Video taken Tuesday night shows a woman berating two local high school students, swearing at them, using alleged homophobic and xenophobic language and condemning them for painting LGBTQ+ flags on a popular Alcoa bridge where graffiti is allowed at the intersection of Vose Road and Darwin and Faraday streets.
Jasmine Martinez, a 17-year-old Alcoa High School student, and Carmen McClain, a 16-year-old Heritage High School student, told The Daily Times by phone Wednesday they were painting the bridge Tuesday night when an unidentified woman drove by and admonished them.
“She had driven by and told us to stop and told us that we were doing terrible things to the bridge,” Martinez said.
The woman then returned on foot, Martinez said, at which point Martinez began recording the incident on her cellphone.
In that recording — later posted to Facebook, Instagram and TikTok and now shared on national news — the woman told the teens she was “coming over here to paint over yours,” and proceeded to spray white paint over the flags, much to Martinez and McClain’s protests.
In the video, the woman also said “Y’all aren’t even different anymore. Y’all are trying to stand out. I could give less about what you want and what you think you might want to be. ... You’re not going to do it. You don’t pay taxes. You’re probably an immigrant here.”
Martinez said her family is Hispanic and McClain said she is Italian and Native American.
In another video documenting the confrontation, the woman said “Do ya’ll like each other? Are you confused?”
Martinez and McClain said they are girlfriends who recently came out as gay to their families and were painting LGBTQ+ flags because it was Pride Month.
In yet another video, the woman can be heard saying “I’m going to put an American flag here because that’s what we stand for,” while spraying white paint. Martinez points out she had the wrong colors and the woman then scolds her for being “disrespectful.”
Martinez and McClain said the woman was not the only one to speak out against the painting Tuesday, but said others also honked in support.
Eventually, when the woman said she would call the police, Martinez said they decided to “cut our losses” and left. They said they were afraid the woman would lie and the police would “take her side.”
Alcoa Police Chief David Carswell said no reports had been filed regarding the incident.
That night, both students said they were troubled and “bummed out” by the event.
“It made me feel so devastated that in our community people act like that,” McClain said. “We were just trying to spread positivity with those flags we painted.”
She added the reason they decided to paint the bridge was to support fellow students.
“It’s near school, so seeing kids drive by and see that, if they come from a not-so-supportive home, they can see (the painting) and see that they are loved and that there are people like them out there.”
Wednesday, Martinez and McClain returned to repaint the bridge, this time accompanied by a crowd of supporters who stood in the rain as high schoolers painted new depictions of the eight-color inclusive Pride, transgender, bisexual and pansexual flags.
As students and others painted, local educators, parents, church members and other supporters stood by.
One of them was Roman Lay, an Alcoa High School English and drama teacher who said some of his students were painting Wednesday. He spoke as an individual and not as a school representative when he said he believed the Tuesday incident was “indicative of a larger problem.”
He said he was there to love and support the kids.
Maryville College Education professor Becky Lucas also was present. She is involved in local LGBTQ+ activism, including starting the local chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
“I’m here to support my kids and my community,” she said, noting she has two LGBTQ+ children. “They have the courage to be who they are in a society where adults that are supposed to protect them ... have not done that, historically.”
She later added by phone that research shows when teachers and parents, legislators, members of the faith community and other “respected adults support our diverse youth, students like Carmen and Jasmine, that their school performance, attendance and mental health improves.”
The woman in the nationally shared video was not identified, though many on social media are claiming it was someone who worked at Blount Memorial Hospital Wellness Center.
The Daily Times asked Blount Memorial Hospital if this was true.
“Blount Memorial does not comment on requests to confirm employment status,” Hospital spokeswoman Jennie Bounds responded. “We have received numerous communications about an incident that occurred in one of our communities. While we can’t speak to the incident or the individuals allegedly involved, these actions do not reflect the opinions of Blount Memorial.”
The Daily Times attempted to contact the individual mentioned on social media but did not receive any responses by presstime.
Though the bridge was repainted by 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, witnesses at the bridge said around 6 p.m. that people had come by and painted through the words “love is love” with silver paint.
Carswell around 3 p.m. said the event had been peaceful. He confirmed it is not illegal to paint the bridge, providing the art was not “vulgar.”
Video of the incident is attached to the web version of this article at thedailytimes.com.