MSCD Apologizes for Display of “Politically & Socially Charged” Confederate Flag

Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

On Tuesday, the Main Street Cultural District made its first public acknowledgement of the racist Confederate flag on display from Cool Biker Stuff at last Friday’s Ames Bike Night. At last evening’s City Council meeting, Paul Livingston, a local real estate broker and vice president of the MSCD, apologized for the vendor’s “offensive paraphernalia including a Confederate flag.” (The vendor was also selling rings with neo-Nazi emblems.)

“It was brought to your attention that there were some concerns from Bike Night on Friday night, namely the vendor that had displayed some offensive paraphernalia including a Confederate flag,” Livingston told the council. “So I’m here to apologize on behalf of the Main Street Cultural District to you, and really to anyone that was — that’ll be corrected. We’re developing a policy going forward which will prohibit vendors from displaying anything that would be overtly political, certainly overtly racist, so I want to extend our apologies and assure you that it has our full attention.”

In a statement (PDF), the MSCD itself avoided calling the flag racist, saying only that it made a mistake by allowing Cool Biker Stuff to display items of a “politically & socially charged nature” and that it was working on a new policy to prevent “overt political statements” at future events the organization sponsors:

In reference to an incident which occurred on Friday, June 24 at Bike Night in downtown Ames, where an outside vendor displayed a Confederate flag: The Ames Main Street Cultural District recognizes that a mistake was made in allowing this vendor to display merchandise of a politically & socially charged nature. We are in the final stages of developing our policies to keep future vendors from making overt political statements at our events. We hope this will avoid future problems. We regret if any person was offended.

After Livingston spoke at the council meeting, Mayor Ann Campbell commented that “the city was not a funder of this event in this fiscal year.” (The Informer previously reported that Friday’s Bike Night was city-funded.) Although technically accurate, the council last month approved $1,100 in funding for this year’s Bike Nights, which are scheduled once a month all summer, as part of the 2016-17 fiscal year budget beginning in July. The MSCD is a quasi-governmental private organization that receives funding from the city every year.

The Confederate flag issue came up again during council comments, which takes place at the end of council meetings before they adjourn. Council member Gloria Betcher proposed that the council ask the city’s Human Relations Commission to meet with the MSCD, Ames Convention and Visitors Bureau (Bike Night’s other main sponsor), Chamber of Commerce, and Campustown Action Association to “discuss ways in which policies might be set to create events that are welcoming to everyone.” After that, Betcher proposed, the HRC “would arrange a series of community discussions on issues such as freedom of speech, racism, and anything else that they deemed appropriate to a continuing community engagement on this issue.”

“It’s not about what the symbol was that was shown on Friday, because quite frankly we have complaints about the statue that’s sitting on Douglas and Main Street from another group,” Betcher said before moving for a vote on her proposal. “There are different things that offend different groups of people. All of these things are protected constitutionally, and so my concern is that we take this as an opportunity for discussion and for the Human Relations Commission to discuss something that has come up as a human relations issue in the city.”

A private organization’s policies concerning what a vendor may and may not display at an event is not necessarily a First Amendment issue, but Betcher did note that there was a difference between what to allow at events like Bike Night and a person’s constitutionally protected activities on a public street. She called the Confederate flag controversy an “opportunity” for dialog and the “second free speech issue we’ve talked about in the last year.” (Earlier this year, the council rejected an unconstitutional request from downtown pet shop owner Dale Dyvig to restrict the rights of animal welfare activists protesting outside his store, after MSCD director Cindy Hicks last summer asked the council to look into possible ordinance changes that could “protect the rights of our business owners.”)

Council member Amber Corrieri supported Betcher’s idea but noted that the HRC in the past has held meetings to encourage community dialog that no one attended. Betcher said she was optimistic that future meetings would be more successful.

Gartin suggested that City Attorney Judy Parks attend any meetings held by the HRC to advise people if their suggestions for policy changes might violate the First Amendment. “I’m just concerned about an overreaction,” he said earlier. “So we have one vendor that shows up with a Confederate flag. We deal with it by tightening our policy. Is there a risk of overthinking this?”

The proposal passed by a 5-1 vote, with council member Peter Orazem voting nay.

Cool Biker Stuff reacted defensively over the weekend to the controversy. As the Iowa State Daily pointed out, the vendor posted a Facebook message defending its merch that read:

Well Looks Like the Libs in Ames don’t want Us Back!! Let it be Known that we Do Not Display Anything with Prejudice, but Simply Heritage and Honor To All of Those Who have Fought for our Great Country! If you don’t like the Biker Culture, Don’t Come Around Us!

(The heritage represented by the Confederate flag is inherently prejudiced.)

The Ames Convention and Visitors Bureau has yet to issue an apology, but is in the process of discussing the issue with city leaders.

Correction: This article initially said that council member Peter Orazem did not vote on the HRC proposal and that Tim Gartin cast the sole nay vote. In fact, Orazem cast the only vote against the proposal and Gartin voted in favor.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.