Georgia university cancels classes in flap over flag protest

AP News
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Posted: Apr 24, 2015 7:05 PM
Georgia university cancels classes in flap over flag protest

VALDOSTA, Ga. (AP) — Student demonstrators who walked on an American flag to protest racism sparked a countermovement, prompting a south Georgia university to cancel classes Friday ahead of a rally that drew a large crowd to Valdosta.

Valdosta State University found itself in the center of a controversy after a video shared on social media showed an Air Force veteran, Michelle Manhart, taking an American flag from demonstrators who had walked on it to protest racism. At the protest, held a week ago, Manhart was detained by police when she refused to return the flag. She later was banned from the campus of 11,500 students. She was not a student at Valdosta State, according to the school.

The flag-walking demonstration involved three protesters, university spokesman Andy Clark said.

Meanwhile, tensions rose at Valdosta State when campus police found a backpack containing a handgun Tuesday. Police said they traced the gun to a protester who was part of the flag-walking demonstration, and they issued a warrant for Eric Sheppard's arrest on charges of bringing a firearm onto a college campus. Sheppard fled and has not been found by authorities, Clark said.

Flag supporters gathered for a rally Friday afternoon, and university administrators said the possibility of thousands of people rallying on the outskirts of campus ultimately led to the decision to give students a day off.

"That level of traffic and that many people will disrupt a lot of things in the city," Clark said. "We're from an overall safety perspective looking to close the campus down today so they can have a peaceful rally."

Organizers of the "Flags Over VSU" rally said they expected as many as 4,000 people Friday afternoon, WALB-TV reported (http://bit.ly/1DXwIWp ). University administrators arranged for extra police to be on campus to provide security during the rally, Clark told The Valdosta Daily Times (http://bit.ly/1I3RPJz). Local law enforcement officials said the crowd that gathered was generally peaceful.

University administrators faced a backlash on social media after Manhart was issued a criminal trespass warning, essentially banning her from campus. Critics saw the university as siding with demonstrators who walked on the flag over a military veteran trying to save it.

"We were protecting their right to free speech and civil liberties" without taking sides, Clark said.

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Information from: WALB-TV, http://www.walb.com/

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Information from: WALB-TV, http://www.walb.com/