South Carolina legislators on Tuesday demanded to know why state officials allowed two opposing hate groups to hold simultaneous rallies at the Statehouse two weeks ago.
A joint legislative committee which oversees the Statehouse grounds asked the state’s General Services Division director why the Ku Klux Klan and a New Black Panther-affiliated group Black Educators for Justice were both allowed to protest the Confederate battle flag on July 18. Law enforcement officials said the rallies were marred by fistfights, vandalism, and five arrests as police struggled to maintain control.
The Division of General Services oversees the maintenance of the Statehouse complex and handles any public requests to use the grounds. Agency staff said the Black Educators request went from 12-4 pm, while the original KKK rally was scheduled from 3-5 pm. Not included in those requests were hundreds of others who came to counter-protest or to watch. Police shut down the KKK rally after an hour once things spiraled out of control.
“The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan hate black people. The Black Panthers… hate white people,” State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland. “It would seem to me that somebody would have realized they weren’t coming to eat cookies or set lemonade.”
But general services director Nolan Wiggins said the agency had been worried about potential free speech violations, since there is nothing in state regulations that would prohibit either group from getting permission. “It’s very difficult to curtail people’s First Amendment rights when they’re used in a public forum such as the Statehouse,” he told the committee.
State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said his department did not want the rallies, but did not know how to stop them without causing potential lawsuits. “We didn’t know of any legal way that we could keep these folks from showing up,” he said. Department of Public Safety director Leroy Smith said both groups had “misled” his staff about what would occur at the protests.
Wiggins also told legislators that nothing in state law would have prevented either group from showing up without state preclearance. But he said his office and its parent agency the Department of Administration have changed how requests are handled. Wiggins said SLED and Statehouse security will be notified before any future requests to use the grounds are granted.
However, Keel and Smith admitted SLED and DPS had been notified before the July 18 rallies. And Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott — whose deputies also worked security that afternoon — said law enforcement was unprepared for things to get out of control. Lott called violence at the rallies the “worst situation I have ever seen.”
“My biggest question would be why would the state allow two hate groups… permission to come to the Statehouse grounds on the same day?” he rhetorically asked during Tuesday’s hearing. “We all knew what was going to happen. And it did happen.”
State Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Columbia, said the House could consider legislation that would restrict known hate groups from using the grounds. That sparked a well-known Midlands progressive activist Brett Bursey to warn lawmakers against overreach. Bursey, the South Carolina Progressive Network director, was not scheduled to speak but told the committee that he believes the current rules had worked well until this particular incident.
The rallies occurred roughly two weeks after legislators voted to remove the battle flag from its position next to the Confederate Soldiers Monument.