A cold November wind whips past the Adams County Courthouse in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—roughly two miles from the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. The brisk breeze is giving Gene Stilp a runny nose. But the slim, bearded 67-year-old lawyer and activist has the perfect thing to take care of it: One of his homemade, two-sided flags. It's a Confederate flag on one side and a Nazi flag on the other. He has it draped over a metal trash can on the sidewalk while 40 people are gathered around him.
Stilp brings the Confederate side of the flag to his nose and wipes quickly. “We don’t want you here,” sneers a man clad in Confederate flag pullover and Confederate flag cowboy boots. The man is standing a few feet away, just on the other side of a hastily erected wooden barrier and some yellow police tape. He's holding two flags of his own—a Confederate flag emblazoned with the words “Heritage Not Hate” and a large blue Trump “Make America Great Again" flag.
Undaunted, Stilp plows through ten minutes of prepared remarks. He references Heather Heyer, the NFL “taking a knee protests,” and the racist history of the Confederate flag while fighting to make himself heard over the passing trucks and heckles that rain down on him as a gaggle of sheriff’s deputies and courthouse security look on.
“I found out that a lot of people fly [the Confederate flag] because they have some tendencies toward racism," Stilp says. "They don’t like other races.”
“Y__ou’re the one that’s racist!” Confederate Man shouts.
The two sides of Stilp's flag “stand for the same thing—hate, racism, bigotry, white supremacy, slavery, and death,” he explains as a sour-faced woman unfurls her own Confederate flag and waves it in front of him. “They’re two sides of the same misguided value system,” he continues.
“Are you Antifa?!” someone yells.
“What the hell’s your problem?” someone else yells.
With a flourish, Stilp sets his two-sided flag on fire and drops it in the trash can. “I consign this flag to the waste bin of history!” Stilp says as he is dramatically enveloped in white smoke.
“I think it’s ridiculous that he’s saying a piece of cloth represents hate and bigotry,” says the Confederate Man, whose real name is Pete Seville. The 58-year-old grocery warehouse worker is from nearby Greencastle. “It’s not the piece of cloth,” Seville insists. "It’s what’s in people’s hearts."
Later, at a nearby diner, Stilp smiles contentedly and reflects. "Today went well," he says before chomping into a veggie burger. This is hardly his first rodeo. He has been dubbed “the P.T. Barnum of Pennsylvania politics” and is regularly referred to by friends and foes alike as a “master of political theater.” Stilp—who lives in the Harrisburg area—has made a name for himself through a variety of creative, prop-laden, media-courting protest stunts. He's particularly well-known in the largely rural swath between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that folks call “Pennsyltucky."
He once converted a 1963 Airstream trailer into a giant silver toaster, replete with two ten-foot pieces of burned toast and smoke that poured from the top with the flick of a switch. He drove the toaster around the state to protest electric company rate hikes. He once toted a 25-foot-tall inflatable pink pig he built to the steps of the state capital to rail against a midnight pay raise state legislators gave themselves at taxpayers’ expense. He even built a two-story wheelchair out of PVC pipe, paint trays, and spool wheels to warn against cuts to Medicare for state residents. Then he affixed a 25-foot metal screw to the top of a pickup truck and drove it around to again protest utility rate hikes. Last year, he repurposed the truck with fresh paint and “Screw Trump” signs that he parked outside Trump campaign rallies in Pennsylvania. He often posed for photos atop the screw like Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove.
Those were puckish ways of bringing attention to serious concerns.
But with his Confederate/Nazi flag-burning demonstrations, Stilp says, “You don’t bring humor to this at all. When you have Heather Heyer dying at the hands of a neo-Nazi, people who are flying these flags to represent hate and white supremacy, everything is 1,000 percent serious.”
“Yeah, this one’s waaay too heavy,” agrees Chip Facka, who joins Stilp at the diner table. He's been Stilp’s righthand man for the past several years. The 48-year-old is in charge of livestreaming Stilp’s protests on Facebook and disseminating video of the events later on various other social media platforms as part of what the pair call an “educational effort.”
“All across Pennsylvania you see the Confederate flag on people’s porches, so we confront them with the true meaning,” Stilp says. “It puts them on the defensive. You know, show me why your Confederate flag isn’t equal to the Nazi flag? Explain to me why. They say, ‘We can’t help it if it’s been adopted by the KKK and white supremacist groups.’ But it’s not my job to walk it back to where you want it to be. That’s the present reality, and it always was a symbol of hate.”
Stilp says he was motivated to make and burn his two-sided flags after seeing white supremacists carrying both flags during the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. He was also incensed by Scott Perry—a US congressman from mid-state Pennsylvania—echoing Trump in blaming “both sides” for the associated violence and Heyer’s death.
Stilp’s no stranger to flags. He designed the lauded Flight 93 memorial flag to honor those who perished near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on 9/11. (Stilp is also a volunteer firefighter and EMT who rushed to Ground Zero immediately after the terrorist attacks to help conduct search and recovery efforts.)
His Confederate/Nazi flags each cost about $20, two hours of his time, and no small amount of angst to create. “I feel disgusted, disgusted, making these flags, cutting out these stars, gluing a swastika,” Stilp grimaces. “But I gotta do it.”
After a few protest burns in Pennsylvania in August and September, Stilp and Facka decided to take things to another level by taking their flags and fire to the belly of the beast: NASCAR racetracks in the South.
NASCAR may have officially distanced itself from the Stars and Bars, but the Confederate flag is still as ubiquitous at tracks as the stench of burned rubber. The pair started at Dover International Speedway in Delaware, and then made their way to Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama in October.
Advance word of their arrival in the local papers and websites drew scores of comments: Desires for Stilp to get a bullet in the head were among the more polite and reserved sentiments expressed.
“We got some real direct threats,” says Facka, who’s in charge of watching Stilp’s back during protests in addition to his usual social media duties.
Were they scared? “Oh God, yes!” Facka says, laughing. “But there were so many law enforcement officers, like 40 or 50, easy. They escorted us in and out. There were a couple people I had my eye on, but I feel like the law enforcement presence discouraged them from doing anything.”
“Ehh, fear is overrated,” Stilp says. Citing his anti-nuclear protests going back to the 1970s—including piloting a Greenpeace hot-air balloon over government sites in Nevada to stop imminent tests, and numerous instances of arrests and beatdowns by authorities while demonstrating at various facilities—Stilp insists he’s been through worse. He’s actually skeptical any harm will come to him.
“I’ve been telling him that we’re in a different political climate now than he’s used to,” Facka says as Stilp sighs and bites into his burger. “We’re much more susceptible to that lone-wolf, that one crazy guy. So I do have a lot of fear, to be honest.”
“Maybe,” says Stilp. “So what? I’m 67—who cares?! I just don’t want the police who are protecting us to get hurt, that’s all.”
Stilp plans to burn his flags outside courthouses in nearly all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties in the coming months, and maybe head down South again when NASCAR season starts back up next year.
“People do email us and say, ‘Thanks for doing that, I don’t have the guts to do that.’ and things like that, or, ‘Please watch yourself. Don’t get shot,’” Stilp says. “We’re just trying to educate. Hopefully we can change some behavior. Maybe get some of these people to take down their flags, whether it’s enlightenment or shame or peer pressure from their neighbors… whatever it takes.”
Follow Michael Goldberg on Twitter.