Gettysburg, S.D. – Selwyn Jones moved to his wife’s hometown of Gettysburg, S.D., four years ago, bought a motel and settled in for a quiet life in the country.
But not long after his nephew, George Floyd, was killed by Minneapolis police in May, Jones found himself an unlikely voice for social justice. The first time, it was amid a throng of television cameras in downtown Minneapolis decrying his nephew’s death. Not long after, Jones led the charge to remove Confederate flag-adorned patches from the uniforms of Gettysburg police.
Finding that voice came at a cost.
The backlash against Jones, who is Black, was immediate as hundreds of people from the town of 1,162 and elsewhere took to Facebook calling for the flag’s return. They attacked both him and his late nephew, and eventually, the personal jabs evolved into attacks on Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the broader call for racial equity.
“What I know is power and control showed up: ‘We’re not going to do anything to change the patch because a Black guy that got murdered [has an uncle who lives] in our town,’ ” Jones said on a recent September morning. “There’s progress in every place of the world — every nook and cranny — except in my little town.”
The reaction within the town settled by Union soldiers and named after a Northern victory over the proslavery South didn’t surprise Jones.
“If you’re offended by a piece of cloth, but think dealing drugs to kids is alright, you might be this moron,” said one post with Jones’ picture.
The turmoil in Gettysburg, about 350 miles west of the Twin Cities, is among many signs nationally of racially charged expression erupting more in public life, even becoming normalized. Many civic and political leaders are worried that President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and lack of condemnation of white supremacy is emboldening those who hold such beliefs.
University of St. Thomas Prof. Lisa Waldner, who has studied white supremacy for 20 years, reviewed posts from a private Facebook group, “Gettysburg South Dakota FOR FREEDOM,” created to support the Confederate flag and mock Floyd and Jones.
“I certainly think they reflect white supremacy ideology,” said Waldner, a professor of sociology and criminal justice and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “White supremacists will say, ‘We’re not against Black people, we just don’t think Black people should get special treatment.’ Or, they’ll say, ‘We love white history.’ ”
The main grievance among the group’s approximately 342 members appears to be that their voices went unheard in the decision to do away with the Confederate flag logo.
“This man lives in Gettysburg … and we have reason to BELIEVE was planted there to cause problems and demand the Confederate Flag patch to be removed …” one woman wrote under the picture of Jones. “… How does ONE guy influence a whole town to get rid of Americas [sic] history …”
Monty Mikkelsen, who created the Facebook group, said he, the group and the flag are not racist.
“If someone don’t like the comments being put on there they are more than welcome to go somewhere else,” said Mikkelsen, who lives 60 miles away in Pierre. “These are people that are speaking their mind.”
Mikkelsen, 47, organized a pro-flag rally in late July in Gettysburg. He regularly demonstrates in Pierre with pro-Trump, Confederate and anti-BLM flags.
Jones, 54, moved from his home state of North Carolina to Rapid City, S.D., in 1999 to play arena football. He met his wife, Joie Jones, there two years later.
After having two children, ages 7 and 4, the call to return to Gettysburg lured them back in 2014. Joie’s mother also lives in the small town nestled among sunflower and soybean fields.
The interracial couple — Joie is white — bought the shuttered Sage Motel, began renovations and rebranded as KJ’s Inn and Suites. They opened in late 2019.
Months later a video showing then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes thrust them into the spotlight. Chauvin and three colleagues who responded to a call May 25 that Floyd allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill are charged in his death; a trial is scheduled for next year.
The day Floyd was buried in early June, a South Dakota reporter called Jones and asked his opinions of the police badge.
“My first thought was, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’ ” said Jones, who was not aware it featured the flag until the call. “I started laughing.”
Jones called Mayor Bill Wuttke, who defended the badge, and Police Chief Dave Mogard. He asked for its removal. He voiced his dismay in articles published around the state and country.
“It just went to hell from there,” Jones said.
Before the City Council could vote on the matter in early July, Mogard quietly removed the badge and identical emblems that appeared on squad cars and the Police Department’s door.
The badge had been in use for 11 of the town’s 137-year history.
The issue remains such a sore point that many Gettysburg residents, where Jones is one of four Black residents, declined to comment.
Pastor David Otten of the local Emmanuel Lutheran Church declined to address the conflict. He issued broad guidance: “When you post something on Facebook, are you building the person up or are you tearing them down? We’re supposed to be building people up.”
“Everyone is sick and tired of seeing the statues and everything ripped down,” Mikkelsen wrote in the Facebook group. “The removal of the Confederate patch on law enforcement was the straw that broke the camel’s back. THIS IS WHERE ‘WE THE PEOPLE’ MAKE A STAND!”
Mikkelsen and others said town residents should have voted on the issue; the badge was introduced in 2009 by then-police Chief Gayle Kludt without a vote by the public.
Some people from town and across the state called out Floyd’s criminal history. Others noted that he had fentanyl in his system when he died.
“60 days sober today!!!!! Congrats George Floyd!!!!!” said a post Bruce Kessler shared two months after Floyd’s death.
Kessler, who owns Gator’s Pizza in Pierre, declined to comment.
The posts are emblematic of the country’s new “overt racial consciousness” that is divided between social justice efforts and resurging white nationalism, said Enid Logan, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and associate chairwoman of the department.
Logan, who reviewed the posts, attributed the polarization in part to backlash against Obama’s presidency. The badge was introduced the year Obama was first inaugurated as president. Kludt said the events were coincidental.
“A lot of this … discourse has clearly been inflamed and encouraged by Donald Trump,” Logan said, adding that such beliefs gained “a new sort of legitimacy” under him.
On Aug. 23, Edward Flad Sr. shared a post that said, “We are the silent majority. … We believe all lives matter because that is what we learned from reading the Bible.”
Two days later, his brother, Scott Flad, shared a post: “Does anyone buy this BLM Black oppression [expletive]?”
The Flad brothers defended the Facebook group during an interview in mid-September.
“Everybody’s got the right to their own opinion,” said Edward Flad, 56, who lives just outside Gettysburg. “If [Jones] would apologize for causing such a ruckus, I wouldn’t have a problem.”
“If anybody knew us, whether we threw that rally down in the park with the Confederate flag … we are the least racist people,” said Scott Flad, 53, who lives in town.
The Facebook activity transported Jones to his childhood in the South.
“I realized that I was still a boy in certain people’s eyes, you know?” Jones said, referring to a derogatory term used against Black men. “It’s a lot disheartening, but it’s nothing that I honestly didn’t know.”
Civil War heritage
Mikkelsen and the Flad brothers said the Confederate flag is part of the country’s and town’s history — that Union and Confederate soldiers settled Gettysburg. The story is repeated on the city’s website.
Historical records show otherwise. Two Gettysburg residents published a book in 1993 identifying one Confederate and 180 Union settlers for the entire county.
Kludt said that when she became police chief in 2009, she worked with a designer from South Carolina to craft a new badge that would reflect local history. There was no ill intent, she added.
Asked if the flag was a symbol of racism, she paused: “To me, no. To others, yes, and I respect friends of mine who have experienced racism and if they believe it’s offensive to them, it is offensive.”
Mikkelsen rejects white supremacist and alt-right labels. He didn’t own a Confederate flag and knew little about it until the badge debate.
“I have no heritage in the flag, no nothing, and I didn’t know much about it,” he said.
Angered with Jones’ influence, Mikkelsen researched the flag and bought three of them. He draped one across a window in his RV. He tows another around Pierre with his motorcycle.
“Just because a group of people say something’s racist don’t mean it’s racist,” he said.
For all the pushback, there is also support.
Pierre resident Bree Oatman helped organize a counter-rally in Gettysburg to support Jones and Mogard the same day as Mikkelsen’s rally. Oatman and Pierre native Clark Stone, who lives in California, monitored the Facebook group and reported posts until they were kicked out.
“If I just sit back and not say anything, then I’m basically condoning the racism and the violence,” Oatman said, “and that’s not OK.”
Pierre resident Joshua Penrod organized the city’s first BLM rally in September. (A peaceful protest was held there in June.)
It’s proof to Jones that his nephew’s death wasn’t in vain. He’s met with demonstrators and civil rights leaders across the country. Jones and his sister have more than 200 virtual speaking engagements scheduled with colleges and universities to talk about race.
“Sometimes I sit back and I think, ‘Where am I at?,’ you know? ‘Where am I living?’ ” Jones said. “And reality is my nephew got murdered in the middle of the street over a supposedly [fake] 20 dollar bill … but it was enough to change the whole entire world and to maybe make the world a better place.”