A photograph of a black college student trampling an American flag during a protest in Georgia last month has set off a social media frenzy—but you may have never heard of it.
In typical 2015 fashion, the incident spawned an Internet-video challenge, a viral hashtag, and a counter-Internet challenge. And, to top it all off, a former Playboy model was arrested in the mix, the one part of this whole tale that was widely covered by the mainstream press.
On April 17, a 22-year-old named Eric Sheppard attended a protest at Georgia’s Valdosta State University, where he and several other students were photographed walking on an American flag.
To convolute matters, police discovered a backpack containing a firearm on university property the following week and claim to have “unmistakable evidence” linking it to Sheppard. Authorities issued an arrest warrant charging him with a felony for bringing a weapon into a school safety zone, and he’s reportedly under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for making terroristic threats on social media, according to a local news station.
Sheppard has been on the lam ever since, but that’s just the launch pad for something much bigger.
A day before Sheppard’s alleged firearm was discovered, the story of his protest had already hit the Washington Post’s website—sort of. Sheppard wasn’t mentioned by name. The focus of the article was Michelle Manhart, a former Air Force staff sergeant and 2007 Playboy model, who was arrested at the university after trying to take the trampled flag away from the students.
The media attention was no accident. Manhart had alerted a local TV station before arriving at the university to confront the protesters. But as the Post reports, Manhart’s tug-of-war with a female protester over the walked-on flag didn’t go as she’d hoped:
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.
Manhart, who seemed legitimately upset at the students for desecrating an American flag, was subsequently called out for having posed nude in a photoshoot while dragging an American flag on ground.
A self-proclaimed ‘terrorist’
Largely ignored by the media—at least, until a gun was discovered—was Sheppard, whose discourse was recorded in a 5-minute video later uploaded to YouTube. In the video, he talks about the stages of oppression experienced by black Americans, from slavery to the contemporary prison system. He describes Christianity and the painting of Jesus Christ as a white man in the slavery era as tools of “spiritual slavery.”
He tells the growing crowd that the “white media” will most likely label him a terrorist. “And indeed I am,” he says. “I’m a terrorist towards lies. I’m a terrorist towards liars. I’m a terrorist towards those who are wicked. So, yes, I am terrorist towards white people.”
“What I’m saying to you all,” he continues, “is a warning of death that is coming upon this nation if y’all don’t turn from y’alls ways. And this is the collective white race.”
Sheppard identifies as a member of the New Black Panthers Party, though few details have been reported regarding his broader political views. During the video, he offers context for the demonstration by mentioning the death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson, who was found dead in January 2013, rolled up in a wrestling mat in the gymnasium of his George high school, not far from Sheppard’s university.
The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office ruled Johnson’s death an accident. An independent autopsy performed at the behest of the his family, however, determined his death was caused by a blunt force trauma. A Justice Department investigation that started nearly 19 months ago remains open, and by all appearances there’s been little to no progress.
A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office told the Daily Dot on Friday that Sheppard was still at large. Over the last 16 days, his supporters, who say he’s been “warned that he should not turn himself in,” have so far raised over $1,900 with an Indiegogo campaign. Another campaign, on Crowdrise, has so far raised over $570.
“I’m sick of people saying that we’re treating him wrong,” Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress told a local ABC affiliate in April, “or we’ve done something wrong to him, or he’s in fear for his life. Fear of what? He’s the one who brought a gun to campus.”
The day after Sheppard fled from police his father, Eric Sheppard, Sr., issued a statement, asking that he turn himself in.
“Son, you know we love you and have always taught you to do the right thing and make wise decisions,” the senior Sheppard said. “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.”
Capture the flag
Meanwhile, Sheppard’s supporters have taken to Twitter with the hashtag #EricSheppardChallenge. The challenge is apparently for users to post photographs or video of themselves walking, or in some cases dancing, on top of an American flag.
A video posted by Georgia resident Erica Walker on Facebook, in which she does the running man on top of an American flag, has been shared over 1,000 times and referenced in dozens conservative news reports.
“My name is Erica Walker, and I’m about to do the Eric Sheppard Challenge,” she says in the clip, later yelling: “Fuck yo flag.”