Michelle Manhart, a former staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force who left the military after posing in uniform for Playboy, was detained by university police at Valdosta State University in Georgia after snatching away an American flag from a group of black students. The students were standing on the flag as a symoblic protest against racism.
A video of the entire bizarre incident was shot by Manhart’s daughter and uploaded to YouTube by Dustin Cross-Manhart, her husband. In the description, he claims that the students had been protesting for three days and that the Manharts’ intention was to “get” the flag and “dispose of it properly.” He adds, “The American flag represents our Freedom why would you want to walk on that???”
As the video begins, an unidentifed young black woman can be heard saying to Manhart, “That flag is not yours.”
“Actually, it is,” Manhart replies. “Any time it’s been torn or ripped it needs to be disposed of properly... This belongs to actually the entire United States.” The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed several times that symbolic “descration” of the flag is legal.
Manhart first attracted controversy in 2007 for posing, er, partially in uniform for Playboy. In another photo from the same spread, she appears to be nude, holding the flag in front of her body. She was relieved of her duties after the photos became public and then demoted to Senior Airman; she ultimately voluntarily left the Air Force.
Manhart now says on Facebook that she owns a restaurant called the Bacon Bunker in Valdosta; she told the Valdosta Times that she didn’t plan to take the flag, but, “I went to pick it up because it doesn’t deserve to be on the ground.”
The video shows that when campus police arrived, Manhart took off in a brief sprint for a feet, then stood holding the flag with both hands. “I’m not letting go,” she says, as an officer tries to gently prise it from her hands. She struggles with officers as they keep trying to get the flag, and appears to put her arm between her legs to prevent being handcuffed. Throughout it all, several of the assembled black students point out that she’s resisting arrest and speculate what would’ve happened to them if they’d done the same.
“Why ain’t she shot in the ass yet?” one of them asks dryly, off-camera. Eventually Manhart is wrestled to the ground, cuffed and put into a police car. She can be heard instructing one of the men with her to “call the media.”
According to the Valdosta Daily Times, the protesting students declined to press charges against Manhart, as did the arresting officers. A university official said she was given a criminal trespass warning that bars her from campus. The protesting students declined to speak to the paper. Reporter Adam Floyd reports over hearing them explain to another student that they were standing on the flag, as “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 told the paper that she didn’t know what the protest was about, but that if it was against racism, she “agreed with the cause but opposed the method of protest,” Floyd writes. Manhart has fully embraced her second 15 minutes of fame, writing on her Facebook page that she’ll be leading a protest on Friday, driving around Valdosta State in a continuous loop “as I’m ‘banned’ from campus.” She’s attracting both supporters and trolls, many of whom are posting the photo of her posing apparently nude with the flag.
Manhart poses with her Playboy spread in January of 2007. Photo via AP