TRAVERSE CITY — A now-former Traverse City police officer who flew a Confederate flag at a political rally asserted he did so as a statement against political correctness, not out of racial divisiveness.
"My intent was simple, because if there's one other thing that this flag represents, besides the proud hayseed lifestyle, it is the antithesis of political correctness," wrote Michael Peters in a statement provided to the Record-Eagle. "There is a rapidly growing segment of the population in this country who seem to be offended by anyone who dares present anything politically incorrect to them, and normal people are growing weary of it."
Peters' behavior stoked controversy following a Nov. 11 rally protesting President-elect Donald Trump. He drove up to the Open Space event in a pickup truck displaying a Confederate flag, parked in a restricted zone, opened a beer and drew a confrontation from protesters.
Photographs depicting the incident prompted nationwide attention, condemnation from city police Chief Jeff O'Brien — who called the flag a symbol of hate — and a criminal investigation into Peters' public drinking. Peters stayed quiet before and after his Nov. 14 resignation, until he hand-delivered a written statement to the Record-Eagle's office.
He declined further comment.
Peters wrote he wanted to clear the air on a misunderstanding from a large group of "Love Trumps Hate" rallygoers who expressed their First Amendment rights but took "extreme exception" to him exercising his own. He stated people across the country displayed the flag "not out of racial divisiveness, but to pay homage to (Southern) pride."
"I spent my formative years in the company of young men who were farmers and bull riders, drove trucks and wore cowboy hats, chewed tobacco and drank beer out of a can," Peters wrote. "Not one had a racist bone in his body, yet most displayed the rebel flag in one form or another, through belt buckles, shirts, or the flag itself. None of us construed this as racist, and none of us could fathom in this day and age how anyone could interpret it as such."
But Marshall Collins Jr., who confronted Peters at the rally, said his own experiences showed it was a racially-charged symbol. Collins, who is black, partly grew up in Florida and had to hide in bushes and under beds for fear of prowling racists who flew that flag.
The flag's history — from the Civil War to now — showed it stemmed from divisiveness, he said.
"First of all, it represents the split of our county," Collins said. "It was used over and over again to strike fear in a portion of our population, which would be the African-American portion."
Collins said locals who claim the flag stands for Southern pride should heed O'Brien's comment at a press conference: "This is the North, people."
O'Brien declined comment on Peters' statement. He said an investigation into the incident remains ongoing.
Peters wrote the Confederate flag evolved into a symbol far removed from its Civil War roots. He found it frustrating that self-proclaimed "progressives" would "stubbornly cling to this symbol as being racist in nature, and refuse to acknowledge the positive transformation that it had made over the years."
The statement closes with a reference to a "pivotal figure" who seemed outraged during the flag incident.
"Attempts are being made to reach out to this individual in the hopes of sitting down and educating each other on our vastly different experiences involving this issue," Peters wrote. "With any luck, we may be able to both leave the table with a little better understanding of the other's viewpoint."
Collins said if the statement referred to him that he'd be happy to sit down with Peters.