Caution: the following article contains numerous slurs and profanities.
Two weeks ago a prosecutor in a Flagler County courthouse spat a long list of vile obscenities at a jury of 14 in her opening arguments. The prosecutor was only restating the obscenities a man had been seen and heard on video telling his wife two days before he shot her dead. She was doing it for effect, of course, very effectively introducing evidence, not insulting the jury. (The jury convicted the man of murder.)
The same thing happened within sight of that courtroom last night, on the ground in front of the Government Services Building. The slurs, documented in numerous videos and in person, were identical in tone, the language similarly vile. Except that in this case the obscenities were leveled by at students, parents and teachers who’d gathered to protest the potential ban of four books for teens from school libraries, including a book written by a gay Black man who describes a traumatic incident of being molested by his cousin, and his first experience of gay sex as an adult.
“You’re disgusting. You’re a piece of shit for liking it.”
“Hey, do you support pedophilia too? Do you support that?”
“Hey gay boy you wanna follow to my car and suck my dick after this?”
“You guys are pieces of shit.”
“Bye, get the fuck out of here.”
The protests took place before and during a school board meeting at the GSB, scene of differently-staged theater in the latest fallout from Board members Jill Woolbright’s and Janet McDonald’s efforts to police library materials. (See: “Potential Book Ban in Schools Galvanizes 2 Sides in Day of Highs and Lows as Sheriff Recoils at Criminal Complaint” and “Jill Woolbright Wants 4 Books Banned Over Anti-Racism, LGBTQ, Police Violence and Rape Themes; District Removes Them Pending Review.”)
“Sex education does not belong in fucking elementary school.”
“You are just as much a child abuser as the person who wants to commit sodomy against a child.”
“Their side is is pure evil. They support pedophilia. They support racism with CRT. They want to steal our money through taxes unlimited. They want to shut down American jobs.” The same man goes on, pointing to one of the adult protesters: “This is the evil cat lady with babies buried in her yard.” Laughter from his audience of two. “They’re supporting sodomizing little kids and they think it’s funny.”
They claimed, between slurs, that they were there to protect innocent children.
The counter-protesters–a loose description of a loose group of people whose aim seemed to be little more than disruption, intimidation and offense–numbered at most a couple of dozens, some in approximation of camouflage, several of them masked, some apparently vacationing locally, or speaking of being happily on vacation.
“Students on the one side…our FUTURE,” Artie Gardella, who was at the protest in the afternoon and through the evening, said, “full of passion and conviction, well organized and unified, peacefully protesting the banning of books that speak to their generation! The older generation on the other side dressed in tactical gear, full of FEAR, most with their faces covered and I do not think because of covid, waving Christian flags and anti-LGBTQ banners and a preacher literally trying to drown out the young voices with a blaring megaphone as the youth shared their heart.”
The protest outside was in two segments: there was the five o’clock demonstration organized by Jack Petocz, a student at Flagler Palm Coast High School, who also stacked a table full of donated books–the four books that School Board member Jill Woolbright flagged to the superintendent, calling one of them a “crime” to disseminate in schools. That part of the demonstration, from 5 to 6 p.m., was loud as the counter-demonstrators, including a preacher with a megaphone, tried to drown out the students’ speeches with sheer noise, taunts or insults and cries of “shame” and that recent favorite of the right-wing, “let’s go brandon,” the euphemism for “fuck Joe Biden.”
The evening segment, after the school board meeting began. The chamber was at full capacity, leaving over 100 people to contend with the overflow corridor, or to stay outside. The confrontations took a more sinister character, including threats (one man was heard threatening a woman with something “right between your eyes”). While the 5 p.m. protest witnessed its share of homophobic slurs and taunts, the night version was mostly that, with fewer people on either side but also more frequent and closer interactions between the two, each side brandishing its phones and taking video.
“I’m looking at a bunch of fucking donkeys right now. Fucking jackasses.”
“Oh, I cherry-pick? I cherry-pick now? You motherfuckers!”
An exchange between two women: “Is that that book?” “Yeah, it’s the book.” “Can we burn it?”
“Fat and stupid. Thank god for breaking the stereotype that women are dumb. You did it sweetheart.”
“Hey, tell me about that story in the Bible about gluttony, you fat piece of shit.”
“Let’s see, you got your fat husband at home sweetheart?”
“Y’all are retarded and fucking leave.”
“Initially, the counter-protest, while ugly and rife with homophobic slurs, it was still just a counter protest. As the night wore on, however, the counter-protestors were replaced by men and women dressed in flak jackets, walkie-talkies, and full face and head masks or helmets. The language was uglier, more intimidating, and they one man kept shouting violently sexual threats towards a young man with a pride flag. As a result,
“It seemed less about a message against a book and more about intimidating those with whom they disagree,” a Flagler Palm Coast High School teacher who was at the protest throughout described the night portion. “In the midst of calling our small group of 5 (everyone else was inside) pedophiles and lovers of pornography, a few of their number actually stated their case: they didn’t want the All Boys Aren’t Blue book in elementary schools. I responded, ‘they aren’t.’ They said the books were in elementary school, and I asked where. They responded ‘Oak Hill.’ This was the moment I knew they weren’t from Flagler County and were only here to fan the flames. One of their member turned to a police officer and told him that soon, he’d have to pick a side between ‘us and them,’ implying a civil war to come. I escorted students to their cars all night, harassed each time. Once or twice I was followed, but the police were aware and also stayed close. We were protected.”
A video shows an individual garbed in what, in another context, might look like a Halloween costume–a whole-skull-covering black avenger or Darth Vederish sort of mask, black plastic armor up to the elbow, all sorts of black padding, black boots, pants and the rest of it. The individual at one point calls a person taking the video a “coward.”
“You’re in body armor, sir, I’m standing here without any armor,” the person replies. (The body armored one in a different video is heard explaining that he’s wearing the gear not to attack, but to protect himself. He did not say from whom. It was neither a hot nor cold night, the protesters were unarmed and had been mostly students, and there were still about half a dozen or more cops outside.)
Another video shows several of the armored–and not armored–surrounding a local teacher who is attempting to reason with them, correct them that the book is not in elementary schools (“elementary school, middle school, it doesn’t matter,” a woman shouts.
None of it got out of hand beyond verbal taunts. Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly on Monday said he was setting up an incident command at the GSB for the evening, assigning several deputies to the school board’s workshop and meeting and the protest, which were all expected to draw a crowd (the evening meeting and protest did, the workshop drew a much smaller crowd). The first unit showed up a little after noon. It grew from there. “We are going to ensure everybody has their First Amendment right,” the sheriff said. That’s what the deputies did, interfering not at all in the messages from one side or the other, or the loudness, intervening only when the roadway had to be cleared for traffic or the taunts got too close. Even then, the deputies intervened with a light touch more comparable to ushers than to any imposition of force, and both sides appeared grateful.
There were a few retorts from the original demonstrators, not all of them polite, though mostly the response was silent, or innocuous yells like “you’re a fraud,” and “do you speak like that to your children?” Or: “I’m scared? One woman standing here in front of all of you? Do I look scared?”
“One day you will be scared,” someone tells her.
Some of the exchanges were standard debating interaction: if you want the book, buy it on Amazon, read it at a library, just don’t put it in the schools, the counter-protesters would say. There were comparisons to Black Lives Matter marches–derisive ones, when spoke by the counter-protesters, one of whom claimed that if this was a BLM march the marchers would have become violent toward counter-protesters–a documented falsehood, though being factual wasn’t the objective of the counter-protesters. What reasoning arguments did take place from time to time only skimmed on the surface of the bile, with the record usually spinning back to “you support pedophilia” or “you’re a piece of shit” or “answer–do you support pedophilia?” and the renewed threat by a man masked in a stars and stripes: “You’re still sucking my dick later, boy. I’m finding you,” he says, pointing.
“My whole life has been spent working with young people, from setting up inner-city camps in New York and here in Florida to most recently working with the young music and art community of our county,” Gardella said. “What the young people need most is their voice to be heard. They have a vision for the world that they want, and the older people were just not listening. It’s time for us to pass the Baton over to them and support their vision for a Kinder more inclusive world! I witnessed one of the military clad counter-protesters stand in front of one of the young leaders and call him a faggot to his face. My heart broke but I was so encouraged to see this young man let it roll off and continue with his mission. Bravo to the young people of our community!”
Flagler Beach Commissioner Eric Cooley, remarking on his Facebook page about some of the viler language, said “no normal thinking individual” could miss why the counter-protesters want the books banned: “a good portion of the subject material covered in the books in question is about dealing with people just like…..them.”
Inside the building, the board meeting stretched past the five-hour mark, three of those hours taken up by more civil, often eloquent statements from one side or the other. Though every board member spoke at the end of the meeting, only one, Colleen Conklin, spoke against the noxious atmosphere that had developed outside, and that had been apparent even during the 5 o’clock hour, before the meeting.
“I would like to call for cooler heads on both sides to come together and realize and recognize that the only way we’re going to move the dial on student achievement is if this stops,” Conklin said. “There is a way to communicate differences of opinion. But what has been happening? It is not civil discourse. It’s not. We had people that were invited here, the three percenters that were invited here, invited here by certain groups and certain people who literally harassed our children outside, calling them slurs cursing at them getting in the face of educators and staff members and other parents. Yes, that occurred.” The Southern Poverty Law Center categorizes the three percenters as an extremist “sub-ideology,” not a group, with “common belief that falls within the larger antigovernment militia movement.”
When Conklin referred to the slurs, people in the audience interrupted her with jeers. “What’s ridiculous is that we continue to have community members that will defend those actions,” Conklin continued. “We had a hate group that was invited to this meeting. by certain individuals.” She was again interrupted, and again Trevor Tucker, the chairman of the board, asked for decorum from the crowd.
“What I will say is shame on anyone who invited those individuals,” Conklin tried again. “Now whether you’re sitting in this chamber or not I have no idea. If you feel very defensive, I would ask you to ask yourself why. But what I will say is we will not tolerate the attacks on our students. We’re not going to tolerate that kind of behavior. You don’t have to agree with each other. But you certainly do not have the right to treat children that way. Period.” After more noise from the audience, she added: “What I will say is that the real superstars of the evening or our students tonight, the real superstars of the evening were our students. They came and they share their thoughts and their views in a very articulated way. They didn’t allow themselves to be intimidated, and I appreciate the fact that they were brave enough to come forward and take a stand and to speak up for not just themselves but their fellow students.”