At least 309 people were arrested across the United States over the weekend during protests following the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Not a single one of those arrests came in Columbia, where law enforcement officers and protesters worked together to keep the peace.
Hundreds gathered at the State House Sunday evening for a demonstration called Black/All Lives Matter, organized primarily through social media. The event began with leaders of the rally addressing the group.
“We’ve got to stand up for what we believe in,” said Lamar Kelly. “We’ve got to stop fighting each other. We’ve got to stop thinking ‘The white people are the enemy, the black people are the enemy, the Mexican people are the enemy.'” We’ve got to stand up for ourselves and stop hurting each other.”
Patrick Tate, the primary organizer of the demonstration, called for all to remain peaceful during the event. “No matter how loud and how stern we do our chants, no matter what we say, we keep our peace,” he said. “We don’t want revenge. If that was the case, all of our different races, we wouldn’t be standing beside them in love right now.” The crowd, while predominantly black, included significant numbers of white people and those of other races.
Tate also addressed issues he said he had seen frequently on social media: the reason for a demonstration and the reason for the focus on black lives.
“People say ‘Why march?’… “Social media’s not helping nothing. The only way to have something fixed is to get out and have your voice heard,” he said. “We all have policemen that we love. We all have white people that we love. I’m pretty sure all the white people have black people that they love, or they wouldn’t be here right now. All these different races show all lives matter, but the issue right now is black lives matter.”
The crowd, after joining hands for a moment of silence and a last instruction from Tate to “Be in unity, be in peace, and let your voice be heard,” then began marching north on Main Street around 8 p.m. The following video of the event contains adult language.
The march route was largely unplanned, with organizers telling Columbia police officers as the rally began that there was only a notion of marching down Main Street, with no end point in mind. The march turned into something longer than most present had anticipated, and the police adjusted accordingly to direct traffic and keep the peace.
The marchers first went up Main Street, west on Taylor Street, then south on Assembly Street, gathering in the intersection at Assembly and Gervais. People emerged from restaurants and businesses along the way to watch as the marchers chanted “No justice, no peace” and “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.”
Police stopped traffic along the way and allowed the demonstration in the intersection. Officers were constantly present, but did not interfere, and the marchers remained peaceful. Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook and Deputy Chief Melron Kelly were both present, and and their officers were joined by capitol police, Richland County sheriff’s deputies, SLED agents and highway patrol troopers.
The organizers spoke again at the intersection as the protesters formed a circle around them, and the rhetoric grew more fiery. “You can protect yourself,” Tate said. “Don’t think just because they’re police officers and they say ‘Get down on the ground’ and put their foot on your neck that they can do it….”If you know you ain’t do nothing wrong, protect yourself.”
Kelly echoed Tate’s sentiments, adding “If they’re doing something wrong to you, I’m all for you… We can go ride on them. I don’t give a f—. Stop being scared of the police, man. They human, just like us.”
The march continued after the rally at the intersection, winding through downtown, passing near the governor’s mansion, and eventually moving north on Huger Street and onto Interstate 126. Police closed streets as the march proceeded, including shutting down 126 in both directions for approximately 45 minutes.
The marchers returned through downtown to the State House shortly before 11 p.m. They gathered in the middle of Gervais Street at the Main Street intersection, and the police closed the streets to traffic.
Police officers formed a line across Gervais Street, as the protesters faced them, and things grew tense. Tate stepped to the front of the crowd and addressed the officers directly, questioning them about their opinions on the deaths of Castile and Sterling. A woman who did not wish to give her name joined him to berate black officers who were present. The officers stood in silence, even as chants of “F— the police” were heard. Some protesters called for the chants to stop, asking for everyone to stay positive.
Tate spoke of perceived racial disparities, pointing to this reporter and suggesting this reporter would receive better treatment from police because of being white. “Why is it that if I get shot down, I got the same paperwork he got, s— different with me? Why?” Still receiving no answer, Tate said “Y’all ain’t going to say it out loud, so blink once if you agree, blink twice if you don’t.” That drew laughter from the protesters, and continued silence from the police, who stood with hands folded. Not one ever reached for a weapon or threatened a protester.
Tate then told the crowd that their work was done and asked them to disperse, then conferred with Deputy Chief Kelly calmly and encouraged the protesters to leave the intersection. The crowd, down to approximately 100 people after the march of nearly three hours, moved to the State House steps, where capitol police stood between them and the doors of the building, but allowed them to continue chanting.
Rep. Todd Rutherford, the South Carolina House of Representatives minority leader, was among those on the steps. “The killing of African-Americans by the police must stop,” he said. “There’s no one out here that intends any violence towards any police officers… What we expect that the police will do their jobs and police their own, that they will get rid of their own bad apples so that their bad apples don’t spoil the whole bunch.”
“The people are demanding change,” Rutherford continued. “I’m not here as a leader, I’m here following this movement because black lives do matter. As the President said, it’s not that blue lives don’t, but black lives do matter just as much as blue lives, and we need to make sure we’re protecting everyone regardless of the color of their skin.”
The crowd dwindled slowly on the steps, and the event came to resemble a sit-in, with a few dozen remaining, sitting in small groups on the steps and talking, with an occasional chant breaking out. A few protesters brought bottles of water and offered them to the remainder of the group, as well as to journalists present.
By 1 a.m., only a few protesters remained, and police reopened Gervais Street at approximately 1:30. No arrests were made, and as of 2 a.m., law enforcement had not received any reports of property damage.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin released a statement regarding the protest, and Gov. Nikki Haley released a statement regarding the Columbia protest and others elsewhere in the state.
“Last year, South Carolina showed the power of listening, respect, and kindness,” Haley said in her statement. “Whether passing the nation’s first body camera law, removing a divisive symbol of the past from the Statehouse, or helping neighbors through the floods, our people rose to the occasion. While i appreciate the peaceful intent of this weekend’s rallies, I’d ask that we not put our fellow citizens at risk – which is exactly what attempting to block highways does. Instead, let us remember the feelings of respect, cooperation, and brotherhood that brought our state through the last year, and made South Carolina an example, for all the world, of how to move forward in the wake of tragedy.”
“Our country is facing unfathomable times and grief, but here in Columbia, we’ve embraced the power of encouraging prayer, thoughtful, nonviolent protests and open communication,” Benjamin said in his statement. “In implementing meaningful systemic reforms and treating our officers like the professionals they are, we’ve laid a foundation for continued growth and understanding.”
“Not only have our city’s law enforcement agencies upheld their duties in protecting the people of the city, but they’ve also held steadfast in their missions to upholding a relationship with those they protect,” Benjamin continued. “Their promise to the city and all those in it keeps us more than merely protected; it keeps us free.”
Featured image: protesters confront police on Gervais Street in front of the State House (photo by Allen Wallace). More photos from the march are available at the Midlands Anchor Facebook page. The following video contains additional speeches from the rally, and also contains adult language.