Friday, January 27

Conflicting narratives emerge regarding cancelation of Columbus Holi-Drag Storytime event

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On December 3, organizers of the Holi-Drag Storytime event in Columbus canceled the event hours before it was set to take place.

The event had garnered national attention due to the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, announcing that they would show up to protest the event. 

In the hours and days following the cancelation of the event, conflicting narratives emerged about what led to the decision not to hold the event. 

Read the collection of full statements here. 

Red Oak Community School

Red Oak Community School was the organization hosting the event. The holiday-themed Drag Queen story time was also a fundraiser for a local LGBTQ+ nonprofit.

School Manager Cheryl Ryan gave a statement at the time the event was set to start detailing the reasons that it was not going forward. 

The statement laid out safety concerns of the performers and conflicts the volunteer community security team had with having a uniformed police presence at the event. 

Ryan said Columbus Police had not been as responsive as community groups, offering only a special duty officer for hire, saying the police had offered only a “casual distant acknowledgement” of the event. 

“So it turns out, our biggest problem wasn’t the Proud Boys after all,” Ryan said. “I implore this community’s leaders to consider how this would have gone differently, how they could have participated differently, how they could have supported us differently, how they would do better for the next drag story time when the Proud Boys threaten to show up again, which they will. How will our leadership work to create an environment where all members of our community feel safe?”

Columbus Police and Mayor Andrew Ginther

Columbus Police said in a statement that  the department was an active partner in creating a plan to keep the event safe. The department and city disputed the version of events shared by Red Oak Community School. 

The department said it found about the event on social media and reached out, holding a face-to-face meeting with the church and school on Nov. 18, weeks before the scheduled show. 

The department said the school canceled its request for a special duty officer.

The school told the police department that it could have plainclothes (not in uniform) outside the event but not inside the school, where private security would be posted. 

Mayor Andrew Ginther’s statement said Red Oak decided the day before the event not to work with police and a private security firm that had been engaged by the performers, which then caused the performers to pull out of the event. 

The department had officers present, even after the event was canceled “to ensure safety at the site and throughout the surrounding neighborhood.”

“The Columbus Division of Police protects all residents of the city equally. We have had several meetings with the LGBTQ community and continue to work together in partnership to make sure they feel supported and protected at all of their events.”

The First Unitarian Universalist Church

The First Unitarian Universalist Church, which rents space to the Red Oak Community School, was providing the venue for the fundraiser. 

The church administration, in multiple statements, said some of Red Oak’s statements about the involvement of Columbus Police were not accurate. Though the department and other law enforcement were hard to coordinate with initially, the church said they were communicating and planned to have a presence at the event. Ultimately, disagreements about the best way to protect the space, performers, attendees, and the LGBTQ+ community led to the event being canceled, according to the church. 

“Part of the complexities of systemic issues is that we often find ourselves holding conflicting realities. Systems tend not to be wholly good or bad. These are artificial distinctions designed to continue dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ But as long as a system supports and values harm of any community, it is our responsibility to challenge the status quo and continue fighting to ensure that harm does not continue.”

Community Defense Team (CDT)

A volunteer collective of people and organizations working with Red Oak Community School to provide security for the event detailed the involvement of what was called the “Community Defense Team (CDT)” in the two weeks leading up to the event, and where the group saw conflicts arise over plans to include or not include law enforcement inside the event. 

CDT became involved after organizers approached an organization affiliated with CDT about hosting a table at the event. The  organization asked Red Oak to work with the team rather than law enforcement around safety because the group felt that police would not keep the community safe.

The school still planned to request special duty police officers for the event but the CDT felt it had the experience handling high risk events and knowledge about white supremacist antagonizers and terroristic groups. It was unclear whether Columbus police had more than one special duty officer available due to understaffing with the department. 

Eventually the organizers agreed that the CDT could handle security and a team of 200 volunteers was assembled. Safety plans were kept confidential and not shared publicly or with the media. 

The plans did include: upgraded security systems for the school, perimeter barriers at the school, providing water and food, vetting people who entered the church grounds to make sure they had tickets for the event. 

The afternoon before the event, the CDT learned the performers had hired their own private security when a member of that team showed up at the school. The community defense team previous had told organizers it would not work with the private security because it ties with Columbus police. But it wanted to honor the concerns of the performers so the event could go on as planned. 

The CDT believed a compromise was reached that any police escorts would remain off the grounds of the event. The performers wanted police to be on the grounds of the event, and decided to pull out of the event. Organizers then canceled the show.

“We wish it had been different and hope that moving forward we can foster a relationship of trust, love, and understanding. We are grateful for the performers willingness to put their lives on the line for the sake of the children’s joy, despite the escalating mobilization of hate and terror. This is exactly why we were willing to be involved: We believe in the strength of this mission and we sincerely wanted to make the storytime a success with minimal safety concerns to the children, families, school staff, church members and event organizers.”

Red Oak Community School Redux

On December 5, Red Oak Community School released a second statement. This statement did not address the discrepancies between their original statement and those issued by CPD and the mayor, except to say, “We do not feel we did everything right, but this isn’t about us.”

Red Oak expressed their resolve to host another event. 

“We will put on another drag story time event, in the full light of day, in-person and with transparency regarding the overall safety plan between our performers, our attendees, and city leadership.”

The Performers Themselves

Mikayla Denise, one of the performers, posted a video on Facebook on Friday saying that she was withdrawing from the event due to the internal conflict about which security would be present, and not due to the extremist groups that showed up to protest.

“The Proud Boys did not run me out of going to the drag storytime,” Mikayla Denise said. 🔥

Ignite Action

  • Read each of the statements in full by going here

About Author

Rachel Dissell is a Cleveland-based journalist and a Board member of The Buckeye Flame.

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