Scene Over Confederate Flag at Festival Heating Up

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Sunday, August 9, 2015, 12:49 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Image: Ruth Beier (left) and Kendra Cabrera arguing this morning at the Zemer Homemade Rootbeer booth.

We reported this morning about Zemer’s Homemade Rootbeer stand displaying a confederate flag at the Great Lakes Folk Festival and the controversy ensuing. Since that report, tensions have been rising around the vendor’s booth, with protestors and supporters of Chris Zemer’s coming into conflict.

East Lansing City Council member Ruth Beier and her partner Terry Scharf have been stopping people who are seeking to purchase products from Zemer’s, encouraging them not to because of the intermittent display of the confederate flag by Zemer at the booth. The East Lansing Police told Beier she may not hand out such literature because it violates an unspecified ordinance. She told them that they should arrest her if they believe she is violating the law. So far, they have not arrested her or Scharf.

Scharf and Beier tell me she heard Zemer make a call to a friend named Billy to tell him to bring a weapon because there is trouble. Scharf and Beier reported this to the police who came and said that this does not constitute a threat—that it might be an imaginary call. Within about 15 minutes of my arrival, minutes into this tension, the police had left the scene, leaving behind what became an increasingly intense series of exchanges between supporters of Zemer and the protestors.

Several of the people coming to support Zemer were people of color, and one was a white man who is the father of an adult African-American son. When I spoke with these supporters, they uniformly told me that they don’t see the display of the confederate flag as relevant to whether they should spend money at the business.

Kendra Cabrera, a woman of color who volunteers for the Festival, told me she was buying products from Zemer because she found he and his staff to be very nice people. She said Zemer has been very kind to her and very gentlemanly every year. She said she take people “by face value.”

I asked Cabrera what she thinks of the confederate flag. She answered, “It’s part of history. I’m a teacher and I think everybody needs to know about it. He could have had a relative who’s during that part and that’s just to remind him of how things have changed and evolved. It doesn’t mean that’s a way of life. He doesn’t treat people that way. He doesn’t act that way.”

I asked Dee Jordan, the MSU graduate student who reported this issue to City Council, what she makes of people of color coming out to support Zemer. Jordan is a woman of color earning her PhD at MSU. She told me, “Being from the south, this does not surprise me. They always have a few minority friends they can call in to validate that ‘they can’t possibly be racist.’ It always happens. It doesn’t surprise me.”

She added, “What concerns me more is the inability of the GLFF directors to remove this vendor. For me, that’s the greater concern is their inability to act on behalf of the public space, taxpayer dollars and inclusion in the East Lansing community.”

Supporters of Zemer consistently told me they do not see his posting of the confederate flag as relevant to their decision whether to buy products from him. Zemer’s Facebook page shows a post from August 2 talking about visiting a town where it was “all white folks!!!” to which he added “God that was nice.”

At the site of the tensions this morning, I talked to managers of the Festival who tell me MSU is responsible for the contracts with the vendors and that nothing in the contract allows them to stop the vendor from displaying the flag. They say they will be revisiting the contract.

On the question of whether Beier and Scharf have the right to hand out materials at the public parking lot during the Festival, I checked with Michael Lawrence, J.D., a Constitutional law scholar at Michigan State University’s College of Law. (Lawrence serves on ELi’s board.) According to Lawrence, Beier and Scharf do have the right to hand out materials.

Lawrence says, “This is classic language from a landmark 1939 U.S. Supreme Court case, Hague v CIO: ‘Wherever the title of [public] streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.’” He sees no question that they have the right, so it is unclear why East Lansing Police officers would warn Beier against handing out flyers.

The number of protestors has been picking up. As shown below, one man wearing an MSU shirt brought a sign reading “The confederate flag has no place in Spartan country!” Other individuals have been coming to turn in the mugs they have previously bought from Zemer.

ELi will continue to follow this story.

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