Ku Klux Klan and Confederate flag demonstrators left the State House grounds Saturday escorted by a human chain of law enforcement officers shielding them from dozens of counter-protesters running beside them and shouting.
The day’s tensions – brought on by two clashing demonstrations at the Capitol spearheaded by Florida and North Carolina groups – peaked in the afternoon, during the Klan’s rally to protest the July 10 removal of the Confederate flag. Tensions prompted authorities to end the rally an hour early by surrounding demonstrators and escorting them from the State House steps.
Earlier in the day, “black power” demonstrators spoke about racial inequality and injustices toward African-Americans persisting as the legacy of slavery.
The day brought no melee between the groups – even though the rallies overlapped by an hour – until just after the Klan rally. Authorities arrested five people: one for disorderly conduct, two for simple assault and two for breach of peace.
The Klan’s exit came after a loud and combative demonstration with no speeches but escalating hostilities shouted over a barricade of metal fences, news reporters and police.
Saturday’s demonstrations come in the wake of the slaying of nine African Americans in a Charleston church last month. The racially motivated killings led lawmakers last week to remove the Confederate flag, seen in photos with the accused 21-year-old gunman from Columbia, from where it had flown on the State House grounds.
The Pelham, N.C., Loyal White Knights of the KKK, the Detroit-based neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement and their sympathizers waved Confederate flags, banners with swastikas and shouted “white power,” hurling racist comments at angry counter-protesters who shouted back.
Police responded quickly when a Confederate flag demonstrator left the steps of the State House where the group was sequestered – clearly for their protection as much as the public’s – and ran among counter-protesters.
A few moments later, the white banner carrier was surrounded by police, and a black man holding a Confederate flag was running toward the north side of the State House, trailed by cheering people. Counter-demonstrators tore the battle flag and were attempting to burn it. Some carried pieces of the flag through the crowd triumphantly.
State law enforcement estimates the crowd was about 500 most of the time but reached 2,000 at one point. It was fairly split between black and white protesters and observers, many toting cameras to document the spectacle.
But tensions started earlier in the day, when the Florida-based Black Educators for Justice and members of the New Black Panther Party held a separate rally about racial injustices persisting in education and economic and criminal justice systems.
Some of the speakers – mostly from outside of South Carolina – talked about “love” and “unity,” but some of their rhetoric was mistrustful and critical of whites.
The demonstration was largely peaceful, except when two white men carrying Confederate flags walked through a group of demonstrators carrying the Pan-African flag with its red, black and green stripes.
James Evans Muhammad, of the Florida-based group Black Educators for Justice, encouraged demonstrators to ignore them. He asked anyone looking for trouble to leave.
By 1:30 p.m., the crowd had swelled to about 400 people, including a large police and media presence. At least one helicopter was flying overhead.
Hostilities flare as Klan takes the steps
As shouts of “black power” echoed from the north steps of the State House, a crowd was brewing on the south side of the State House, when about 50 Klan and their allies ascended the steps of the building and into the safety of barricades with police escort.
People in the crowd jeered and yelled obscenities at the Klan members and their allies. Others simply watched. Someone threw bottles and the crowd scattered, not knowing what was in them.
Klan members and their supporters wore mostly plain clothes, or uniform shirts with patches and insignia. None were dressed in the gowns and pointed hats they wore in 1988 when about 125 Klan members last marched on the State House.
Several anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizers carrying flags bearing swastikas joined them, spurred by a group from Detroit that had encouraged members to attend.
A member of the National Socialist Movement explained that his group wants a homeland for white people. As he spoke, his fellow demonstrators stomped an Israeli flag and tore it apart.
Some of the protesters involved in the earlier, anti-flag “black power” rally on the opposite side of the capitol moved over to the Klan rally. But there was no indication that that rally’s organizers were involved in heckling the Klan and the flag supporters. They had scheduled a 5 p.m. town hall meeting at a Two Notch Road location.
Each of the main groups involved in the two protests has been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Klan rally ended an hour early, shortly after 4 p.m., as the demonstrators made their exit and headed toward a parking garage a couple blocks away. Dozens of cops, some wearing riot gear and carrying rifles ran alongside them to block a rush of counter-protesters.
Some in the crowd taunted police, who formed lines to block the entrances to the parking garage. Law enforcement vehicles formed a barricade so the white supremacist group and their allies could drive away.
As the Klan and flag demonstrators drove out of the garage, some in the crowd noted license plates from South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina.
Back at the State House, police had stopped traffic in either direction.
After several fights broke out, people chased each other across Gervais Street’s four lanes of traffic. Several cars stopped and men got out to fight in the middle of the road.
‘Not picking a team’
Throughout the day, the heavy law enforcement presence, hordes of media and camera-wielding voyeurs made it difficult to tell how many people were demonstrating in solidarity with the protest organizers.
Some people took advantage of the nation’s eyes turned on the State House to draw attention to causes of their own. One man held a large poster declaring homosexuality a sin. Another man, dressed in black and wearing a cape, held a sign that read “Comic Relief.”
Others had more private moments.
At 9:30 a.m., with the grounds nearly empty, an African-American man was on his knees where the Confederate battle flag once flew. His head was bowed and his hands were clasped in prayer.
A white woman faced the Confederate Soldier Monument, near where the Confederate flag flew until last Friday. She softly sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” to the monument.
But Chris Daugherty, a 32-year-old Army veteran who lives in Columbia, said he felt like he was one of the few people in the crowd who were not “picking a team.”
“I wish for something that we could all relate to,” said Daugherty, who is biracial and had argued with a man carrying the Confederate flag.
“Even when they’re preaching, they’re separating the crowd,” he said. “People are beautiful. I feel like they need to focus on that, besides one skin color.”
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.