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. (Michelle Manhart/Facebook)

Old glory. New controversy.

Police in Georgia arrested a U.S. veteran on Friday after she took an American flag away from students who were trampling it. Michelle Manhart, a former Air Force staff sergeant who left the military after posing nude for Playboy, took the flag from a group of African American students at Valdosta State University who were demonstrating against racism. Manhart, who is white, was handcuffed but has not been charged with a crime.

A video of the confrontation, recorded by Manhart’s daughter, shows a strange three-way standoff between students, Manhart and VSU police. The spat could hardly have been more symbolic, with both sides claiming ownership of the American flag and expressing outrage.

“This flag belongs to the entire United States,” Manhart says on camera while clutching the stars and stripes.

“Is that not theft?” a student says moments later. “I swear to God, if this had been in the ‘hood, you’d have had me in handcuffs already.”

The video has generated controversy on the Internet, especially among conservative Web sites that see Manhart as a hero for defending the flag. But Manhart’s own past, posing for Playboy while in military uniform, has led to claims of hypocrisy.


U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Michelle Manhart poses with the February issue of Playboy magazine in San Antonio in January 2007. (Eric Gay/AP)

In just six minutes and 23 seconds, the YouTube video touches on many of the most tender issues in America today: race, war, white privilege, public education, police conduct, freedom of expression, constitutional rights, even pornography and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In other words, it’s a perfect storm for political punditry.

Unlike other videos recently gathering national attention, however, Manhart’s was no accident. Nor was the media attention it has gathered.

According to her Facebook page, Manhart is the proud proprietor of a restaurant called the Bacon Bunker in Valdosta, Ga., a city of roughly 50,000 that sits close to the border with Florida. She has appeared on “Days of Our Lives” and other television shows since leaving the Air Force.

But the actress also has become something of an activist. Last week, a VSU student contacted her to complain about protesters trampling the American flag. Manhart says she complained to VSU administrators, but they did nothing. So she sprung into action and snatched the flag, she boasted to local TV station WALB.

The video captures everything that happens afterward. As Manhart slowly walks away from the protesters, a young female student stops her.

“That’s not yours,” the student says matter of factly.

“Actually it is,” Manhart answers. “Anytime it’s been torn or ripped, it needs to be properly disposed of. So we’re going to take care of that.”

“How is that yours?” the student says again.

“This belongs actually to the entire United States,” Manhart claims.

“No, no, no,” the student says calmly. “It’s not yours. Please give it back.”

Then a swarm of cops and students arrive and things get tetchy.

“She’s committing a crime,” a student says as officers step in and start talking to Manhart.

“No, that’s not how it works,” Manhart’s daughter says with a dismissive laugh while filming. “It’s okay though. You don’t know.”

As officers of various races try to make sense of the situation, tempers flare and the flag quickly becomes a stand-in for American history itself.

“You killed off our people. You enslaved our people. You put us in this white supremacist [inaudible] and you’re stealing our flag now,” says a student in sunglasses. “You still can’t steal.”

“Is that not theft?” asks another student. “I swear to God, if this had been in the ‘hood, you’d have had me in handcuffs already. You’d have had a n—- in handcuffs already.”

“Look at that white privilege!” someone shouts.

In this case, however, Manhart’s alleged white privilege doesn’t win the day. Instead, she is stunned when VSU police officers detain her, and not the female student. “Why are you not touching her?” she says to the cop. “Why are you not touching her?”

“You are disobeying our lawful command,” the cop says. “Let go of this flag, ma’am.” When Manhart continues resisting, the officers pin her to the ground and handcuff her to a smattering of applause from the students.

“Really guys?” Manhart’s daughter says to the cops. “You couldn’t just stand up for the flag?”

When a cop hands the flag back to the students, Manhart calls him a “slimy little piece of s—.” She then tells several white bystanders to look in her car for a list of media outlets to contact about her arrest.

Manhart wasn’t wrong to say that damaged flags have to be disposed of properly. Both federal and Georgia state law outline rules for how the flag should be treated.

Those penalties are rarely, if ever, enforced, however. Moreover, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that burning or mistreating a flag as part of a protest qualifies as free speech and is protected by the Bill of Rights.

Manhart was detained for resisting arrest but appears to have escaped punishment for pilfering the flag. Neither the students nor the cops decided to press charges, according to the Valdosta Daily Times. Valdosta State’s president released a statement supporting the students’ right to protest.

Video of Manhart’s arrest went viral over the weekend when she posted it on Facebook and eagerly gave interviews.

“I have seen that flag on caskets returning home,” she told Fox News. “It was just the thought of those demonstrators standing on someone’s casket. I was so internally frustrated.”

The irony of a U.S. veteran breaking the law in an attempt to enforce it wasn’t lost on Fox News viewers.

“So if you disagree with someone’s point of view it is perfectly okay to steal their property, huh?” wrote one. Others accused Manhart of hypocrisy given her own free speech battle back in 2007. While serving in the Air Force, Manhart was reprimanded for appearing nude in Playboy. Several photos featured her in not-so-full military dress. “This staff sergeant’s alleged action does not meet the high standards we expect of our airmen, nor does it comply with the Air Force’s core values of integrity, service before self and excellence in all we do,” an Air Force spokesman said at the time. “It is not representative of the many thousands of outstanding airmen who serve in the U.S. Air Force today.”

Despite her past, Manhart’s more recent stunt seems to have struck a nerve for many Americans. Her video had been watched nearly 4 million times as of Monday morning, and a Facebook page set up after the flag fracas already had thousands of friends and followers. The nearby town of Lake Park, Ga., announced it was flying its own flag at half mast in honor of Manhart.

There is another Manhart video that might not sit as well with her conservative supporters, however. Back in 2008, she posed naked in a video for PETA, a frequent target of the far right.

But it was her outfit that, in hindsight, really stands out: an American flag over each breast.

Respectfully done, of course. Because after all, those flags belong to all of us.

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