Shawn Mansfield has organized some of the largest protests in Akron since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on May 25, gathering the attention of media, politicians and residents. During and after those protests, however, he’s used his growing profile to spread misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines.
During the first two weekends of protests, Mansfield and his organization, Motivators Over Imitators (MOI), drew hundreds of people to downtown Akron for marches that covered miles and were covered extensively in other local media, which amplified his platform. But in recent weeks, as MOI’s numbers dwindled, Mansfield began interrupting other protests and events.
At the June 16 Na’Kia Crawford vigil and the June 25 Akron Minority Council march, organizers say Mansfield muddled the purpose of the event, which created chaos and put vulnerable people in danger with police officers, hecklers and traffic.
At events organized by MOI and others, Mansfield spreads conspiracy theories and misinformation
During a June 6 protest, Mansfield passed out sheets of paper titled “Say No To Government Agendas!” The paper lists seven “government agendas,” which include conspiracy theories such as the use of 5G networks to spread illness, the use of microchips to control populations and vaccines causing harm. Mansfield also shared memes and links on his Facebook page suggesting that COVID-19 is a hoax.
Prior to Floyd’s death, Mansfield says he was “scared to talk about certain things, especially government agendas.”
Motivators over Imitators is, Mansfield says, a “faith-based lifestyle company where we motivate, educate and provide opportunity.”As of June 2, MOI began organizing much of their communication through a Facebook group titled Grace Park Family United, named after a protest Mansfield organized in late May at Grace Park.
Mansfield says the protests have given him the opportunity to tell more people about his beliefs, but well-established grassroots organizers in Akron say they believe Mansfield and another MOI organizer, Davonta’e Winchester, risk derailing the purpose of the movement through their spread of conspiracy theories and lack of organization.
These well-established organizers say they do not want to control how others protest, but explain their events are carefully planned to ensure the safety of vulnerable participants, like children and people with disabilities. But when MOI shows up, the disruption increases danger and dilutes the purpose of their events.
Cir L’Bert Jr, who works with the Unitarian Universalist Association Commission on Institutional Change, says MOI’s message focuses on the wrong questions and ignores policies that long-time organizers have wanted for years.
“One thing it does is it ignores the past six years of real political cultural policy work that’s been done by Black women, queer folks, indigenous people, immigrants. It completely denies the real work that’s been going on behind those policies. It’s denying the work that Black folks and women have done. It’s hugely problematic because if we want real change to occur, having people bring these unproven and failed ideological tangents is distracting.”
Beth Vild of the Big Love Network, who has been organizing for more than 15 years, says there are many red flags surrounding Mansfield’s and Winchester’s message, including the way they’ve used their sudden notoriety to peddle conspiracy theories, as well as the secrecy about their backgrounds.
“I don’t see color. I come in peace, love and positivity. That’s my agenda. Now I’m coming out and saying everything because it needs to be exposed,” Mansfield says.
Mansfield met with Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan on June 11 and says he made two demands: A citizens review board for local police and funding cuts to the Akron Police Department. City of Akron Press Secretary Ellen Lander verified this.
He says anti-police brutality protests align with MOI’s agenda.
“It aligns because Black people are tired of the oppression. We’re tired of the mass manipulation. We’re tired of the murders of Black people. We’re simply tired. When you have stuff like this, especially concerning the George Floyd incident, you can begin to talk about other things that’s going on as well. Because now you have the audience’s attention. Now you have the Black community’s attention. Now, racism isn’t the issue, now we can talk about other government agendas and what they’re doing, like the 5G network, like the RFID chip, like martial law. It aligns with everything that we’re doing.”
MOI also uses Facebook to spread conspiracy theories with videos, photos and memes, shifting on May 30 to social justice activism and protest coverage.
Event organizers say Mansfied takes over events, creating chaos and danger
Myriam Rosser says Mansfield hijacked the vigil honoring Na’Kia Crawford on June 16, despite repeated attempts by bystanders to stop him, which was also witnessed by Yoly Miller, a contributor to The Devil Strip. A video, including the argument between Rosser and Mansfield, was also posted on the Facebook page for Grace Park Family United. Eventually, a family member of Crawford’s stopped him.
“As soon as he got there, he hyped everyone up and had everybody getting almost erratic,” says Rosser, who was in attendance. “That’s when he started to shout things in the megaphone. And then he removed the barriers and had a bunch of people in the middle of the street, and had a bunch of people saying, ‘Hey, please stop. We’ve got a mile of land; there’s no reason that we can’t do it in the barrier.’ And he had the cops out of their cars with their hands on their guns ready to do what they needed to do, or what they felt like they needed to do.”
During a June 25 rally organized by the Akron Minority Council, Mansfield worked his way to the front of the march to lead a break-away group of protestors who had spilled into the street as organizers attempted to regain control while cars whizzed by. At one point, two cars nearly collided close to protestors.
“If we had as an organization decided to march in the street, that would be our prerogative,” says Kody Cross, a member of AMC’s leadership team. “The fact of the matter is, we decided not to march in the street because we wanted the street to stay open so that we were heard and seen, and an individual came and hijacked and did his own thing. I don’t appreciate him trying to hijack the event by going against the prerogative and marching in the street. That is not something that should have happened at an event that somebody else is organizing.”
At the end of the event, Cross says Mansfield approached him, introduced himself, then encouraged him to have AMC take a “stance against 5G.”
Akron Minority Council president Bree Chambers adds, “I do not want to tell somebody how to express their emotions right now, especially another Black person. What I will say is, I would have been open to the idea of a collaboration, had a collaboration been presented. It’s the idea of coming in without saying anything to an organized event by others, who you could have very easily accessed and spoken to if that was what your prerogative is. That’s my problem.”
Well-established organizers within Akron’s social justice movements encourage protesters, especially those who are taking part in protests for the first time, to place their focus on reputable, longstanding groups.
“There are people who have been doing this work for a long time and that they need support from the local community,” says Vild. “Trust the local organizers because they not only have been doing this for a long time but they have the relationships to actually make the policy changes that need to happen. And we need to support these organizers all the time, and not just when it’s trendy and in the news.”