Late last week, protesters at Valdosta State University in Georgia thought it fitting and proper to punctuate their demonstration by walking on an outstretched American flag – an act that sparked Michelle Manhart, an Air Force veteran, to show up at the protest site and seize the flag so it could be retired properly according United States Flag Code.
The protestors sought out campus police to force the return of the flag so it could be desecrated further leading to confrontation with police and demonstrators caught on camera. Manhart, who heard about the group’s recent campus demonstrations, wanted to take action. According to Manhart:
“I did not want anything like this, but I got a call from a student who told me that the flag was on the ground, and they were walking on it…” “I was just going over there to pick up the flag off the ground. I don’t know what their cause is, but I went to pick it up because it doesn’t deserve to be on the ground.”
Following the altercation, VSU police officers took Manhart into custody and returned the flag to the demonstrators. Manhart told The Valdosta Daily Times that she resisted arrest after seeing police return the flag to protesters.
Both the protest group and the officers that detained Manhart declined to press charges for resisting the return of the already soiled flag
Valdosta State University Vice President for Enrollment, Marketing and Communications Andy Clark said that Manhart was instead given a “criminal trespass warning” banning her from attending all university activities including graduation, football games and other events.
While protesters expressed pride in desecrating the American flag and cited their First Amendment right to do so – a right purchased with the blood and treasure of the American people – refused to identify their group to The Valdosta Daily Times or speak with a reporter about their cause.
One member of the group who declined to speak with The Valdosta Daily Times or identify himself told a VSU student that putting the American flag on the ground and walking on it was:
“…a symbol of our protest. When a slave understands his situation and understands he doesn’t want to be in slavery, he does not respect or revere anything his slave master has put in front of him.”
Manhart said she was not on campus long enough to learn what the group’s message was but did say that if their cause was to oppose racism, that was a cause that she supports. Manhart said:
“If your cause is racism then find some white people and walk on them. But to walk on the flag is walking on our symbol of freedom. You have the freedom to do what you are doing because of it. I’m not fighting against them. I’m fighting against the way they are going about it.”
Manhart expressed her hope the group would apologize and give her the flag so she could dispose of it properly. Clark said university officials were unable to determine if the demonstrators were VSU students but said the group had the right to protest on campus.
“They were exercising their right to symbolic speech. As long as they don’t disrupt the operations of the university, we let people engage in protest and debate,” said Clark.
After VSU officers removed Manhart from the campus, they asked to see the demonstrators’ student identification cards. The individuals refused to produce any identification and were asked to disperse, Clark said.
The VSU Board of Regents released the following statement about the incident:
“We respect the rights of people to peacefully assemble and voice their opinions. Our primary concern is the safety of our students, faculty and staff and our ability to carry out our responsibilities to all our students on campus. We are monitoring the situation.”