I thought it was ridiculous when I heard that dozens of people in Minnesota decided to protest against a Confederate flag at their neighbor’s house. But then I saw a news article titled, “Protest calls out white silence after Confederate flag towel displayed on Evanston beach.” I did not think that such a thing was possible, but this towel protest reaches new levels of ridiculousness.
Reading the full story behind these events only makes this incident more appalling. The offending towel was first sighted on Wednesday at Lighthouse Beach in Evanston, Illinois, where a group of beachgoers had draped it over a fence. LaShandra Smith-Rayfield saw photos of the towel posted on social media and decided to drop what she was doing and drive to the beach to confront the towel owners in person. She posted a video of the confrontation on Facebook Live. In the video (since deleted) she reportedly told the towel owners, “I can’t feel comfortable in my own neighborhood. That flag right there is my swastika.” Then, a small group of protesters arrived at the beach and held Black Lives Matter signs until the towel owners left. Another small protest took place at the beach Thursday, followed by one on Friday which was attended by 300 people, including the mayor.
The Facebook event for that protest was titled, “No one is free until we are all free,” which is ironic because the protest seems to have been dedicated to taking away people’s freedom to go to the beach without being bullied and harassed.
Smith-Rayfield’s actions in instigating a confrontation with a group of beachgoers and then organizing a protest against them are utterly despicable. People have every right to possess and use any type of towel that they want. The group of people who hung the Confederate towel on the fence were doing absolutely nothing wrong whatsoever. Yet Smith-Rayfield chose to drop what she was doing and drive to the beach to verbally attack them. Then she and her supporters held not one, not two, but three protests against these people who were doing nothing wrong. In this time of relentless attacks on the Confederate States of America and its iconography, this is one of the most bigoted, intolerant, and aggressive instances of bullying I have heard of yet.
“Me speaking out against hatred does not make me anti-patriotic,” Smith-Rayfield told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It actually makes me patriotic… Every person on that beach walked past it. In my video, you can see people walk on past it. Why is it okay to walk on past it?”
This is one of the most preposterous questions I have ever heard. Not only is it okay to walk past a group of people minding their own business, it is an obligation. Unless, of course, one wants to compliment the towel or ask where the owners bought it, which would be totally justified because in my opinion, a Confederate flag towel is awesome. But when it comes to making negative or critical comments towards a person or people who are doing nothing wrong, that is morally impermissible because it is an act of aggression. For Smith-Rayfield to imply that bullying and harassing innocent people is not only acceptable but is morally required is preposterous. She is not “speaking out against hatred.” She is aggressing against innocent people.
Disgustingly, the mayor of Evanston, Steve Hagerty, praised Smith-Rayfield’s “courage and persistence.” But what Smith-Rayfield did was an act of cruelty, aggression, and bullying. This has nothing to do with courage or persistence, and it is disturbing that an elected official would praise such a thing.
Terri Turner, who attended one of the protests, said that she and her daughter were up till 2:30 a.m. “trying to process how heinous that was.” She was not referring to Smith-Rayfield’s decision to attack an innocent group of beachgoers; she was referring to the Confederate flag towel itself. This reaction is bizarre and incomprehensible. There is nothing “heinous” about a Confederate flag towel. It is a towel demonstrating pride in Southern heritage. Smith-Rayfield’s actions in instigating an argument with innocent people, as well as Turner’s own decision to attend a protest condemning these same people, are what is truly heinous.
People have a right to go to the beach and display any type of flag or towel they want without being insulted, yelled at, or harassed. If you think that disliking someone’s towel gives you the right to go up to them, berate them, and organize protests against them, you are not only 100% wrong but you are also a mean, nasty, intolerant bully.
One bright light in this dismaying series of events is that while Smith-Rayfield was verbally attacking the group of innocent beachgoers, an African-American veteran decided to intervene. According to a series of tweets describing the encounter, this man told Smith-Rayfield that “she’s the one causing the problem,” that the towel owners were “minding their business,” and that he “fought for their right to display that flag.” He is 100% right. Interviewed later by the Chicago Sun-Times, this brave veteran said that he personally believes the Confederate flag is wrong but also believes that people have the right to disagree and that he served in the military to protect that right. This guy showed true courage, tolerance, and empathy. If only more people behaved this way towards those with whom they disagree.