More than 150 people gathered at the Statehouse to challenge Gov. Nikki Haley’s order to arrest anyone protesting at the Statehouse after 6 p.m., following last week’s arrest of 19 Occupy Columbia protesters for unauthorized use of the grounds.
With officers watching, protesters chanted that Haley’s order took away First Amendment rights of free speech. Some put tape over their mouths, with 6 p.m. written on it.
At one point, protesters warned attendees to prepare to leave if they didn’t want to get arrested, but nothing happened. After the hourlong rally ended with no interaction with police, some protesters met at the base of a monument where, five days earlier, they were taken away in plastic handcuffs during a driving rain.
Public Safety Director Leroy Smith then told reporters that protesters can stay as long as they like, as long as they don’t camp out with sleeping bags and food tables. Protests can continue indefinitely, as long as they’re peaceful, he said.
“We’re not going to allow any living gear. Our focus is the manner that they’re here. We have the utmost respect of their right to voice their concerns,” Smith said.
He said a deadline had to be established, and the sleeping and camping on Statehouse grounds were the objection. Protesters who began surrounding Smith pointed out all of that was removed before arrests began.
In response, Smith said “the totality of the situation” caused the arrests because of the earlier living quarters and protesters locking arms to prepare for their arrest.
The dusk-to-dawn ban on protesting was a misunderstanding, he said.
“Misunderstandings don’t end with plastic handcuffs,” said Tim Liszewski, who was among those arrested and had served as the group’s liaison to state officials.
While Smith would not acknowledge any shift in position, protesters said state officials are clearly backpedaling. Smith declined to say when he and the governor decided how to react to Monday’s protest.
“We’re declaring victory,” said Brett Bursey, director of the SC Progressive Network, which organized Monday’s rally. “We did the right thing to challenge a clear overreach of authority.”
Before the Statehouse rally, protesters marched to city hall, where Mayor Steve Benjamin sent a message that he stood by their right to protest. City police did not participate in the arrests.
Monday’s protest brought out people not previously associated with the Occupy Columbia movement.
Lawyer Benjamin Mabry said he didn’t even agree with the Occupy protest, but Haley’s order outraged him, and he wanted to support the First Amendment protest. He noted his late father, a World War II veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, fought for free speech.
“I think they’re not well informed, but I don’t care. I’ve got to stand up,” said Mabry, wearing a suit and tie and carrying a sign that read, “The First Amendment Rules.” He was prepared to go to jail, noting he had $100 and a toothbrush in his pocket.