On Sunday, as Greenville prepared to host second round games in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002, a flag was raised over Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
Anchored in the back of a pickup truck, parked atop the garage adjacent to the arena, four protesters raised a Confederate battle flag to wave as basketball fans arrived.
The flag was the reason that the tournament had left the state for 15 years, as the NCAA pulled events from South Carolina for as long as the Confederate flag flew over the statehouse. When then governor Nikki Haley ordered the flag removed, in the aftermath of Dylan Roof’s church shooting in 2015, the NCAA lifted its ban.
Soon after the flag was raised, the NCAA, which moved the opening weekend games from Greensboro, N.C. in reaction to that state’s HB2 law, released a statement.
“The NCAA is proud and excited to host championships in the state of South Carolina once again. We are committed to assuring that our events are safe and accessible to all. No symbols that compromise that commitment will be permitted to be displayed on venue property that the tournament controls. Freedom of speech activities on public property in areas surrounding the arena are managed by the city of Greenville and we are supportive of the city’s efforts.”
Three protestors attempted to demonstrate with flags at the main public entrance to the arena, but they were dispatched by security. A group of reporters followed them into the parking deck elevator as they returned to the roof, where the original flag still flew.
“They used an anti-protesting ordinance,” said James Bessinger. “It bans protesting in public areas while holding signs on sticks, and they decided to apply that to our flagpoles, even though the ordinance doesn’t say flagpoles. So they told us we had to leave, or they were going to lock us up.”
Bessinger is a bearded, red-haired man who looked to be in his late 20s. He said he is “distant kin” to the barbeque Bessingers. He provided a business card from the South Carolina Secessionist Party.
“These are the old cards,” he said, “but our website is on the Facebook page.”
That site—which had 3,176 visitors as of Sunday afternoon, state’s the groups platform, which includes, “fighting cultural marxism and historical genocide regardless of where it rears its ugly head.”
James and the other protestors atop the parking garage agreed to discuss their motivations for the display. Here, in their own words, is the explanation.
Bessinger: “We started a campaign about two months ago to start flagging—that’s what we call this, flagging—the state’s major tourist attractions, in response to the fact that when they took the flag down at the statehouse in 2015, the legislation provided that that flag would be put on display honorably at the state museum. That flag as of two weeks ago, when we called, is sitting in closet in a shoebox. It hasn’t happened, almost two years later. So we’re a little frustrated about that. So this is our way of putting a little bit of pressure on the legislature. You want to hide our flag, we’ll make your flag loud and proud in front of everybody that comes to visit your state until you do what you said you were going to do. The second part of this is the NCAA boycotted our state for, I think it was 12 years, because the flag was at the statehouse.”
Hunter Meadows (interrupting): “Spurred by the NAACP.”
Bessinger. “Now they lifted their boycott. So we wanted to make sure they get to see it when they come to town.”
Meadows: The NCAA should not be political in my opinion, and, in fact, there’s a Confederate graveyard right over there. Just because the corporations and the NCAA wanted to take the flag down, and now that it’s down, they’re going to bring their business here and make a ton of money—the people are still here. The blood descendants are still here, and we’re not going to hide. Just because the flag’s gone doesn’t mean we’re not here. The majority of people in this state support this flag. So we’re just showing them that we’re still here. We’re the little people, is what we are. They’re the big corporations, and they’re just trying to hide us. And they’ve done a pretty good job of it today.”
“I’m just here for myself. I’m not with any organization. I’m a southerner who has seen a lot of things happen the last two years that I don’t like. When the flag came down, there was this sense that the divisiveness is over with now, and we’re going to make amends, and it’s going to be over. But, hey, I’ve been taking care of graves my whole life and refurbishing them and finding soldiers who died in Pennsylvania and bringing them home. Never once had I run into problems or anything. But since that flag has come down, I have found so many graves that have been demolished, graves that they’ve taken hammers to. We’re having to put them back together and fix them. I thought it was going to be over, and it obviously isn’t. It has upturned. It has increased. The roads are changing. The school names are changing. Everything has increased. To me, it was all a lie. They tried to put 400 to 500 years of history on one deranged individual. (Dylan Roof?) Yes. They tried to put all of that on him, and make him represent all that history and all of us. I saw that, and I was like, ‘This is evil. This is nothing but evil.’ Because if President Obama—former President Obama—was as loving, I guess, as he portrayed himself to be, he would’ve said well we can’t blame all of that on him. He says for Islam, Muslims. He says that for them. We deserve that. We deserve the right to not be labeled monsters like that.”
“I used to be respectful. I tried to be respectful, and I really wouldn’t put it in people’s faces, because I didn’t want to disrespect anyone. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or make people not like me. But after I saw those graves, after I’ve been spit on. I’ve been in Confederate uniforms since I was a little boy, doing different events, and I’ve been spit on—this was after the flag came down. Hey, I thought it ended. I don’t want to be on the news, because I’m out here. The stuff that’s happened, I can’t help it, man. I’ve been spit on and attacked physically ever since the flag came down, and I’ve continued doing what I’ve been doing since I was a kid. What’s changed? The flag’s gone, and they’ve made Dylan Roof the archetype for us. I’m not going to let that happen. I stand in contrast to him forever now because of what they did. They really messed up. They really did, because they lost loyalty from the people. We all have blue collar jobs. We work our tails off. We’re obedient citizens. They’re turning us away. We are Americans too, you know. They treat us like we’re not.”
Bessinger: “To me, the flag represents the 260,000 southerners who died in service to their states, including 20,000-plus South Carolinians. That flag gets a bad reputation, because organizations have taken it and misused it. You could say that about the cross. You could say that about the swastika that’s been sacred to the Hindus for thousands of years. We as a people can decide to either let those organizations take those flags or those symbols and, ‘Oh well, they used it. Let it go.’ Or we can try to reclaim it—put the true meaning back to it. That was never a governor’s flag. It never flew over slavery. Those men fought, because they were told to fight. I’m a veteran. Soldiers fight, because they’re told to. They don’t care about the politics. You don’t get to say, ‘There’s a war. I don’t agree with this. I’m not going to go.’ Soldiers fight. That’s a soldier’s flag.”
Benjamin Huegenreith: “That specific flag is the Confederate States Naval Jack. It flew off the back of warships. It’s more of a tribute to the Navy. I’m probably the most unique one of the group, because I don’t fit the stereotype of a southern advocate. I’m Jewish. I’m Hispanic. I grew up in northern New Jersey. I did a lot of studying since I was about six years old. I’ve been reading war stories. It started with comic books and all that. I really, when you delve beyond the surface, I learned that slavery was a red herring issue. it wasn’t an issue with starting the war. It wasn’t an issue until after the Battle of Sharpsburg. When you get past the slavery thing, I really felt the southern states had been bullied since the early 1820s by the growing northern industrialists and railroad tycoons. They were outvoted in congress all the time. Lincoln didn’t even appear on the ballot. He didn’t have enough support to appear on the ballot in the southern states. They were going to be bullied further.
“When it comes down to the flag that you asked me before, in general, the army of Northern Virginia battle flag, I feel that the honor earned by the ordinary farmer, the shopkeeper, the shoemaker, the blacksmith, the lawyer who answered the call of duty to defend South Carolina against invasion and blockade. They were defending their homes, their families, their friends. They paid for that honor in limbs, lives, blood, bones. That soil is saturated by southern blood.
“And then, to have someone, a century and a half later, tarnish their honor for the political expediency that she did is just abhorrent. So I got involved in flagging, which is taking control of what the flag is. It’s not a symbol for Nazis. It’s not a symbol for Klansmen.”