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Kalispell Memorial Exposes Divide Over Views Of The Confederate Flag

Friends of Zachary Rhoads walk in a candlelight vigil in memorial of Rhoads, who died in a car accident Nov. 12, 2016.
Nicky Ouellet
Friends of Zachary Rhoads walk in a candlelight vigil in memorial of Rhoads, who died in a car accident Nov. 12, 2016.

At dusk on Sunday in Kalispell, candlelight illuminates the faces of a dozen high school students as they walk along 3rd Avenue West. Two girls in front lead a horse with an American flag draped over it.

They stop at a house on the corner where their classmate, Zachary Rhoads, lived. Rhoads died with his mother and stepfather in a car accident along Highway 2 near Marion two Saturdays ago. This candlelight walk is his friends’ second vigil for the family.

"He was always there for everybody — a text, a call, no matter what time of day or night, he was always there for you, no matter how many times you pushed him away ... always made sure I had a smile on my face no matter how bad I was feeling," says Arielle Peters, a senior at Flathead High School.

Peters was very close with Rhoads for the year they were classmates. She describes him as a country kid. He rodeo-ed, played football and ran track. He drove a truck and quickly befriended what Peters calls her friend group of "redneck kids." They sought solace in finding ways to pay tribute to his life.

"We knew we wanted to fly flags, and we knew we wanted to drive," Peters says.

Friends of Zachary Rhoads held a candlelight vigil in memorial of Rhoads, who died in a car accident Nov. 12, 2016.
Credit Nicky Ouellet
Friends of Zachary Rhoads held a candlelight vigil in memorial of Rhoads, who died in a car accident Nov. 12, 2016.

Peters helped organize the memorial drive last Wednesday. A group of 20 vehicles, mostly pickup trucks, did a lap around Rhoads’ neighborhood with Peters and a friend on horses at the front. Several trucks flew Confederate, American, and "Don’t Tread on me" flags behind them. They also drove down Main Street.

Katelyn Corpron, a junior at Flathead High School, drove near the back of the procession.

"It was truly amazing. people were just coming out of their houses, everyone was videoing it. When they went down main you could hear the honking," Corpron says.

After the ride, Arielle Peters says they shot a 21-gun-salute and had a bonfire.

"It couldn't have been any more perfect," Peters says.

But not everyone in town saw it that way. Cory Clarke, a Kalispell police officer assigned to Flathead High School, says he received multiple calls. People expressed concern about the Confederate flags, and sent him videos of how the kids were driving.

"There was quite a bit more revving of engines than I would have wanted to see, they were honking their horns, just being youthful and expressing their sorrow in a way they all knew how," Clarke says.

As for the Confederate flag, which many people consider a racist symbol, Arielle Peters says it was meant to symbolize Rhoads’ "rebel" nature and his long recovery from a concussion.

"We didn't fly it to offend anybody," says Peters, "we didn't fly it to be political. We didn't fly it for Trump. We flew it because Zach was fighting a battle."

Peters’ mom, Hayley Lewis, draws a distinction between the Confederate flag, or "stars and bars," which she says was used as a symbol of nationalism by southern states during the Civil War, and what the students flew — the rebel flag, which she says was more of a battle flag. She says the people who raised concern about the flag should have asked the kids about its meaning before jumping to conclusions about racial or political motivation.

"They're stirring the pot, they're not 'erasing the hate,'" Lewis says."They're construing it in a whole different manner."

Rebecca Renee Rhodes — no relation to Zachary Rhoads — reached out to us on Facebook about the memorial ride, which she describes as a touching tribute to a lost friend.

"Just a very powerful, powerful experience to watch the looks on their faces as they rode by with pride and honor for their friend."

Rhodes also says people are misconstruing the inclusion of the Confederate flag, but can understand their point of view.

Nicky Ouellet: Do you see racism here in the Flathead Valley?

Rebecca Renee Rhodes:  No I don't. I don't see racism here at all.

NO:  Are you familiar with the group Pioneer Little Europe? It was a group of people who wanted to move to Kalispell in the mid-2000s to create an Aryan homeland?

RRR: No, I’m not familiar with that at all.

NO: Are you familiar with a group called National Policy Institute led by Richard Spencer, that's based in Whitefish. That's like a think tank for white-supremacist, anti-semitic thought?

RRR: I was not aware of that whatsoever, no.

NO: Does hearing about those groups and their presence here in the valley, does that put in perspective a little bit what other people have been saying in reaction?

RRR: Well sure.

What’s emerged from the truck procession and the community’s reaction is a heated debate about symbols and race. The students involved in the ride, like Arielle Peters, say they were lectured by a few of their teachers at school, and feel like the community didn’t wait to hear their side before pegging them as racists.

"That's where everyone's going wrong, is they’re assuming. They aren't asking us, they aren't hearing our side of the story."

Similarly, George Giavasis, a man we spoke to for a previous story about his reaction to seeing the memorial ride, says he’s being harassed on social media for expressing his point of view.

Online and face-to-face, people are talking about the Confederate flag and its meaning. Two sides are emerging with a chasm between them, both sides trying to convince the other they are right.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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