George Giavasis looked out his living room window yesterday afternoon and was taken aback by what he saw. He lives in a residential neighborhood near Flathead High School in Kalispell.
"I went outside and saw about a block's worth of mostly trucks peeling out and smoking their tires. A lot of them had Confederate flags and American flags, and a lot of them were making noise and shouting and driving down the street," said Giavasis.
He works from home as a graphic designer. Giavasis hopped on his bike, hoping to catch on camera the scene unfolding on his block.
"Well the obvious reaction for me was, post-election, seeing a bunch of people driving fast through the neighborhood with Confederate flags, I thought it was a reaction to the election," Giavasis said, "sort of a pro- alt-right, pro-Trump sort of parade from the students at Flathead High School, that's what I assumed it was, I had no way of knowing. That's what it looked like, that's what it felt like."
Nicky Ouellet: "Did it make you scared?"
George Giavasis: "Yeah, absolutely."
Giavasis wasn’t alone in this fear. Pictures and videos popped up on Facebook. People commented saying they contacted local and national human rights groups. They tracked the procession of more than 15 trucks and flags through neighborhoods and down Main Street.
Giavasis kept biking and taking video.
"I didn't know what it was when I got on my bike. I thought it was a protest around the election, I thought it was a pro-white supremacist party. That’s what it looked like."
But it wasn’t a pro-white supremacist party. The parade wasn’t politically motivated.
It was a group of high school kids mourning the death of their friend, Zachary Rhoads, who was killed in a car accident on Highway 2 east of Marion on Saturday night.
"They consider themselves the country kids, that's what they call themselves," said Cory Clarke, a Kalispell police officer assigned to Flathead High School. "That's what the Confederate flag means to them, is that they're country."
Clarke says the students organized themselves. They came up with the idea to hold a prayer vigil after school, to bring two horses and gather all their trucks and ride through town to honor their friend.
I couldn’t reach any of the students involved for comment.
"When we talked, that was a common theme amongst all of them, that they wanted to be presented. That this was in memory for the death of their friend and not anything else," Clarke said.
Clarke says he didn’t hear anything racially or politically motivated from the students, who also waved the American and the “Don’t tread on me” flag. Many of the trucks’ windows were painted with the number 63, the number on Rhoads’ football jersey in photos of him online.
Clarke says one of the students said she tried to get a parade permit from the city but had applied too late. He ended up tailing them through town, down side streets where two girls on horseback led the trucks, then down Main Street, where some of the kids’ parents had come to take pictures.
Peter Fusaro, principal at Flathead High School, says he also talked to the students before they took off.
"We also talked to them about, if you're trying to honor a student, was this the best way to honor them with the Confederate flags?" Fusaro said.
He suggested other memorials, like taking up a collection for the family. He says they could have done it in better taste.
"But obviously kids have their rights and they're off school grounds and it wasn't anything that was sponsored by our school so we said something to them," Fusaro said. "But I guess they saw it a little differently."
George Giavasis, the guy who jumped on his bike, says he later learned the students’ intent. It didn’t change his reaction.
"It doesn't make sense. They put on a memorial that turned into a symbol of hate, which is sad to say," Giavasis said.
This isn’t the first time high school students in the Flathead Valley have bumped into problems with the Confederate flag this year. In September, two students at Polson High School wore t-shirts inscribed with “White Pride” and “Trump 2016.” One had a Confederate flag on the front. Polson High School is still determining how to address the incident.