The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia campus closed in debate over racism, patriotism, free speech, terrorism

Valdosta State University officials canceled classes and urged nonessential employees to stay away from campus Friday as police braced for an influx of thousands of protesters and searched for a student — believed to be armed and dangerous — who has described himself as a terrorist against white people.

The controversy — an incendiary mix of racism, patriotism, constitutional rights, terrorism, Christianity, nudity (am I forgetting anything here?) — began last week at the Georgia campus.

Black protesters, angry about racism, were stepping on an American flag when a veteran interrupted, grabbed the flag and was detained by police after refusing to give it back.

Nearly 4,000 people have said online they plan to attend a pro-flag rally Friday afternoon, which was organized with a public call to show the school, protesters “and the Airmen of Moody Air Force Base that we will not waiver in standing up for of nation, our flag or our soldiers.”

University police doing extra patrols of campus because of the protests found a backpack they said belonged to sophomore who was one of the students involved, containing a handgun.

They issued a statement:

“Unmistakable evidence has now been located by law enforcement linking the gun to Eric Sheppard. Based on that evidence, an independent judge has issued an arrest warrant for Eric Sheppard. … Although there was an extensive search for Sheppard by law enforcement and he was not located, he is now wanted and considered armed and dangerous. There is no evidence at this time to reflect that Sheppard is on university property and in fact, law enforcement now believes he is in hiding.”

In a video posted on YouTube, Sheppard talked about why they put the American flag and Bibles on the ground, talking about slavery, racism and “spiritual enslavement” by Christianity promoted by white people.

“That flag represents white supremacy racism which is plaguing the entire earth, so when we step on that flag we are stepping on racism, white supremacy,” he said in the video.

He said the flag represents lies, deceit, and “things that were erected alongside our genocide and our holocaust.” … I’m a terrorist toward lies. I’m a terrorist toward liars. I’m a terrorist toward those who are wicked. So yes, I am a terrorist toward white people,” Sheppard said. “What I’m saying to you all is a warning of death that is coming upon this nation.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Eric Sheppard Sr. stood on the steps of the school’s iconic West Hall and issued a plea to his son:

“Son, you know we love you and have always taught you to do the right thing and make wise decisions. Please make the right decision and turn yourself in, either to the authorities or to me, and we will handle this together. We love you and are here for you, as you requested.”

VSU officials announced:

“After further discussions with local law enforcement and in the interest of the safety of our students, faculty, and staff, Valdosta State University will suspend normal business operations for Friday, April 24.

All classes and on-campus events scheduled for Friday, April 24, have been canceled.

Only essential employees — meaning those who have been notified by their supervisor — are to report to campus.

For students living in on-campus housing, we will have an increased law enforcement presence on campus to ensure their continued safety throughout the protests scheduled to occur around Main Campus.”

Michelle Manhart, a former Air Force staff sergeant, was arrested Friday in Georgia after taking an American flag away from a group of Valdosta State University students. Before her arrest, students accused the police on the scene of treating Manhart with deference because of her race. (Video: Michelle Manhart/Facebook)

Last week, Michelle Manhart grabbed the flag away from protesters and refused to give it back, a move many admired as patriotism and others criticized as infringing on free speech.

The school’s president, William McKinney, issued a statement last week supporting both the flag and the First Amendment:

“The American flag represents everything that is best about our country.  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.”

Police detained Manhart. She has given a criminal trespass warning, which she can appeal.

Many just called Manhart a hypocrite. She was discharged from the Air Force at the rank of staff sergeant, according to the Air Force Times, after appearing in Playboy in 2007 without  much of her uniform.

She later posed nude for an animal-rights group, holding her breasts — and an American flag.

In light of all this, Valdosta State’s president thought better of holding his planned “State of the University” address Friday.

Instead, he asked the campus community to reaffirm their principles that day, listing those, including commitment to veterans and to country and, “Ours is a university that values civil discourse and debate, even in the midst of great disagreement.”