South Carolina lawmakers wanted answers Tuesday about why the state Department of Administration gave permits to the Ku Klux Klan and Black Educators for Justice, a group affiliated with the New Black Panther Party, to rally at the Statehouse on the same day. There were fights and five arrests at the rallies on July 18th.
“It would seem to me that somebody at the Department of Administration should have realized that they weren’t coming to eat cookies and sip lemonade. I just don’t understand the logic of y’all allowing this to happen,” Sen. John Courson said to Nolan Wiggins, with the Department of Administration.
Wiggins says there’s a simple reason the groups were allowed to hold rallies at the Statehouse: the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. “They do have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and there’s a mountain of case law out there that would support them on that, and in the interest of not having the state embroiled in any type of litigation, we approved both,” he told the State House Committee, senators and House members who oversee the South Carolina Statehouse.
He said permits aren’t required, and if they had been denied the groups would have been able to show up and hold their rallies anyway.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told the committee, “I’ve been a cop now for 40 years and that’s the worst situation I’ve ever seen in my life. We were very fortunate that we did not have more people injured and more property destroyed than what we had.”
“We had known gang members from not only throughout South Carolina but out of state that came here for one purpose, and that purpose was to fight. And they did,” he said.
He said his department didn’t have enough manpower to make all the arrests they needed to on the day of the rally, but now they’re reviewing video and making arrests of people who assaulted others or damaged property.
State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who has a law degree, also said it was the worst situation he had seen, but there was nothing the state could have done. “We didn’t know of any legal way that we could keep these folks from showing up,” he said. “There were numerous other groups that showed up during that period of time that obviously had not gone through any process that showed up. Many of those folks were from out of state. I have no idea but that they were here for one reason, and that was to try and agitate and cause problems.”
Leroy Smith, director of the Department of Public Safety, which has jurisdiction over Statehouse grounds, says DPS contacted both the KKK and Black Educators for Justice before the rally in order to lay down rules. He says he was misled by the person he contacted with the KKK. “They advised us that this would be a non-violent event, the participants would not use profane language and they would not use the N word,” he told the committee. He said he also felt misled by the Black Educators for Justice because they said their rally would be a “low-key” event.
Wiggins says the Department of Administration will be writing new regulations for the use of Statehouse grounds, within the bounds of the First Amendment.