The Confederate flag was removed from a pole on the South Carolina capitol grounds early Saturday morning by activists, but state employees returned the flag to its position not long after the incident.
An activist group claimed responsibility for taking the flag down. Witnesses said two people were arrested by authorities almost immediately after one of them scaled the flag pole on the north side of the State House grounds and pulled the Confederate banner down.
The Confederate flag has been at the center of a debate in Columbia for the past week in the wake of the racially motivated massacre of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church.
Activists calling themselves “concerned citizens” said in a news release that they removed the flag about 5:30 a.m. Saturday. A woman identified by the group as “Bree” climbed the pole and pulled the flag down, the group said.
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“Deciding to do what the SC Legislature has thus far neglected to do, the group took down the symbol of white supremacy that inspired the massacre, continued to fly at full mast in defiance of South Carolina’s grief, and flew in defiance of everyone working to actualize a more equitable Carolinian future,” the group said in a news release distributed to the media about 6:30 a.m.
The state Bureau of Protective Services confirmed it had arrested two people at the State House about 6:15 a.m. Those arrested were Brittany Ann Byuarim Newsome, a 30-year-old Raleigh resident, and James Ian Tyson, a 30-year-old Charlotte resident, the protective services bureau said.
They are charged with defacing state property, a misdemeanor that carries penalties of up to three years in prison or a fine of up to $5,000 or both.
Newsome was loudly reciting the 23rd Psalm as she was being arrested.
Newsome and Tyson were taken to Richland County’s Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, where a judge set a $3,000 bond for each of them and said they would be allowed to travel to North Carolina in the meantime before their trial date of July 27. Each posted bail immediately.
State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, a Columbia attorney, is representing Newsome. After the bond hearing, Rutherford said Newsome “maintains her innocence on the charge.” Someone called him and asked him to represent Newsome, he said.
Columbia attorney Mark Schnee is representing Tyson, who he says was standing nearby at the time of the flag’s removal and did not climb the pole or touch the flag. Schnee said he was contacted by the activist group several days ago and asked about laws and rules regarding protests.
The Protective Services release said authorities saw a woman use climbing gear to scale the flagpole, which is beside the Confederate soldier monument at the end of Main Street on the north side of the State House. The woman refused to come down until she unhooked the flag. She was arrested when she came back down, the release said. A man was with her inside the wrought iron fence surrounding the flag pole, police said. The climbing gear was still on the flag pole after the arrests were made.
At about 7:45 a.m., a maintenance worker and a state security officer, neither of whom would give their names or comment, raised a new banner after removing it from a plastic sheet. The two state employees who arrived on the State House grounds to put the flag back up were African-Americans.
Tamika Lewis, a member of the citizens group that planned the flag removal, said she had hoped her organization’s action would prompt state leaders to keep the flag down. Lewis said her group consists of North and South Carolina residents.
“We did not expect that it would be raised again,” Lewis said, noting that state leaders “should just leave it down. They were having this hard decision whether or not to take it down. A lot of them are concerned about their political value and their political careers and all worried about losing their constituencies and their voters if they vote for the removal of this flag.
“So we ... took it upon ourselves to do the hard part and take it down. All they had to do was keep it down.”
Witnesses said the incident might hurt efforts to remove the flag permanently from the State House grounds.
“I’m glad to see it down,’’ said Willie Hampton, an African-American who said he saw the flag being removed. “But now, this is going to bring a bunch of riff raff about the flag.’’
Hampton said “the Sons of Confederate Veterans is already angry.”
A woman who was jogging on the State House grounds said she also witnessed the flag being taken down. She declined to reveal her name. Tom Dawson, who was going out to get doughnuts and coffee early Saturday, said he stopped after the flag had been removed and saw police on the scene.
Saturday’s event comes as the Legislature is considering permanently removing the flag from its position on the State House grounds. Gov. Nikki Haley this past week called for the removal of the flag. She was supported in her effort by Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, U.S. Congressmen Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and a host of state lawmakers.
The Confederate flag, raised more than 50 years ago atop the South Carolina State House, was taken off the dome as part of a compromise in 2000. But its placement on the State House grounds, directly in front of the capitol, has continued to cause criticism.
Many people who want the flag taken off the State House grounds view the flag as a symbol of South Carolina’s past history of slavery.
Others, though, continue to vehemently protest calls for the flag’s removal, saying it represents Southern heritage, not racism.
Several dozen of those supporters gathered on State House grounds Saturday, hours after the flag was taken down and re-raised. They waved the stars and bars, sang “Dixie,” chanted “Let the people vote” and engaged in argumentative discourse with a handful of flag opponents who held “Take it down” signs.
“They’re calling us racist. We’re not racist,” said Harrison Gasque, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and former lieutenant commander of the Military Order of the Stars and Bars. “We just like our white heritage. We like our heritage to stay intact. We’re not trying to hurt anybody. We’re not trying to offend anybody.
“All these people here are trying to stand up for their heritage and their white race. That’s all they’re doing.”
Steps away from them, shouting with a quaking voice as a parade of Confederate-clad trucks cruised past the capitol, Juan Andrews decried the group as “wicked.”
“Total disrespect. My people are in mourning right now,” Andrews said. “They’re loving that. Just wicked people. No soul in at all in them. No conscience. How can you flex like that?
“It’s an American swastika.”
The national NAACP office compared Newsome to Henry David Thoreau, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and “numerous Americans who have engaged in civil disobedience.”
“The NAACP calls on state prosecutors to consider the moral inspiration behind the civil disobedience of this young practitioner of democracy. Prosecutors should treat Ms. Newsome with the same large-hearted measure of justice that inspired her actions.”
Previously, the most infamous assault on the flag came in 2002, when Emmett Eddy Jr., known as “the Rev. E. Slave,” set fire to it.
Eddy, wearing a black Santa Claus suit, climbed over the iron fence around the Confederate Soldier monument, set a ladder next to the flagpole and climbed up to ignite the banner before police surrounded him.