VALDOSTA, Ga - As a social media campaign in support of wanted Valdosta State University student Eric Sheppard gains traction, those affected by and involved with the issue weigh in.

Sheppard is the student protester who created a national media frenzy by walking on an American flag during a protest last month at VSU. Sheppard has eluded authorities since a warrant was issued for his arrest last week after campus police said they found a weapon inside a backpack that belonged to him.

A new flag-related challenge named after Sheppard has gone viral via social media. The #EricSheppardChallenge involves stomping or walking on the American flag and then posting images or video of the act online. Some post they are participating in the challenge to raise money for Sheppard’s eventual bond.

Veteran and former Playboy model Michelle Manhart was detained but not charged by campus police for taking the flag away from Sheppard’s group during one of last month's demonstrations. She said the Sheppard challenge is disrespectful and does not make sense.

“I don’t understand how they are correlating walking on the flag with a person who is wanted for bringing a gun on campus,” said Manhart. “If you want to raise money for him, I think that’s awesome. My challenge would be to find a better way to go about it. Find a way that isn’t so disrespectful. They are fighting for his freedom by stomping on the thing that symbolizes his freedom.”

Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress said he hopes people participating in the challenge are not doing it out of negative attitudes toward law enforcement.

“I have no problem with someone trying to help someone out and raise bail because, obviously, Sheppard has been charged with a crime, and when he’s arrested, he will have to bond out,” said Childress. “But if they are doing this because of allegations law enforcement has done anything wrong, they have a right to do that, but personally that idea is wrong.”

The Valdosta Police Department is working in conjunction with the VSU Police Department and state agencies to locate Sheppard.

Michael Noll, president of the VSU faculty senate, said he is concerned that social media based activism like the #EricSheppardChallenge make people feel like they are participating in social justice movements without actually doing anything.

“Existing issues with social injustice are not solved by ‘liking’ posts on Facebook or walking over a flag for a couple minutes and then getting back into your daily routine of inactivism,” said Noll. “Whether you like it or not, our flag is dishonored every time we ignore the realities of white privilege, of poverty, of domestic abuse or anything else that contradicts the values we proclaim to uphold.”

VSU students Audri, Brya and Kim are members of Media Mentors, a campus outreach organization. The students declined to provide their last names to The Times for this story but did say the majority of students at the school did not hold strong opinions about the flag demonstrations and were simply annoyed by the fact Sheppard’s actions and the subsequent flag rally counter-protest disrupted their school activities and forced the school to close for a day.

“On campus, it was not that big of a deal,” said Kim.

“But it wasn’t fair to us,” said Brya. “We pay to go here, and there were just a few people who decided to do something, and it’s affected the entire campus.”

“People were coming from Waycross, Jesup and all of these other places to disturb our peace. We couldn’t even get to the dining hall because people were protesting,” said Audri. “We were getting messages saying the campus wasn’t safe and that the campus was closing and that they had found a gun. And all this was happening so close to finals. We blame people on both sides.”

As for the #EricSheppardChallenge, Kim said she feels people can raise money without being “disrespectful to so many people.” All three expressed concerns that people were participating in the challenge simply because it’s trending.

“I think people who share his views are going to support him,” said Brya. “But there are a lot of people who are going to do it just because it’s online and because it’s a trend.”

Adam Floyd writes for the Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times. 

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