A Virginia man says he’s assembling a small army of accordion-playing clowns to fight hate in North Idaho.
Justin Beights has sought a permit to stage a whimsical, extremely annoying demonstration outside the Sandpoint-area home rented by Scott D. Rhodes – a man who appears to be responsible for sending racist, anti-Semitic robocalls to thousands of phones across the country.
Some of those calls appeared in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Beights works as an entrepreneur and real estate developer, shortly after the Unite the Right II rally in mid-August.
In a phone call, Beights, 43, said he was stirred to action after the first Unite the Right event a little more than a year ago, where a self-described racist plowed his car into a crowd of protesters, killing one and injuring dozens of others. In an attempt to block the sequel event from happening, Beights applied for his own permit to hold an event on the same day in the same public square. He planned to call it the “Festival of the Schmestival.”
“We were going to have a celebrity dunk tank, and a giraffe, and a Huey Lewis and the News tribute band teed up for it,” Beights said. “It was just going to be a fun, ridiculous event that we were trying to hold in place of a bunch of white supremacists with tiki torches coming into our town again.”
But the festival did not happen. Beights said the city of Charlottesville cited public safety in denying him a permit. Unite the Right II didn’t happen in Charlottesville, either. It was moved to Washington, D.C. Only about 30 people took part in that white nationalist demonstration, while thousands of others participated in nearby counterprotests.
Nonetheless, Beights has persisted. He said he recently established a nonprofit, also called Festival of the Schmestival, through which he plans to “troll” white supremacists across the country.
“I’m looking at doing some robocalls of my own that I think others will enjoy,” he said. “And then we’re keeping an eye on things that are happening down in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, because there’s some tension about some Confederate statues down there that I don’t think are being handled the right way.”
He came up with the idea to bombard Rhodes’ house with a cacophony of accordion sounds after Rhodes sent a flurry of robocalls to Charlottesville last month.
The prerecorded messages spoke of black people in deeply offensive terms and called for deportations to Africa. Like all of Rhodes’ robocalls, they closed with a disclaimer that they were “paid for by theroadtopower.com” – a video podcasting site where he spews additional racist vitriol. While Rhodes has expressed contempt for journalists who point out the source of the robocalls, he has not explicitly denied he’s behind them.
“He targeted my hometown, so I said OK, if he wants to use his First Amendment rights to spread his ridiculousness, then I’ll use my First Amendment rights to spread my own ridiculousness,” Beights said. “And you know what, why not do it in front of his house for as long as possible? Because if he’s going to torment my friends and neighbors and their homes and businesses with his stupid (expletive) … If he wants to get into a stupid (expletive) competition, I’ll win that every day.”
Beights said he first contacted the city of Sandpoint for a demonstration permit, then the neighboring city of Dover, which told him Rhodes’ house is actually in unincorporated Bonner County, where he won’t need a permit if the demonstration includes fewer than 400 people.
However, Halee Sabourin, with the county’s planning department, noted there are also laws against trespassing and harassment, as well as an ordinance that allows residents to file formal complaints when noises at their property lines exceed 60 decibels.
“That’s about the level of a normal conversation,” Sabourin said.
Beights said the date of the event is a “moving target,” and he’s reached out to the World Clown Association and other groups to help make it happen. The goal, he said, is to strip racists of the pretense that their ideologies should be taken seriously.
“I want to help people realize that these guys are not worth our time unless we’re spending time having fun at their expense,” he said.
Beights’ plan, first reported by the Bonner County Daily Bee, reminded Brenda Hammond, the president of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, of the time in 1995 when satirist Michael Moore brought a hired-for-television chorus line of young women to sing “Stop! In the Name of Love” outside the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden. According to a Spokesman-Review article from the time, the racially diverse 12-member dance troupe was joined by an actor dressed as a rabbi and a clown handing out heart-shaped red balloons.
A similar tactic might help to silence Rhodes, a 49-year-old California transplant who enthusiastically declares in his videos that he’s broadcasting from “very white, very racist North Idaho.”
Regardless of whether the clowns actually come to Sandpoint, Hammond said, it’s a good plan to “fight hate with love.”
“Our task force has been dealing with a variety of flavors of hate groups for decades,” she said. “We’ve tried to send the message for 20 years that this is not a place to grow hate. It’s not a fertile place for that kind of ideology, and we’ve proven that over the years. A lot of groups have come and left.”
Beights’ plans have made headlines before, and many have assumed he’s an experienced accordion player who would force racists to face the music. Speaking to The Spokesman-Review, he sought to correct the record.
“I never said that I played the accordion,” he said. But his father-in-law plays the instrument, as does one of his sons.
“I’m an accordion owner, and so I know how to press the buttons and things like that. But I just think it’s a classically hilarious instrument,” he said. “And I can’t think of a better instrument to play across from Scott Rhodes’ house to show him how it feels when the phone starts ringing and there’s a robot on the other end.”
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