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Cheerleaders with MAGA sign sparked national debate, dividing NC town ahead of rally

A Trump campaign sign earlier this month.
A Trump campaign sign earlier this month. Star-Telegram

A high school cheer squad from North Carolina photographed with a pro-Trump banner and subsequently put on probation has ignited a national conversation about free speech.

Stacey Dash — the former “Clueless” star and self-proclaimed conservative superstar — weighed in on Facebook Friday, throwing her support behind the cheerleaders and their First Amendment rights.

She’s not alone in that sentiment.

Hundreds of people are expected to attend a rally Friday night at North Stanly High School, where the cheerleading team was placed on probation by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association after a picture of them in uniform with a pro-Trump banner during a football game circulated on social media.

The team is expected to continue cheering, according to school district officials. The NCHSAA was also quick to clarify the probation is not a form of punishment, the Charlotte Observer reported.

But Jeremy Onitreb, one of the organizers of Friday’s rally, told McClatchy news group he doesn’t think any reprimand was necessary and questioned what state officials could hit the team with next.

“It’s like getting a called strike when everybody in the stadium knows it was a ball,” he said.

Some residents disagree.

“Why in the world would the school board allow this to happen,” one person commented on the original photo of the cheerleaders. “I am sad and very disappointed with NS. This is a High School football game not a political rally. Shame on them.”

The debate seemed to transcend party lines for others.

“I’m a Republican and a Trump supporter,” another person commented. “Apparently, the girls violated written school policy. They are out of bounds and the punishment, in my opinion, is appropriate.”

Onitreb and his co-organizer Jay Thaxton both have ties to far-right and conservative groups, including the Proud Boys and Three Percenters, according to their public profile images on Facebook and a report by the Stanly News & Press.

Onitreb would not comment on those reported ties Friday.

“I won’t feed the trolls,” he said.

In a former profile picture on Facebook, Onitreb is seen holding up a hand signal that has been associated with the Proud Boys. One friend commented “POYB” on the photo, meaning “Proud of Your Boy.” #POYB is frequently used by the organization.

When asked about how the Proud Boys are characterized, he said anyone with questions should visit its website and “get the information directly from the source.”

Proud Boys, a group only for men, operates under the basic tenet of “western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world,” according to its website.

“The Proud Boys confuse the media because the group is anti-SJW without being alt right,” the website states. “‘Western chauvinist’ includes all races, religions and sexual preferences.”

They are also a designated hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group for civil rights.

Thaxton declined to say whether he was an official member of the group, the Stanly News & Press Reported, but said he is a supporter and clarified they are not white nationalists.

He also has a former profile picture displaying the Three Percenters logo inside the state of South Carolina. According to its website, Three Percenters believe in protecting American citizens from government overreach.

Dictionary.com said that belief extends to a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment allowing for a “well-regulated militia” and the people’s right to bear arms.

There will be designated security guards at the rally on Friday, according to Onitreb, but he said he’s not sure if counter protesters are expected.

“If anybody does come out, it’s their right to free speech and it’s their right to speak their mind,” he said. “Like I said before, I’m not looking to suppress anybody’s First Amendment right.”

Onitreb said his number one priority is everyone’s safety — political discourse without physical violence.

“I don’t expect any of that and I’m not looking for that and nobody in my group will be looking for that,” he said.

The rally isn’t about politics or division, he said. Instead, Onitreb said it should be a moment to showcase the United States’ commitment to the First Amendment.

“I don’t care if people bring Bernie flags — this is about free speech and not having our views suppressed,” he said.

More than 200 people had RSVP’d to the rally by Friday afternoon with an additional 1,300 marking themselves “interested” on the Facebook event page.

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Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.
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