Driver, residents speak out
by LAURA HAYES and CHRIS ROGERS
A young white man with dirt-stained boots, a black mother with colorful braids, influential political leaders in dress clothes, and people from all corners of the community put local race relations and the Confederate flag under the microscope last week.
They gathered at Winona's Maplewood Townhomes, where, late last month, Ryan Kauten, an 18-year-old white man from small rural town of Altura, was assaulted after hitting an African-American child with his truck. Kauten's girlfriend, a minor, lives in Maplewood, and he often came there — a public housing development with a large population of black families in the predominantly white city of Winona — with a Confederate battle flag flapping proudly from the back of his truck.
Those events sparked questions for area residents. Why was Kauten flying that flag in Maplewood? What does the Confederate flag mean?
The South first flew the Confederate flag in 1861, several months after the Confederacy seceded from the nation, sparking the start of the Civil War. “Central to the reason for secession was slavery,” Winona State University Professor of History John Campbell said. Some argue that the Civil War fought for state’s rights. Campbell disagrees. He said the South was trying to construct a new nation placing slavery at the heart of its economy.
A century later, the flag was used to signal opposition to the Civil Rights movement, Campbell said. The Stars and Bars has made seemingly innocent appearances in American culture, like on the roof of the car from "The Dukes of Hazzard," and more sinister ones, draped on the shoulders of white supremacists or in photos of Dylan Roof, the man who killed nine black church-goers in Charleston, S.C., earlier this summer, clutching a Confederate flag in one hand and a pistol in the other.
The Confederate flag can been seen flying over the porches of a few rural homes outside of Winona. It’s been used in a number of ways, from high school students’ computer screen savers to car decals to large flags, waving from the bed of pickup trucks as they drive through WSU campus.
People drove through Maplewood flying Confederate flags nearly every day, multiple times per day, according to Maplewood resident Arterria Peterson. "They knew what that flag meant to us," Peterson said.
Other residents told the young men who flew the flag that what they were doing was disrespectful, but that did not change anything, said Maplewood resident Gregory Shines.
Being told to stop may have made those young men more determined to show off the flag. Jacob Moore had flown it from his pickup truck for around five years. "I don't know if it was because I was angry or if I just wanted to push back and say we weren't backing down," Moore said when asked why he wanted to come to Maplewood and drive around with the flag.
"It makes me angry," Peterson said. "Why would you want to put a racist flag up in a black neighborhood?"
In an interview, Kauten said that while some people yelled at him to take his flag down as he was driving, no one talked to him face-to-face and asked to him stop flying it in Maplewood. If they had, he said he would have taken it down. Instead, he said, he looked out his girlfriend's window one day to find that his flag had been stolen from his truck. It was later found burned in Maplewood.
The controversy surrounding the Confederate flag escalated in late August when Kauten hit a four-year-old black child outside of a park in Maplewood. Kauten said that the child dashed out into the road from behind a recycling shed near the roadway, and that while he was driving slowly, he did not have time to stop before hitting the child. He said he got out to see if the child was OK. Then several people attacked him. Kauten stated that he has permanently lost most of the vision in one eye as a result of facial injuries from the assault. Police officials reported that his only injury was a chipped tooth. Kauten explained that the damage to his eye only became apparent after swelling in his face went down, and that he has not yet told police about it.
"I think the ones that jumped me and the parents should all be charged," Kauten said. "I shouldn't get anything out of it. I tried to stop. I did the right thing by stopping."
At the Winona Human Rights Commission meeting a week prior to the forum, Winona Police Department Sergeant Jay Rasmussen admitted that citizens were upset because they believed the Confederate flag was connected to the incident. See sidebar story for more information on the police investigation.
“The investigation is ongoing and we don’t believe any of that is connected,” Rasmussen said.
However, questions about whether or not the Confederate flag was a symbol of malice took center stage after the accident.
“For many people in our community, when they see the Confederate flag, they see a symbol of hate and intimidation and in some cases a symbol of terror,” Human Rights Commission Chair Chuck Ripley said.
Some say the flag is racist. Some say it represents southern pride. Jacob Moore, who had flown the flag from his pickup truck for around five years, said at the forum that the flag represented his “blue collared” way of life. “To us we have adopted this flag as a way of how we feel and how we live,” Moore said. “We adopted this flag to show we have big trucks. We like to fish. We like to hunt. We like to work hard.”
Others like Maplewood resident Tamara Witherspoon disliked the beliefs behind the Confederate flag. A southern native, Witherspoon said that she had been around Confederate flags her entire life, but she never saw the racism behind them until she moved to the north. “Up north I’ve seen the Confederate flag flown because of the ruling in South Carolina where the flag had to come down and now people want to fly the flag all of a sudden,” she said.
For many, the forum stirred up painful memories of the Confederate flag. WSU Professor of Political Science Fred Lee grew up in New Orleans during the Civil Rights Movement. He remembered sitting in the back of a streetcar, segregated by a plaque. Some white boys would move the plaque to a seat behind his, forcing him to move.
Winona State University student Aaron Camacho related a story of how she and her father were threatened by white supremacists as a child in Janesville, Wis., where the Klu Klux Klan organized cross burnings and white power demonstrations in the 1990s.
Witherspoon asked why Kauten flew the flag, echoing the thoughts of many across the Winona community. Did he fly the flag because he “has a big truck” to echo Moore? Or did he fly it for racial reasons?
Kauten said that he flew the flag to honor Confederate soldiers who died in the war. One of his family members fought in the Civil War. "It's a symbol of veterans that have died for that flag," he stated. "I know, it was for racism, but it's not about slavery anymore," he added.
When asked what he thought when he heard black people say they felt angered or threatened by the flag, Kauten responded, "You know I think they are more racist than white people. I don't have any problem with the black people who lived out there … and I would have had no problem with taking it down if they asked me to take it down."
A handful of other people at the forum defended their use of the Confederate flag, including the mother of the Kauten's girlfriend, Michelle Schrumpf. “The person flying the flag had explained to numerous people in the community what the flag meant to him,” she said.
“Is he from the south?” Witherspoon asked.
“He’s got family members from the south,” Schrumpf responded.
While several of Moore's friends, fellow defenders of the Confederate flag, left the forum early, seeming upset, Moore stuck around. Near the end, he spoke up. "It does make me feel remorseful that it makes you guys feel scared," Moore told the crowd. Given the history, that is understandable, he continued, but that is not how he and his friends use the flag. "I’m sorry, but my rights don’t end where your feelings begin,” he added.
In an interview after the forum, Moore reflected on the meeting, "I kind of felt angry and a little remorseful. I hoped there would be more people in support of — not the racism side of it, but what we had intended it to be."
Moore no longer flies a Confederate flag from his truck. Other defenders of the Stars and Bars now drape the U.S. flag from over their truck beds.
Moore came back to Maplewood on Thursday with a petition instead of a Southern flag. He talked to residents and collected signatures on a sheet of notebook paper, asking the City Council to install speed bumps. When asked why he was going around with the petition, he said, "I was hurting them, and I thought I could maybe push it to the right."
Can the Winona area overcome division and racial tension? "We have to come together as a community so that we feel comfortable to shake our neighbors' hands and ask for help," said Winona State University student and Human Rights Commission intern Sue Hang.
People called for action: to install speed bumps around Maplewood's parks so that another child is not hit, to listen to social justice organizations like FORTITUDE that reported students, traumatized by the events, to rely on neighbors in the face of institutionalized racism.
Witherspoon asked people who drive through Maplewood to slow down and be careful of the children playing in the park. "The confederate flag is why we’re here, but the real reason we’re here is because a little boy got hit by a car,” Witherspoon said. “That’s something that should not have happened regardless … a lot of people speed up and down these streets on a daily basis. Please, anybody here who does that, slow down. There are children always playing out here."
"Hello all my relations, whether we're hurting or we're confused, whether we're scared, or whether we feel attacked," said Winona State University student Aaron Camacho. Everyone gathered here needs to think of each other as neighbors, to be treated fairly, with care and respect, she said. “This is a big problem and it took us a lot of time to get here and it’s not going to take a blink of an eye to fix,” she said. Camacho approached Schrumpf and asked if she could hug her. Schrumpf nodded and the two embraced. “If we don’t treat each other with love, then we’re not going to get love," Camacho said.