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SC cancels secessionist group’s State House rally

Law enforcement arrest a protestor following a rally at the State House in July that drew supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and Black Panther Party.
Law enforcement arrest a protestor following a rally at the State House in July that drew supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and Black Panther Party. jblake@thestate.com

State authorities said security concerns led them to revoke a permit this week for a group planning to hold a rally commemorating the anniversary of South Carolina seceding from the Union.

The decision comes five months after police clashed with some protesters at simultaneous rallies by the Ku Klux Klan and Black Panther Party, held a week after the Confederate battle flag was removed from the State House grounds.

“We have gained intelligence that we may see participants, including counter-demonstrators, similar to what we saw at the July 18 rally,” said Lt. Roger Hughes, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Public Safety. “Following the events of the summer, we have seen what can happen when opposing groups are allowed on State House grounds.”

The S.C. Secessionist Party planned the rally on Dec. 20 at the State House, near the Confederate Soldier Monument, said James Bessenger, the party’s founder. The Confederate battle flag was flown next to the monument before state lawmakers voted to remove it in July.

The party’s reservation of space on the State House grounds for the rally was approved by officials on Nov. 23, according to state documents. But Bessenger said he started receiving calls from State House police this week with news about potential counter-protests.

Bessenger said he was asked to cancel or move the rally during calls with state law enforcement officials on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. He declined.

“I was told, ‘That’s your call. We’re just giving you the information,’ ” said Bessenger, a 27-year-old Army veteran living in Charleston.

Bessenger said he received a letter Thursday canceling the party’s State House reservation because of unspecified security concerns raised by the Department of Public Safety.

Law enforcement cited the chaos from the Ku Klux Klan and Black Panther Party rallies in July, which drew more than 2,000 people to the State House. Authorities arrested five people.

“The State House grounds are a place where the public is encouraged to gather and even protest peacefully, as we have seen in past events,” Public Safety director Leroy Smith wrote in a letter to Department of Administration director Marcia Adams recommending that her agency cancel the reservation. “But our primary concern must always be safety and security of our citizens and visitors.”

Bessenger said his group was being held to a different standard than others.

“They make it sound like it’s our fault,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to ask us to back down. This is a question of letting a couple crazy people beat their chests and beat down the First Amendment. If this was (civil rights leaders) Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, or (Gov.) Nikki Haley holding this rally, they would arrest the people threatening them.”

Sen. John Courson, a Richland Republican who sits on a committee that oversee the State House grounds, said protests of rallies, conducted in a civil manner, are part of a public discourse that should be allowed at the State House.

“Unless there’s a specific threat of violence, it’s inappropriate to cancel a permit,” he said.

Susan Dunn, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said state officials should allow the rally and, if necessary, find a way to protect the Secessionist Party supporters.

“Whose speech are you approving?” Dunn asked, rhetorically. “You can’t pick a way to silence people. The threat of violence should not stop a rally, and police should not defer to it.”

The Secessionist Party still plans to hold its State House rally on Dec. 20, Bessenger said. Groups that reserve space have the first right to use it, the Department of Administration said.

Bessenger expects about 200 people to attend the event, which could include a reading of the state’s 1860 Ordinance of Secession. Bessenger said the party has about 500 active members.

“We want to restore a sense of pride in South Carolina,” Bessenger said of his party’s goals. “People have become so intimidated with all this political correctness.”

The Secessionist Party favors South Carolina seceding again from the United States and supports libertarian issues, including the legalization of marijuana, he said. The party plans to run candidates for the state Legislature next year.

The Secessionist Party also backs returning the Confederate flag to the Confederate monument at the State House, Bessenger said.

The flag was removed in the wake of the June slaying of nine parishioners at an African-American church in Charleston. The accused shooter is a white man from the Columbia area, who was pictured holding the Confederate flag in photos posted online.

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