The Red Oak Community School canceled its Holi-drag storytime Saturday morning following promises of protest from the Proud Boys and what school officials described as only a "casual, distant acknowledgement" of the event from police.
The Columbus Division of Police and city officials, however, said they'd been in communication with organizers since they'd learned about the event weeks ago.
The event was planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at the First Unitarian Universalist Church on West Weisheimer Road in Clintonville, where the private Red Oak Community School operates. It was intended to feature three local drag performers reading stories to children performing holiday numbers, according to the school’s event website.
The event drew protesters even after organizers canceled it.
The Ohio Chapter of the Proud Boys, an extremist organization whose leadership has been charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, posted on the social media platform Telegram last month that it intended to attend and protest the storytime event.
“It’s going to be wild,” the group said in its posting.
In a video statement Saturday morning, organizers said they'd reached out to Columbus police about their concerns that the Proud Boys would intimidate and harass their event attendees and organizers, but that police had "offered nothing."
"I spent a week calling our police department and leaving voicemails about the reports we had seen," said Cheryl Ryan, Red Oak Community School Manager, in the video posted to YouTube Saturday. "After a week, I was told we could hire a special duty officer, who may or may not show up because they're understaffed."
Ryan said members of a volunteer community safety group offered to provide support and security at the event, but ultimately, the event's performers felt unsafe without a police presence.
"It turns out, our biggest problem wasn't the Proud Boys after all," Ryan said.
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In an emailed statement Saturday afternoon, a Columbus police spokesman said organizers' comments about police involvement was incorrect. Public Information Sgt. Jeffrey Mooney said the division learned of the event through social media, immediately reached out to the school and church and met with "all parties" Nov. 18 to discuss the event and a safety plan. The school requested a special duty officer, Mooney said, but then cancelled that request the same day.
Throughout the week leading up to the event, police continued to communicate with the church, school, neighbors and businesses in the area to inform them of safety plans, Mooney said.
"The school and church were consistently involved in those discussions through email and phone calls," Mooney said. "CPD was told by the school that we could have plainclothes officers outside the event, but not inside the building for they had hired their own private security. CPD pulled together resources from several units to make sure we were present, including officers from our bike patrol and dialogue team. Even though the event was cancelled, we still had personnel and officers in the area to make sure all parties were safe."
Police previously told The Dispatch they were aware of the planned "disruption" and had plans to monitor the event to ensure it remained peaceful.
"The Columbus Division of Police protects all residents of the city equally," Mooney said in the Saturday statement. "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."
Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther reiterated in a Saturday evening statement that ongoing communications between Columbus police and event organizers began Nov. 18 and continued through Saturday. As a result of those ongoing conversations, a safety plan was developed that included coordination between Columbus police and private security firm owned, operated and staffed by LGBTQ community members, Ginther said.
The mayor said the Proud Boys, designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, regularly espouse "extremist, white-nationalist ideologies and beliefs that stand in start contrast with who we are as a city."
"Our Division of Police, working in close coordination with the LGBTQ+ community, invested significant resources to ensure that this event could take place peacefully and without disruption," Ginther said in the prepared statement. "It is very unfortunate that the event was canceled, and we will continue to uplift and support the LGBTQ+ community moving forward."
He also pointed to a Monday meeting with the Columbus & Central Ohio LGBTQ+ Leadership Roundtable.
On Thursday, that group expressed confidence in local law enforcement and city leaders in taking the matter seriously. They also urged all LGBTQ+ community members and allies not to counterprotest, citing safety concerns.
"LGBTQ+ community leaders have been in conversation with Red Oak, local security professionals, local law enforcement, and Mayor Ginther and have confidence that they are taking this threat very seriously," the organization said. "They have a strong commitment to the children's and our community’s safety and we have confidence in their ability to address this situation."
Ahead of the event, Columbus City Council put out a statement condemning "the far-right extremists who are attempting to intimidate families at an upcoming holiday reading event" and noting Columbus police was monitoring the situation.
Ryan said council representatives did not reach out to the school. She urged community leaders to consider how they could have supported the school and the event differently and how they will do better the next time.
In a written statement Saturday evening, Council President Shannon Hardin said he had been in communication with Ginther and top police leadership about the event for more than a week.
"It is upsetting to see a terrorist group bus in white supremacist bullies with assault rifles to intimidate families and children," Hardin said. "Hate has no place in Columbus, and we certainly have too many guns in the streets already."
Hardin added, "There can always be better communications, and we must all continue speaking out against the Proud Boys for bringing their hate speech to Columbus."
Despite the event’s cancellation, about 70 to 80 protesters, some of them armed, lined the streets near the entrance to the church Saturday morning and into the afternoon, many holding Proud Boys signs or flags. Some covered their faces with masks.
Throughout the morning, dozens of counterprotesters, some carrying LGBTQ pride flags, gathered across the street from the Proud Boy protesters.
Protesters had mostly cleared out of area of High Street, just south of Weisheimer Road in Clintonville, by about 12:45 Saturday afternoon.
Temporary fences had been placed at the entrance to the church parking lot, with signs warning against trespassing and noting the event’s cancellation.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus school drag storytime event canceled amid Proud Boys protest