VALDOSTA — A military veteran was detained but not charged by Valdosta State University police after she approached a group of protesters on campus who were walking on an American flag and took it from them.
Michelle Manhart, an Air Force veteran, said she was not planning to take the flag from the group, but she had heard about the group’s recent campus demonstrations and wanted to take action.
“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,” said Manhart. “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.”
Manhart said she was taken into custody by VSU police officers who then returned the flag to the demonstrators. She admitted to The Valdosta Daily Times that she resisted arrest after seeing the flag being returned.
The group reportedly declined to press charges against Manhart. The officers attempting to detain her also declined to press charges for resisting.
Instead, Manhart was given a criminal trespass warning which effectively bans her from any university activity, including graduation and football games, said Andy Clark, vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications.
The demonstrators declined to identify their group to The Valdosta Daily Times or speak with a reporter about their cause, but they did engage VSU students in heated debate.
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 slavemaster has put in front of him.”
Manhart said she was not on campus long enough to discern the group’s message. However, she said if the cause was racism, she agreed with the cause but opposed the method of protest.
“If your cause is racism then find some white people and walk on them,” said Manhart. “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 said she hoped to ask for a letter of apology from the group and to take possession of 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 Manhart was escorted from campus, VSU officers asked to see the demonstrators’ student identification cards. The individuals refused to produce any identification and were asked to disperse, Clark said.
The 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.”