Written by: Zenobia Harris, Staff Writer
Tensions are running high in the midst of a rapidly expanding controversy involving a veteran’s attempt to take an American flag from a group of people walking on it as part of a protest on Valdosta State University’s campus.
On Friday afternoon, a group of African-American students set up a protest in front of Odum Library on the Pedestrian Mall, and while the purpose of the protest is not clear, demonstrators placed an American flag on the ground and walked over it.
According to an article published by the Valdosta Daily Times, Michelle Manhart, a 38-year-old Air Force veteran and former Playboy model, said a student notified her of the protest, so she went to campus to retrieve the flag from the ground and dispose of it properly.
In a video posted on Manhart’s Facebook page Friday that has already garnered 3.9 million views and counting, Manhart is seen holding the flag while arguing with a demonstrator who is trying to take back the flag.
“That’s not yours,” the unidentified demonstrator said.
“Actually it is,” Manhart said. “Anytime the flag has been torn or ripped, it needs to be properly disposed of, so we’re going to take care of that. The flag belongs to the entire country.”
After heated conversation, the demonstrator and Manhart proceeded to struggle back and forth with the flag while surrounded by VSU police, bystanders and other demonstrators.
VSU police officers attempted to subdue the situation and asked Manhart to hand the flag over to them. Manhart refused, resisting police while grasping the flag.
After a short scuffle, police placed Manhart in handcuffs and gave the flag back to the protesters. The protest continued for a while after the altercation until students and demonstrators were asked to disperse.
While it is not known whether all the demonstrators were VSU students, the group was still allowed to protest on campus as long as normal university operations were not affected.
Neither the police nor the protesters pressed charges against Manhart, but police did issue her a criminal trespass warning, effectively banning her from VSU, according to the VDT.
Response to the incident has been swift and impassioned, with some calling Manhart a hero while others are supporting the protesters’ right to free speech.
Many are adamantly opposed to the protesters’ use of the American flag, calling it unpatriotic and disrespectful, and several campus demonstrations have already been planned for the coming weeks to show support for the American flag.
VSU senior Mia Rawls said that while she may not support the original protesters’ agenda, she can sympathize with their cause to an extent.
“They are stepping on the flag because they feel betrayed by America,” Rawls said. “That’s the psychology and symbolism behind it. Although I do not agree, I understand. I would never attack them for that, because that’s how they feel and it’s never going to change. Period. Not that you have to leave it alone, but you accept their opinion.”
Maggie McGlamry, senior mass media major, pointed out the legality of the protesters’ actions.
“I think (walking on the flag) is very disrespectful, and I understand why so many people are offended by it, but it isn’t illegal and there isn’t anything the school can do about it as long as they obey the law,” McGlamry said.
McGlamry is right; while the official U.S. Flag Code strictly prohibits walking on the American flag, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that these laws can’t be enforced because doing so would be a violation of First Amendment free speech.
VSU President William McKinney issued a statement on the protest Saturday night.
“The American flag represents everything that is best about our country,” Dr. McKinney said. “As the Supreme Court has held, one of those things is the right to free speech, which includes the right to disrespect even the symbol of our country. While I firmly disagree with the actions of the protesters, I understand their right to protest.”
The protest along with Manhart’s actions has sparked heated debate on YouTube, social media and news sites, where students, alumni, and the general public has expressed both disdain and support of the protest and Manhart’s intervention.
Below is video of Manhart attempting to take the flag from protesters: