SANDPOINT — Be afraid, robocalling racists. Be very afraid. Time was when you could hide behind some hijacked local number to spew intolerance in anonymity.
But if a resident of Charlottesville, Va., gets his way, one Bonner County resident accused of funding and sending such calls — as well as illegally distributing racist media on vehicles at Sandpoint High School, harassing elected officials in three states and sending hate mail to a local business owner — will face the music for his actions.
Accordion music. Played by clowns. Lots of them, playing for as many days in a row as possible. Right outside the man’s home on West Pine Street.
The man who plans to send in the clowns is Justin Beights, an accordionist himself, as well as a citizen who decided it was time to push back against the negative press that descended on his city after the so-called Unite the Right rally took place there a little more than a year ago.
Beights was stirred to action when white supremacists attempted to bring Unite the Right II to Charlottesville in August of this year. He counter-filed for a public assembly permit to hold what he planned to call the “Festival of the Schmestival,” but was denied by the city out of fear of the kind violence that resulted in one counter-protester being murdered by a rampaging white supremacist driver the year before.
In the end, Charlottesville also denied the Unite the Right II permit and the failed event moved to Washington, D.C., where it attracted fewer than 20 participants who were vastly outnumbered by the 1,000 or so people who turned out to protest against them.
Then came the robocalls and hate mail, Beights recalled. And, in their wake, he discovered the news — reported by the Sandpoint Reader, the Bonner County Daily Bee and other local media, in ongoing coverage that reached a national audience — that the source of at least some of the race-related vitriol came from a Bonner County resident who, among other names, was known as Scott D. Rhodes.
“When he decided to mess with my hometown, I decided to get involved,” Beights said. “I figured I would use my First Amendment rights to do the same thing that Scott Rhodes has been doing all across the country.”
Beights recently filed for a public assembly permit with the city of Sandpoint, but last week was informed that Rhodes’ residence fell outside of the city limits. Undaunted, he immediately refiled with the county for a similar permit.
About that request — it’s truly weird. And, given the whole clown connection, inherently creepy. Perhaps that’s why he made a clear distinction in his permit filing that these will be “musicians dressed as clowns,” not actual clowns.
Further, the filing states that Beights would like to set a world record by amassing as many accordion players as possible to line up across the street from Rhodes’ place on Oct. 9 to play for as long as 9 days, 9 hours and 9 minutes.
“But, if we catch some steam and we get enough people, we’ll just keep going,” he said. “We’re going to play 24/7 for as long as we can do it.”
Rhodes apparently moved to Bonner County sometime in 2015 and, along with mounting race- and gender-baited robocall and e-mail campaigns against Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad’s successful run for office, was caught on video leaving CDs of anti-Semitic material on the cars and trucks of students at SHS last November.
He also has been accused of harassing a black Sandpoint businessman with hate mail that, one mailing at a time, spelled out the N-word and sending bogus magazine subscriptions addressed to “Stu Pidkune” to the same individual.
Rhodes, it should be noted, denies any involvement in the above events. And, even if he was involved, he was quoted as saying in a subsequent news article, it wasn’t illegal, anyway. He does, however, appear to be directly involved in an online podcast called The Road to Power, where a host who has been identified as Rhodes broadcasts to a total of 19 online subscribers with Nazi-themed anti-Semitic and anti-African American propaganda. The robocalls that spurred Beights to action closed with information that they were “paid for by RoadtoPower.com.”
In many episodes — the latest post is dated from about a week ago — the unnamed host, Nazi cap and all, announces that the podcast originates from “very white, very racist North Idaho.”
In a separate series of robocalls targeting U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein of California as “a traitorous Jew,” the caller alleged to be Rhodes invited people to “relocate to North Idaho, where very white is very right.”
Multiple attempts to contact the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force — which, in the past, has played a pivotal role in battling racism in the region — were not successful and calls and e-mails went unreturned.
Beights, meanwhile, hopes to use legal avenues to turn the tables on the caller. Inspired by whimsy, he will, if approved by the county, have his army of clown accordionists play the Carly Rae Jepsen song “Call Me Maybe” over and over again as an artistic thumbing of the nose.
“Because Rhodes is spending his life making unwanted phone calls to people, I thought that was the right choice,” he said. “And have you heard that song? It’s terrible.”
Which, according to Beights, makes it perfect. One can’t help but recall the news footage of beleaguered Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega, who finally surrendered to U.S. troops after being subjected to classic rock music played at full volume day and night outside his compound. Was the Charlottesville accordion player inspired by that scene?
“Well,” he confessed, “I did think of Gen. Noriega.
“But our intent is not to disturb anyone other than Mr. Rhodes,” he added. “Hopefully, people will understand our intent and come out and jam with us.”
Previous accordion experience is not mandatory, Beights pointed out, as he expects to have plenty of experienced players on hand due to his musical contacts across the nation.
“The accordion community is a strong one,” he said. “It’s just a group of like-minded, free-spirited individuals, so it’s easy to pull them together.”
Additionally — as if it extracts any of the unbridled terror from the mental image of clowns playing accordions — Beights stressed that “anyone who is scared should know that we’re not real clowns.”
“It’s these guys on the fringe who are a bunch of clowns,” he said. “They’re silly, so we’re going to be silly, too. In our current environment, we’ve started treating them like they deserve our attention. That’s why I’m planning this — to give them the kind of attention they deserve.”
As recently as last week, there was rumor that Rhodes might have moved out of the area. A web search still turns up his name, the age of 49, and another name he uses — Scott Platek — associated with an address on West Pine Street, as well as satellite photos of the property.
Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon said that, as far as he knows, Rhodes is still living here. He was unaware of any other incidents, beyond the SHS encounter, involving Rhodes and city police.
On Friday, the county informed that it can’t approve Beights’ permit request, but only because the property falls within the Dover city limits.
“Time to fill out another application,” said Beights. “I’m getting good at this.”
He still plans to make the trip to Sandpoint, as well as an additional trip to serenade a separate podcast-funded robocaller targeting Iowa’s Hispanic community using a script read by a female purporting to be the voice of recently murdered college student Mollie Tibbetts and advocating genocide in response to that crime.
On Friday evening, a Florida newspaper reported that residents of Tallahassee late last week started receiving racist robocalls from a local prefix featuring a voice pretending to be that of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum. In the recording, the voice uses an exaggerated minstrel dialect while jungle noises play in the background.
The calls close with the disclaimer that they were — wait for it — paid for by The Road to Power.
According to Beights, there are plenty of traveling clowns to go around — for Rhodes, as well as the caller in Iowa. It’s time, he said, to stare down hatred with a painted clown smile and an accordion over the shoulder.
“I’m planning an identical event for (Iowa),” the accordionist said. “The clown posse will roll into towns when appropriate. I’m working on a handful of similar projects and enjoying the different opportunities for ridiculousness that these (expletive deleted) are teeing up for me. I’m going to make American fun again.”