By Andy Zipser
WALNUT HILLS CAMPGROUND & RV PARK
idway through our eighth season as campground owners, I still get surprised by the many ways in which our little microcosm absorbs larger social issues and conflicts. From most campers’ perspectives, a campground is an opportunity to get away from the larger world and the numbing routine of everyday life — yet in making that escape, many campers haul all that baggage along with them. The result is that what should be an oasis from a fractious world instead ends up reflecting it.
Several years ago, we began participating in the state department’s J-1 visa program, through which foreign students can spend their summers in the U.S., working seasonal jobs and getting a taste of American culture. Our first two students were from Germany: studious, prolific in English, intensely interested in American politics. Why, they wanted to know, were the monthly campers in the site next to theirs allowed to fly a Confederate battle flag — along with the American and Marine Corps flags? How did that even make sense, to display a flag of treason in that context?
I replied with a short lecture about symbolic speech, freedom of speech and how a significant proportion of the American public regards the stars and bars as a symbol of “heritage, not hate.” And, hell, we’re in Virginia.
That was the summer of 2017. Just a few weeks later, Heather Heyer was killed and nearly three dozen others injured as they protested a white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, just a short ride over the Blue Ridge from us. Our German students, looking at television coverage of men with swastika armbands and lit torches, were doubly aghast. That such a confrontation could occur in a town most closely associated with Thomas Jefferson was hard enough to grasp; that it would embrace the darkest imagery of their own nation’s history was beyond comprehension.
Could they, they tentatively asked, fly flags of their own choosing? And so it was that the cranky old Marine sergeant with his beloved Confederate flag found himself living next to a trailer that flew a Black Lives Matter standard. And then, just for good measure, a rainbow LBGT flag. Free speech, after all, cuts both ways.
FAST FORWARD THREE YEARS and the same issue persists, but on a grander and more intense scale. Three years later we still have campers who prominently fly the Confederate flag. Our family has had many discussions about banning such displays on our property, but invariably founder on the shoals of free speech and the logistical complexity of enforcing such an edict. Should we just ban all flags, to avoid getting into arguments about selective discrimination? How about the U.S. flag? What about our Good Sam flag? If we ban just Confederate symbols, what do we do about Confederate flag decals on car bumpers? Embroidered on T-shirts?
We’re not the only ones struggling with these questions, but there is little to no discussion on these and similar issues within the industry — we’re all on our own. The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds steers clear of anything that smacks of political and social controversy (it still maintains a 20-year-old policy that questions global warming as a thing) and has nothing at all to say about the flag issue.
KOA, the nation’s largest campground franchiser, recently adopted a policy on the matter but did so without any comprehensive consultation with its franchisees, even as it makes them responsible for enforcing it.
To its credit, KOA hit all the right notes — it’s just been exceedingly modest about doing so. There has been no public announcement, no press release: The policy simply was slipped into an obscure corner of the company’s website which, with some diligence, you might actually find. If you do, you’ll read that symbols that have the effect of “harassing, demeaning, intimidating or disparaging any legally protected minority” negate the company’s goal of “providing a safe and welcoming environment for all of its guests” and employees. It therefore “bans the display of the Confederate battle flag symbol by KOA owners, staff, campers and any other members of the public” and also prohibits the sale of the Confederate flag symbol at its campgrounds.
GUESTS OR OTHER MEMBERS of the public violating the policy will be asked to immediately “remove or cover” the flag, on pain of eviction. Nothing in the policy addresses the campground owner who ignores it — or, worse, who may actually support displays of the flag.
KOA’s franchisees are as varied as the rest of the American public, including not just those imbued with reverence for the Confederate past but those who view their campgrounds as catering to a public drawn to nearby Confederate forts, prisons, museums, battlefields or other memorials. So for some franchisees, KOA’s policy risks becoming a wedge issue that reflects the nation’s overall polarization. For others, the policy means a possible loss of revenue from merchandise sales, the heightened risk of heated confrontations, and the alienation of a substantial customer base.
The world looks very different in politically conservative Georgia, with its Dixie roots, than it does in politically conservative Billings, Montana, where KOA is headquartered. Here at Walnut Hills in Virginia, we continue to dither — for all of the reasons outlined above.
I like to think that we’re defending the First Amendment right to voice even repugnant views. I tell myself we’re picking our battles — and that it’s hard enough to get our campers to wear face masks in our store without also telling them to change their shirts or put tape over that decal in their truck window.
But I also wonder if I’d react the same way if someone raised a Nazi swastika flag over their camper.
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