Confederate flags spark mystery, then a ‘three-ring circus’ in Ohio city

HARRISON, Ohio – Ryan Grubbs’ telephone began ringing a few days after Christmas, whereas he stood in his kitchen making rooster soup for his sick spouse.

Grubbs, who was lower than a week away from being sworn in as mayor of Harrison, typically received calls at house about city enterprise. But on this present day, they stored coming. Friends. Colleagues. Neighbors. Everyone wished a solution to the identical query.

Why did he put a Confederate flag in the center of city?

Grubbs didn’t know what they have been speaking about. He didn’t put a Confederate flag anyplace.

Then a buddy texted him a picture, and there it was, one of the most divisive symbols in America, fluttering in the breeze above an official-looking signal that learn, “Welcome to Harrison, Ohio.” Right under these phrases, in barely smaller print, was his identify and new title, “Mayor Ryan Grubbs.”

The show sat on a privately owned subject subsequent to a church on Harrison Avenue, one of many city’s busiest roads. Anyone passing via city might see it.

As he answered name after name in his kitchen that day, Grubbs’ frustration grew. Without warning, somebody had hijacked his identify and status, tying him to a flag hundreds of thousands of Americans take into account a image of white supremacy.

“I do not like being associated with the flag,” he stated. “That is not who I am.”

In the times and weeks that adopted, two extra shows of Confederate flags and indicators went up at two different areas in Harrison, a city of 13,000 about 20 miles west of Cincinnati. TV information crews arrived. Social media overflowed with pictures and hypothesis. Soon, extra individuals received caught up in the chaos.

A Black teenager who might see one of many shows from her entrance porch stated the flag made her uncomfortable in her personal neighborhood. The homeowners of an auto restore store throughout the road from a flag stated it tarnished their names and enterprise. A city councilman who spoke out in opposition to the shows received arrested on prices of vandalizing one in every of them.

Not everybody in Harrison shared their considerations concerning the flag. Some stated it was simply a piece of fabric, an previous image of revolt or Southern pleasure, a relic with no actual energy or that means.

But for Grubbs and others whose lives have been upended by the flag’s arrival, it was one thing extra. If the flag had no energy or that means, they stated, individuals wouldn’t nonetheless be flying it, in Harrison or anyplace else.

“It may be just a flag to some people,” Grubbs stated. “But it’s not to others.”

A brand new mayor tries to clear his identify

Grubbs’ first week as mayor didn’t go the best way he would’ve favored. Instead of easing into the job with conferences about street initiatives and budgets, he spent days speaking about Confederate flags.

Grubbs had lived most of his 49 years in Harrison, leaving just for school and for missionary work along with his church. He and his spouse, Andi, raised 4 youngsters in the city and he served for a decade as a Republican member of city council.

Yet the one factor lots of Harrison’s residents knew about Grubbs in early January was that the brand new mayor’s identify was connected to these flags.

Harrison is about 95% white, according to the U.S. Census, and it wasn’t laborious for Grubbs to think about why Black residents, in explicit, may be involved in the event that they believed their city authorities and mayor endorsed the Confederate flag.

So Grubbs got down to guarantee them, and everybody else, that wasn’t the case. He tried to return each name and reply each e mail. He promised, time and again, that the flags didn’t signify him or the city.

His hardest dialog got here the primary day the flags went up, when he known as one in every of his daughter’s associates, who’s Black. He frightened she or her household may see the flags and indicators earlier than he might clarify.

“If anyone wants to talk,” he instructed her, “I’m here to talk.”

He knew, although, that speaking might solely get him to date. Grubbs wished to search out out who put up the shows and what, if something, the city might do about them.

He quickly realized that Steve Hickey, a longtime Harrison resident, owned the three properties the place the flags have been flying: Two rental properties and the empty subject on Harrison Avenue.

Hickey, a former Harrison police officer, had a bumpy historical past with city authorities. His police personnel file reveals he resigned in April 2004, however media reviews on the time stated he’d been suspended earlier than he resigned for allegedly interfering with a sheriff’s investigation of his brother in Dearborn County, Indiana.

The Dearborn County Register reported in 2004 that a disciplinary listening to decided Hickey violated 21 division guidelines and behaved as if “he had a score to settle.”

But that was 20 years in the past. No one appeared to know for sure what Hickey was so far. If the flags have been some form of protest, what was he protesting?

Grubbs stated he tried a number of occasions to search out out. He stated he despatched Hickey emails and left voicemail messages however received no response. Hickey additionally didn’t reply to a number of makes an attempt by The Enquirer to achieve him on his cell and work telephones and on the properties displaying the flags.

“I just wanted to have a conversation with the guy,” Grubbs stated.

About a month later, in February, Hickey added about a dozen bogs to the most important flag show on Harrison Avenue. He organized them like chairs across the base of the flagpole. Hand-written indicators on some bogs stated “mayor” and “council,” however Hickey supplied no different rationalization.

City officers, nonetheless, had a solution to battle again this time. While the First Amendment protected Hickey’s proper to place up the flags and indicators on his property, the bogs violated zoning codes and must go.

Before they did, Hickey lastly broke his silence, saying in a TV interview he wished the city to “clean up” an auto restore store throughout the road from one in every of his rental properties. The flags and bogs have been his method of protesting the city’s lack of motion, Hickey stated.

He additionally stated he didn’t perceive why some individuals have been making such a fuss concerning the Confederate flag.

“I don’t know why society has become offended by everything,” Hickey stated. “They’re offended by the air they breathe nowadays.”

A younger neighbor confronts the flag’s historical past

Harrison is house to fewer than 200 Black residents, in response to the census. Kaylani Durrough is one in every of them.

The 15-year-old highschool sophomore stated she didn’t suppose a lot concerning the flags once they went up, even when one appeared in her neighbor’s entrance yard. She most well-liked hanging out at house or engaged on her newest artwork mission to maintaining with information from round city.

Soon, although, she couldn’t keep away from the topic. The flag at her neighbor’s home on Harrison Avenue was smaller than the primary show in the center of the city, however it was laborious to overlook. Her neighborhood started displaying up on TV information and social media.

Kaylani’s mother, Martha Durrough, determined to speak to Kaylani about it. She instructed her concerning the flag’s historical past, about its connection to slavery and the Civil War, concerning the debate over its that means.

“After that,” Kaylani stated, “I felt very uncomfortable.”

It wasn’t the primary time she’d felt that method since transferring to Harrison with the Durrough household as a foster youngster 5 years in the past.

Kaylani stated she’s conscious, wherever she goes, that she doesn’t appear like most individuals in Harrison. Her mother and father and siblings are white. Most of her neighbors, classmates and lecturers are white. Usually, she stated, that’s tremendous. But not at all times.

Her mother stated Kaylani’s pores and skin colour makes her a straightforward goal. There have been merciless remarks from different youngsters. And two years in the past, whereas strolling in a park, Kaylani stated a man shouted a racial epithet at her. Since then, she hardly ever goes out alone.

Kaylani stated she loves her household and her house, however the world past her entrance porch will be a problem in methods it isn’t for different youngsters in Harrison.

“I just don’t fit in,” she stated.

Upset concerning the flag, Kaylani’s mother stated she requested her neighbor, Tim Ward, why it was there. Ward, who rents the property from Hickey, declined to speak to The Enquirer, however Durrough stated he instructed her the flag was “a symbol of rebellion.”

She replied that it means one thing else to the Black youngster she’s elevating two doorways down.

“Everyone can say it’s not about racism, but that doesn’t make it feel safer,” she stated. “I feel like this is sparking a lot of hate in the community, and I wish my family didn’t have to be a part of it.”

Not lengthy after her dialog together with her neighbor, Durrough purchased a rainbow-colored flag with “World Peace” spelled out in large letters throughout the middle.

It now hangs from her porch.

A enterprise fights the flag subsequent door

Down the road from Kaylani’s home, on the alternative facet of the yard with the Confederate flag, sits Hilltop Performance Offroad, the truck and Jeep store that Hickey stated prompted his flag protest.

An indication connected to the flagpole proclaims “HARRISON ZONING ALLOWS JUNKYARDS.”

Ethan and Annie Efkeman, the couple who’ve owned the store for greater than a decade, stated they’ve by no means met Hickey. They stated Ward, their neighbor, was an occasional buyer who typically frolicked hanging out on the store with the workers. Annie stated they received to know him so properly she used to ship him Christmas playing cards.

She stated neither Ward nor Hickey ever raised considerations with them about their enterprise. But late final yr, a city inspector stated he’d obtained a grievance about avenue parking and the dozen or so automobiles that have been usually parked in the store’s lot.

When the inspector discovered no violations, that appeared to be the tip of it. Then, weeks later, Ethan arrived at work one morning to search out the flag flying subsequent door.

“It’s horribly offensive,” Annie Efkeman stated. “We think it’s disgusting.”

She stated the grievance about their enterprise was one factor, however connecting their enterprise to a image as divisive because the Confederate flag was surprising. Now, she stated, that’s the connection individuals make in the event that they do a Google seek for Hilltop Performance.

“This has really taken a toll on us,” Efkeman stated.

Hickey has since lodged further complaints in opposition to Hilltop with the Harrison Fire Department and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Both discovered no issues. The Efkemans stated they’ve despatched a cease-and-desist letter to Hickey, warning him to cease making accusations he can’t again up.

Annie Efkeman stated she’s unsure her household’s enterprise is the true cause behind Hickey’s flag protest. Some in Harrison consider the foundation of the issue is a long-running zoning dispute which will have restricted Hickey’s potential to develop his property.

Whatever the explanation, Efkeman stated, it’s a thriller to her what the Confederate flags should do with any of Hickey’s complaints. There are loads of methods to resolve a disagreement, she stated, and flying these flags doesn’t appear to be one.

“If you’re mad,” she stated, “deal with it in other ways that aren’t harmful to other people.”

She stated a dialog, months in the past, would’ve saved everybody a lot of grief. If that had occurred, Efkeman stated, she and her husband would’ve defined they’re constructing a new location for his or her enterprise elsewhere in Harrison.

The store subsequent to Hickey’s property will shut by the tip of the yr, she stated, and his Confederate flag, if it’s nonetheless there, shall be flying subsequent to an empty lot.

A councilman’s assembly, then an arrest

Harrison City Councilman Mike Mains stated a dialog was all he wished when he reached out to Hickey and Ward in January to speak concerning the flags. After a few weeks, Mains stated, Hickey agreed to fulfill him.

By then, it was mid-February, and Hickey was about so as to add one other, bigger signal to the primary flag show. The new signal stated, “Coming soon: City of Harrison’s HOMELESS CAMP.”

No one knew for sure what that meant, however the flags and indicators and bogs have been the speak of the city. “I feel like I’m living in an episode of South Park,” one commenter wrote on a group Facebook put up. “This just gets dumber and dumber by the day.”

Mains, a mechanical engineer who grew up in Harrison and raised 4 youngsters in the city, stated he wished to fulfill Hickey in hopes of convincing him to take down the flags. As a libertarian, Mains stated, he is aware of Hickey has a constitutional proper to fly the flags, however he believes they mirror poorly on Harrison.

“We’re not very diverse, but we’re not a racist community,” Mains stated. “We’re good people. We’re generous people. We love our neighbors.”

He stated the flags additionally belie Harrison’s historical past and position in the Civil War. Young males from Harrison fought for the Union and, in 1863, the city was a crossing point for Confederate raiders beneath the command of Gen. John Hunt Morgan. Back then, the flag was carried by the enemy.

When they lastly met, Mains stated, Hickey complained to him about Hilltop Performance and, extra usually, about city officers. He stated he urged Hickey to speak to the mayor and different city officers about his considerations, however Hickey declined.

“It’s just frustrating,” Mains stated. “I don’t understand why he just won’t sit down and have a conversation with people.”

According to police reviews, the connection between Mains and Hickey deteriorated in the weeks that adopted their assembly. On March 31, police stated, Hickey known as to report that Mains drove his automotive onto his property, put up a libertarian yard signal and broken the big show on Harrison Avenue.

Hickey additionally blamed Mains for eradicating some lights that had been shining on the flagpole at one of many areas, and police stated they noticed a brown substance on different lights that “appeared to be fecal matter.”

Police stated Hickey gave them a recording of a dialog he later had with Mains, in which he requested Mains why he drove onto his property.

“Because I’m pissed off,” Mains replied.

Mains, who’s charged with misdemeanor counts of trespassing and felony damaging, responded to questions concerning the prices in a written assertion. “The City of Harrison has been bullied for months now by a man who seeks to sow division in our community,” he stated. “I stood up to that bully and unfortunately placed myself in a position where the criminal justice system could be weaponized against me.”

Mains’ fellow council members requested him to resign in April, however he instructed them he is staying. “It’s been a three-ring circus,” he stated.

Just a few weeks after Mains’ arrest, the Confederate flag close to Kaylani’s home and Hilltop Performance got here down. No one was certain on the time who had finished it, or why, however for a number of days, no flag flew in the yard.

Less than a week later, a new, taller flagpole went up in the identical yard.

Just a few days after that, a new, bigger Confederate flag appeared atop the pole.

This article initially appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: How Confederate flag displays upended lives in Harrison, Ohio

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