COLUMBIA — Officers started arresting Occupy Columbia protesters Wednesday after Gov. Nikki Haley ordered them to leave the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, saying the people who had been sleeping on the complex for more than a month had cost the state more than $17,000 in property damage and overtime for police officers.
About 20 people decided to challenge the governor’s order. They sat by the Confederate flag on Statehouse grounds, put their hands up and chanted. They were arrested shortly before 6:30 p.m. in the pouring rain without incident.
Haley said she is tired of seeing mattresses, sleeping bags, storage bins and toilet paper on the grounds that house her offices, the state’s legislative chambers, office buildings and Court of Appeals.
Haley also noted that protesters are welcome to rally during the day, but she is asking the Bureau of Protective Services to make sure they leave after sunset.
“It is not a place to live,” Haley said of the Statehouse, where several dozen protesters have been camped out since mid-October. “Don’t come back with mattresses.”
The people who resisted the order would be charged with trespassing or disorderly conduct, said Leroy Smith, who took over Tuesday as director of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, whose Bureau of Protective Services is charged with Statehouse security.
“We’re asking them to peacefully leave the grounds by 6 p.m.,” Smith said.
During the 33-day protest, Haley says the state has paid $17,360 to pay officers’ overtime, and to purchase a light intended to deter people from using the bushes as bathrooms.
“I can’t allow one group to not follow the rules,” said Haley, adding that the protesters had never sought permission from a state board that manages the Statehouse grounds. “At night, we can’t protect you. At night, we can’t ask the taxpayers to protect you.”
Earlier Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, called on Haley, who chairs that board, to clean up the protest camp because it represents a public health threat.
“If you drive past the State House you will see tables, sleeping bags, coolers, folding chairs and even a port-o-john,” Peeler wrote in a letter to Haley, citing a section of South Carolina law that sets out responsibilities for the Budget and Control Board, the body that is tasked with authorizing use of the Statehouse buildings and grounds for public use. “I do not know how these items do not invade the public health, safety and welfare of our citizens and visitors to our State House.”
During her news conference, Haley said she was relying instead on policies that set forth proper use of the Statehouse, including that permission be sought for any events happening after 6 p.m.
Several dozen Occupy Columbia participants attended Haley’s news conference, and some said they would plan to stay on the Statehouse grounds Wednesday night. Others gathered tables, signs and materials to load into a moving truck.
Tim Liszewski, the group’s liaison with state officials, said there is no threat to public health, and no one in Occupy Columbia has caused any trouble over the past 33 days.
He noted the group has rotated its setup every four days, to prevent damage to the grass, and was paying for the portable toilet on a corner of the grounds. He added that two people from the group patrol the grounds hourly overnight.
Liszewski also said that the group had been in touch with attorneys who would stand by to file court papers if any arrests take place.