TRAVERSE CITY — An off-duty Traverse City police officer wheeled a pickup truck affixed with a Confederate flag outside a local protest against President-elect Donald Trump, cracked open a beer and drew a confrontation from an African American rallygoer.
The flag ruffled an otherwise-peaceful event Friday, when hundreds of locals descended upon the Open Space for the "Love Trumps Hate" rally. Marshall Collins Jr., of Traverse City, raised a fist in the air as the truck circled the event.
Collins, who is black, later confronted the white man who drove the truck, parked it in a restricted zone and sipped a Bud Light while a crowd grew around the vehicle. He said the man denied the flag's history is steeped in racism and division.
"It means a lot to people like me," Collins said. "It means hatred."
A photograph from the incident circulated on social media following the confrontation. Police Chief Jeff O'Brien on Saturday confirmed the man depicted was Officer Michael Peters, a 18-year veteran with the department. He said a sergeant will conduct an internal investigation starting Monday.
"That’s not what the Traverse City Police Department represents," O'Brien said. "We are to provide protection for everybody. The Confederate flag is not something we consider an oath of office. We take an oath of office to the Constitution, not the Confederacy. I personally feel that flag stands for hate and hatred."
Peters couldn't be reached for comment.
A woman arrived with Peters. Another man — Ryan Salisbury, a former Grand Traverse County sheriff's deputy — held an anti-Hillary Clinton sign nearby. Local businessman Andy McFarlane, who confronted the trio along with Collins, said he attended the rally because he felt Trump used racist and sexist rhetoric.
The Confederate flag only supports bigoted stances, he said.
"The reason I have such a powerful reaction is it’s a symbol for the denial of those rights for a portion of the population," McFarlane said.
Collins grew up splitting his time between Northport and Florida. He said the flag-emblazoned trucks like Peters' were a frightening sight from his days in the South. Those vehicles forced Collins and his sister into bushes and under beds for fear of prowling Ku Klux Klan members.
He spoke about those experiences to a crowd of rallygoers.
"(Peters) had the nerve to tell me that I had no experience with the flag," Collins said.
Salisbury denied he saw Peters or participated in a protest with him, although the two parked next to each other and could be seen together. He said he arrived to stand up for a fair election and because he felt it insenstive to hold such a rally on Veterans Day.
"I think that as a Americans we have a right to demonstrate peacefully," he said.
Salisbury said the Confederate flag is not a symbol of racism.
Peters stayed for about 10 minutes before they finished their beers and drove off. Rumors circulated among protesters that Peters was a local law enforcement officer, but Collins didn't know for sure until Saturday.
Collins said he didn't feel safe knowing someone who is supposed to protect his rights would fly that flag. He said O'Brien's condemnation "hit the nail on the head."
"I hope they hold (Peters) accountable," he said. "He needs to be held accountable."
O'Brien said his officers have a constitutional right to free speech, but also a code of conduct and other internal policies. He said a sergeant on Monday will look into whether Peters violated those rules, as well as local prohibitions on where people can openly drink alcohol.
"We’ll do an internal investigation and see if any policy was violated," he said.
Traverse City police officials recently shifted toward a community policing model in which officers are encouraged to develop local ties to the community. O'Brien said Peters' apparent behavior didn't represent the department.
"We’re trying harder to build relationships in the community," O'Brien said.