student counter-protestors.
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Bay City Western High School Superintendent Stephen Bigelow said he was called after 6 a.m. this morning and told about the rumors. He subsequently decided cancel classes because of the potential threats.
“We closed down because safety first,” Bigelow said. “We have to get to the bottom of what these rumors are.”
The impromptu racist demonstration started Tuesday with six trucks, according to MLive, and grew on Wednesday to include dozens of vehicles with offensive banners. Despite the racial composition of Auburn being 95% white, counter-protesters did make their presence known as well yesterday with some rainbow flags supporting LGBTQ rights and signs reading “Hate Not Heritage” and “Black Lives Matter” scattered among the discriminatory symbols of divisiveness.
The Bay County Sheriff assigned deputies to monitor the situation to prevent violence from erupting over the racially tinged tensions that the demonstrations are encouraging.
“It’s racism,” said Kendrix Szilagyi, a student at the high school and one of the organizers of the counter-protests. “We understand that (officials) can’t stop them but something needs to be done. We have such a small minority population of students and we’re in a conservative area. We’re a white-majority school. It’s making some of the students and people feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.”
School officials emphasized that many of the Confederate flag demonstrators were not students at the school, but at least one of the school’s students, Cameron Myers, proudly waved the racist emblem while denying being motivated by racial hatred.
“It’s not about racism; it’s a country boy thing,” he said to MLive, mistakenly adding he thinks the symbol has been present since the founding of the United States. “If we were going over there and saying racist slurs and cussing them out, that would be another thing.”
Myers said that a Confederate flag was torn from his vehicle on school property last week, an action he called an “injustice” for which no one was punished.
“If we went over there and tore down their rainbow flag, we’d all be expelled,” he said.
Myers’ claim that no racist slurs were being exchanged was contradicted by a report from local CBS affiliate WNEM. The TV station quoted a grandmother who related the taunts her grandson had endured at the school.
“My grandson is sitting the front with me, he’s a black child,” Lahoma Buckley said. “He told me that this kid stuck the Confederate flag under my nose today and said someone gave me five bucks to show you this. And just before that another student says to him do slaves have feelings? And then uses his name. [The grandson] doesn’t have feelings.”
“They were calling him the n word,” Buckley said. “Everyday he goes to school with his stomach in knots not knowing if he’s gonna be confronted with someone trying to push his buttons again today.”
17-year-old junior Kendall Frost believes that the flag display was intended to intimidate and bully certain black students. She showed MLive with screen captures of text messages with racial slurs. She also said some students told her and other black classmates they “shouldn’t go to Western because of our skin tone.”
Auburn Mayor Lee Kilbourn was torn between concerns about the first amendment rights of those displaying their racist symbols and the intimidation of minorities.
“I’m not saying I’m supporting it or for or against it, but people in this country have to start realizing we have to tolerate all peoples’ views. That’s preached a lot out of Washington and a lot of other places, but it’s not practiced. Democrats don’t like Republicans’ views and Republicans don’t like Democrats’ views. People have to grow up and need to respect other people’s views.”
When those other people’s views include the idea that some people are less equal than themselves simply because of the color of their skin, then that’s an idea that deserves nothing but condemnation.
While the display of the Confederate flag is a legitimate expression of free speech, the right to say something horrendously offensive doesn’t mean that anyone has to accept the racism that underlies their comments and should inspire exactly the kind of counter-protests that it has in Auburn, Michigan. The fact that the controversy has devolved into threats against students shows just how important it is to fight against hate speech.
Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter.