Increased rallies – planned and spontaneous – that have been held on the State House grounds regarding the fate of the Confederate flag in recent days have been met with an increased police presence.
Many, including Gov. Nikki Haley, have called for the flag’s removal, following the June 17 killings of nine African-Americans in historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. A 21-year-old white man from the Columbia area was arrested shortly after the shootings and has been charged with nine counts of murder.
“We have (had) increased security both in and around the State House in past weeks to correspond to the events that have taken place around the state,” Sherri Iacobelli, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said. “Our job is to provide security for the public to assemble peacefully on the grounds. What we are doing is monitoring each situation, and making sure we have appropriate security measures.”
Despite the increased police presence, a brief fight broke out between several pro- and anti-flag activists Monday evening, resulting in one arrest. Officers from the Columbia and University of South Carolina police departments as well as S.C. Highway Patrol troopers responded to help gain control of the situation. Those agencies will remain on hand for the Bureau of Protective Services as more “pop-up” rallies and protests are held.
But the confrontation comes just weeks before members of the Loyal White Nights of the Ku Klux Klan are scheduled to hold a pro-flag rally on the State House grounds July 18.
“The Bureau of Protective Services is monitoring the level of security needed for the various rallies and protests,” Iacobelli said Tuesday. “They will coordinate, as they did last night, with the other law enforcement divisions within the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, including the state Highway Patrol and State Transport Police.
Unlike other recent rallies and protests that have been cleared in advance with state officials, small groups like the ones seen Monday evening have been organizing their gatherings via social media and outside of the knowledge of law enforcement.
Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee police officer and associate law professor at the University of South Carolina, said it’s that lack of communication between law enforcement and rally organizers that can prove difficult for officers to keep rallies in control from the start.
“Once people start to gather, the job of a police officer is monitoring and also having the ability to react in case things go bad.” Stoughton said. “You don’t want to take an overly aggressive response which would exacerbate a situation.”
Stoughton said even if law enforcement isn’t aware of a planned rally on the grounds of the State House, every police department has a plan in place to react to such events.
“What’s missing there is the advance communication. But even with an unexpected protest, police response is still a calculated response – flexible, but calculated,” Stoughton said. “They have a careful balancing act because they want to maintain public order and allow for people to air their opinions safely and legally.”
During more controversial rallies and protests, such as public debate over the Confederate flag, Stoughton said officers are often viewed by activists as picking or supporting one side over the other.
“I would expect the vast majority of officers strongly disagree with everything the KKK stands for,” Stoughton said. “Nevertheless it is their professional obligation to ensure people have the opportunity to safely and legally protest.”
Monday night’s fight isn’t the only sign of trouble on the State House grounds that law enforcement must monitor closely.
Officers patrolling the grounds Tuesday morning discovered that a monument of “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman had been vandalized with a red paint filled balloon.
Tillman, a former governor and U.S. senator whose political career spanned 1890 to 1918, promoted white supremacy, including lynching and denial of voting rights to blacks and women. He also was a participant in the massacre of black militia members during Reconstruction.
The Tillman monument was the only one on the State House grounds that had been vandalized. An investigation into the vandalism is under way, but no arrests had been made by late Tuesday afternoon.
Saturday morning, a North Carolina woman was charged with defacing state property after she climbed the pole holding the Confederate flag and removed it. The flag was replaced a short time later.
Meanwhile, a group of ministers plan Wednesday morning to urge those on both sides of the flag issue to avoid angry confrontation.
That call is expected to come during a 10 a.m. press conference on the front steps of the State House.
“We’ll be asking people to stay calm,” said James Johnson, a Charleston pastor who is president of the Lowcountry chapter of the National Action Network, which held a rally at the State House last week.
Staff Writer Tim Flach contributed.