[This piece is a 2022-2023 N.C. Press Association award winner in the breaking news category.]
NEW HANOVER COUNTY — An event attempting to promote inclusivity has instead divided a community.
Tuesday night was supposed to be a welcoming LGBT+ gathering at the New Hanover County Library at Pine Valley. The county’s first Pride Storytime event for children 7 and under and their parents was held.
Rather than families leaving inspired, at least two said they were enraged as their young children felt terrified by the end of the night.
Parent Emily Blankenship Jones was looking forward to celebrating Pride with her 1-year-old.
“I actually thought this would be the one event that would be safe,” she said.
Storytime featured a reading of “Daddy and Dada” and “Heather Has Two Mommies,” both discussing families with same-sex parents. The event also was to include music and an activity for children to create their own family drawings.
Upon arrival, Jones saw a small group of protesters lined up on the sidewalk speaking out against the storytime.
“I didn’t see the large men in Proud Boys’ outfits with masks,” she said — at least not at first. “They were much scarier than the people there when I first arrived. I would have turned around honestly.”
Roughly 20 protestors, some identifying as Christians and a handful decked out in Proud Boys gear, were holding signs: “Stop supplying pornography to our students” and “Pedophiles are using LGBTQ to groom kids.”
Opposing was a small group of LGBT+ allies, including Angie Kahney and Sandy Eyles of NHC Educational Justice, a group that promotes equity in local schools. A representative from the LGBTQ Center of the Cape Fear Coast was there as well.
This particular storytime was hosted by the county as a way to celebrate Pride month and show how families can be made up in a variety of ways — not only a traditional heterosexual married unit.
“The county celebrates all people, cultures, genders and gender identities and will continue to do that through our events, programs, and actions,” said Linda Thompson, New Hanover County chief diversity and equity officer who also was present at the event.
One of the opposers, Tim Russell, pastor of Beach Community Church, stopped by yesterday evening in support of his own message: “Our position is simple: teach your children what you want to teach them in your own private setting. Don’t publicize it and don’t put it in our public schools and public libraries.”
Rumblings of a disruption at the event had been brewing for over a month. The county had been notified by concerned citizens according to internal emails.
One noted: “There will be many upset parents and community members at that event to attempt to get it canceled and bring awareness if it isn’t canceled beforehand. Anyone involved is a criminal pedophile and should be treated as such.”
Another email surmised protesters would show up: “I am seeing posts on social media from conservative groups who have declared that they want to take up all the spaces (the event is currently full) so that there are fewer members of the public who can attend, and that they will stage in person protests.”
Assistant County Manager Lisa Wurtzbacher wrote to County Manager Chris Coudriet on May 20 in response: “Paige [Owens, the county library director,] and I have already begun discussions about this.”
“Paige, I understand the content aim, but did anybody think this through first?” Coudriet said in the email chain. “In fact, who agreed and managed the announcement, the logistics, and the preplanning for any potential community outcomes? There is a right way to do the right thing, and this falls well short with the ‘right way’ measure. What are we going to do to facilitate this properly for all concerned?”
The county confirmed a permit wasn’t needed for the protesters to gather, nor was police presence required on site.
“The Sheriff’s Office is aware of the event and will take necessary precautions for security as needed,” county spokesperson Jessica Loeper told Port City Daily Tuesday, ahead of the 5:30 p.m. storytime.
The Pride Storytime event page noted only individuals with a child could register. Around 15 people attended, though it had 50 slots open. County officials confirmed some opponents were signing up fake names of children to fill space to limit the number of people who could attend.
Kahney said she had personally been in communication with library staff when learning of a possible protest and Proud Boys appearance. Still, when she arrived a few minutes ahead of the event, she was surprised to see so many people picketing.
“I immediately called in back up from our advocates and allies,” she said. “There were probably only a handful of us there. By the end of the night, I’d say, maybe, seven.”
Her main mission was simply to show support to the families in attendance and be there as a buffer between any opposition, as necessary. While walking toward the building, she said she heard chants about pornography, grooming and pedophilia.
Prior to the event, “deputies and library staff worked to ensure the protesters were not blocking the entrance to the library so patrons could enter,” Thompson said.
Eyles, who arrived by 6 p.m., said that was not true: “The sheriffs allowed them right there next to the door. So these families and their children had to walk through the protesters to get in and out of the building.”
A second parent who spoke to Port City Daily, and wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, brought her children, including a gender non-conforming 7-year-old, to their first Pride event.
She said protesters greeted them by yelling “child abuser” and spewing accusations that her children “were going to hell.”
“I can’t even quote all the things they said,” she said. “I’m too angry to remember.”
According to New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Jerry Brewer, officers showed up around 5:17 p.m. after a 911 call was made about a disturbance. Families were heading into the Osprey Room of the library, as officers were breaking up an altercation between two people, one from each side.
Brewer said amid their argument, an ally deployed pepper spray and was blowing a whistle at a demonstrator. But neither wanted to press charges nor were told to leave.
“[A library staff member] received blowback from pepper spray that was sprayed into the air at one point,” county spokesperson Loeper confirmed.
Twenty or 30 minutes into the event, the Proud Boys — around five or so — and other protesters moved from the perimeter outside of the building and into the library. According to Kahney, it looked like the deputies were escorting them into the room.
Lt. Brewer told Port City Daily that is “100% incorrect.”
“Deputies entered behind them to ensure they weren’t causing a disturbance, which they did not, and to make sure everyone was safe,” he said.
He added the Proud Boys and any protester had a right to be inside the public property.
Thompson corroborated the lieutenant’s statement. No one from the public was actively “protesting or disturbing other patrons,” she said, and thus — per the library’s code of conduct — could enter.
“The members of the protesting group were not allowed in the closed room where the event had been held and families were still in, and there was no disturbance inside the building,” Thompson added.
According to the sheriff’s office, a “supervisor entered the library and positioned himself between the private room holding the reading and the demonstrators.”
The two parents Port City Daily spoke with said they saw commotion from inside the Osprey Room but could not hear what was happening as Proud Boys and others reached the room’s window.
“I saw the Proud Boys dressed militantly with masks, marching in a line down the hall,” Jones described. “They were peering in, looking angry, trying to antagonize us.”
Kahney, who was at the front desk of the library during this time, overheard chanting about how taxpayer money was being spent: “It’s going to pornography and drag queens and grooming children, they said. They said the event was teaching little kids about sex,” she said.
Also inside the building was Pastor Russell. It was his first protest and he wanted to have a look at the setup for himself.
“We did look into the classroom to confirm there was no drag queen,” he said. “Then we left and were escorted the entire time by the sheriff’s department. No screaming, no harassing — all of that is false. There were things said to parents as they walked in, and comments like ‘stop indoctrinating our children’ and ‘let kids be kids.’”
Russell said he already has received three death threats on social media for people associating him with the Proud Boys. He confirmed he does not belong to the group.
“They don’t see eye to eye with me on my faith, so we can agree to disagree,” Russell said. “But we did have in common the perception of sexualizing children.”
The Proud Boys — classified by the FBI as an extremist group and whose five leaders have been charged in connection to the Jan. 6, 2021, attempted insurrection on the Capitol — have been showing up across the nation over the last year to speak out at local school boards in opposition to many topics, from critical race theory to social and emotional learning. They also have made their way into health department meetings during the pandemic to protest mask mandates.
“We are familiar with their faces,” Kahney said. “We deal with this every single month at the school board.”
Seemingly, the national organization is targeting Pride month demonstrations, which they’ve shown out to protest in Dallas, San Francisco, Modesto and Winston-Salem.
Jones said, while she believed the Proud Boys were using intimidation tactics, she was most upset with law enforcement who “showed them to the room.”
“It’s one thing to be outside protesting, but the sheriff’s office is supposed to be keeping us safe,” she said. “Instead, they led a violent group of people to children.”
Around 10 minutes after protesters entered the library, the event ended, Kahney said. The families were led out of the building through a side door instead of its main entrance, in hopes of sidestepping any confrontation.
“I was anxious to get out of there,” Jones said, who was accompanied by a sheriff’s deputy to her car.
Looking back, she admitted she would have never attended if she knew how the night would unfold.
The other parent said she and her children were ushered out by library staff and confirmed protesters hovered around the side exit, continuing to spout their beliefs as kids left the building.
“I’m really disappointed that the county did not take this seriously, and that they allowed these families to be harassed,” Eyles said. “You know, every child should be able to get a storytime and not be afraid.”
The county’s equity officer, Thompson, wrote to Port City Daily that families were not in danger.
“The library staff worked collaboratively with the Sheriff’s deputies throughout the event,” Thompson said, “and had coordinated safety protocols ahead of time, as well to help ensure the safety of patrons.”
Lt. Brewer echoed the sentiment.
One parent said she contacted the sheriff’s office after storytime to express her dismay. She was advised to email Sheriff Ed McMahon and file a formal complaint, which she plans to do.
“This was not only negligence, it was a deliberate act of aggression by the sheriff’s department against the LGBTQ community,” she said. “Children are supposed to be able to trust the sheriff’s officers — unless they’re LGBTQ children. Then the sheriff will lead the Proud Boys to their door.”
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