Soon after the Dec. 8 Lansing Catholic vs. Williamston High School basketball game at Williamston, allegations began to spread on social media that developer Pat Gillespie, a Lansing Catholic alumnus with a son attending the school, deliberately bumped a protester who was kneeling during the national anthem.
The alleged push-ee, LaShawn Erby, was kneeling in solidarity with Cougar basketball player Kabbash Richards, who took a knee during the anthem.
Attendees described a charged atmosphere at the game. As the anthem started, about 20 supporters of Richards sat together on the Cougar side of the court in anticipation that Richards would kneel.
Counter-protesters were seen and heard on the opposite side. Some were wearing red Make America Great hats; others waved American flags. Two people carried an “American Eagle” banner and another man wore a cape fashioned from an American flag.
Several attendees heard an adult voice call “Get your ass back up” from the Williamston side as Richards knelt during the anthem.
As the anthem began to play, Gillespie, with two men alongside, stood at courtside, in front of Richards’ supporters.
Several supporters of Richards said Gillespie and the two other men were deliberately trying to block them. As the anthem got underway and Richards took a knee, supporters moved courtside, around and in front of Gillespie, and knelt in solidarity.
Tashmica Torok, a supporter of the LCHS4 and parent of a student at Lansing Catholic, said she was kneeling near Gillespie and Erby and saw the shove up close.
“I look up and I see Pat Gillespie step into LaShawn with his left leg,” Torok said. “She falls over, catches herself with her hands, still kneeling, and asserts her position. He looks down at her and just looks back up.”
Torok said she put her hand on Erby’s back.
“I wanted her to know I was there and I saw it happen,” Torok said. “I held her hand through the rest of the anthem.”
Erby did not return calls and messages asking for comment.
Pat Gillespie’s spokeswoman, Tiffany Dowling, said in an interview last week that Gillespie “did not shove or push anyone.” Dowling and Gillespie fielded questions together.
“I was walking in, I stood there, and everyone came in and filled in behind me and next to me,” Gillespie said. “I don’t recall ever having any contact with anyone.”
Gillespie said he is meeting with Erby on Monday.
He declared that he “absolutely” supports the students’ right to protest and would say as much to school or diocese officials if the opportunity arose.
“I believe in people’s right of peaceful protest,” Gillespie said. “That’s all our right as Americans. They’ve got a right to protest.”
Larry Kirchhoff, a westside resident with a son attending Lansing Catholic, was among the supporters who knelt to support Richards.
Kirchoff said that before the anthem started, Gillespie and the other two men “turned, squared off, made their shoulders as big as possible and positioned themselves as if to silence us, hide us or intimidate us in some way.”
Another supporter of Richards, Rovonya Velasquez, was kneeling a few feet away. Velasquez is the mother of Roje Williams, one of the LCHS Four. “The gentlemen wove their way in to stand in and block us,” Velasquez said. “They knew what they were doing. It was very willful.”
Michael Lynn Jr., father of Michael Lynn III, one of the LCHS 4, said Gillespie’s group looked “very organized.”
“It’s almost like they mobilized to create a wall in front of us,” he said.
Gillespie said he was merely on his way to his seat and stopped in place to put his hand on his heart when the anthem started.
“I was not there to block anyone,” Gillespie said. “I was not there to protest. I just wanted to watch a basketball game and happened to be at that spot.”
Neither Kirchhoff, Velasquez nor Lynn saw any physical contact between Gillespie and Erby.
Gillespie said he first heard of the alleged shove on social media and was “confused.” He called David Maxwell, a bishop at Lansing’s Eliezor Temple Church and director of Mayor Virg Bernero’s Office of Community and Faith Based Initiatives, for advice.
“I was not there, but that would be totally outside Pat’s character,” Maxwell said. “The Pat Gillespie I know would not do anything like that,” Maxwell said in a phone interview.
Maxwell, who strongly supports the LCH Four and has offered to help them, confirmed that Gillespie called and they are discussing what to do next.
“My thrust with Pat is for him to use himself as a leading citizen to advance diversity and understanding of both sides,” Maxwell said. “He is very interested in trying to engage and bring sides together to be a bridge builder instead of a destroyer of that bridge. I don’t want this to define him.”
Torok said she has gotten indirect overtures from Gillespie. “He has sent other people – I can’t tell you who they were — saying things like, ‘I’ve never known him to be that way, he didn’t mean it,’” Torok said. “He’s trying to gaslight me.” (“Gaslighting” is making someone think they’re remembering or interpreting events wrongly, or even delusionally, from the play and 1944 thriller “Gaslight.”) “Guys — mm-mm,” Torok said, nodding her head ‘no.’ “If I didn’t see him do what he did, I would never have put it out there.”