COLUMBIA - Eleven protesters were arrested Tuesday for blocking a garage entrance to the Statehouse as they called on lawmakers to accept the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
The well-orchestrated protest was part of the Truthful Tuesday demonstrations that the South Carolina Progressive Network and other organizations have staged since lawmakers returned to Columbia in January.
About two dozen protesters met at the garage entrance south of the Statehouse, where they waved banners and signs at drivers making their way into the complex. Eleven protesters then took a few steps forward and blocked vehicles from making their way through.
Columbia police officers asked several times for the protesters to clear the road, but they refused to yield. After each arrest, an officer offered protesters the opportunity to clear the way without being arrested, but no one budged. The arrests were made without incident.
The coalition has been calling for lawmakers to reconsider their stance on the rejection of the Medicaid expansion. Brett Bursey, director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, said the act of disobedience was necessary to provoke people into asking why the group is taking such drastic measures to garner attention.
"We're trying to educate enough people in the state as to just the insensitive cruelty of these politicians turning down our own tax money, $1.4 billion this year," Bursey said after the protest. "They are killing our neighbors and somebody has to stand up."
Kitt Grach was among those arrested. The Charleston retiree said she was participating in the protest because "it needs to be done." She added she has seen the freedoms of her teenaged grandchildren erode, and there's no necessity for that.
"I don't want them to wake up one day and say 'What did my grandma do about this?'" she said. "That's why I am doing this."
Jerry Moore, of Lexington, said his ex-wife lost her healthcare when the two divorced; she wouldn't have been able to afford health insurance if it weren't for the Affordable Health Care Act, Moore said.
"If the state does not expand this, there is a large group of people who will actually not have insurance and will not be able to get it at all," Moore said. "We need to care about our fellow citizens and people, and not just be so hardened because we're trying to get a vote."
Moore was also among those arrested. He said the effort sends a statement that there are citizens and voters in South Carolina who care about the rest of the population.
Those arrested were taken to the police department, where they were given a notice to appear in court on March 28, Bursey said. They were taken into custody under the state statute that says it is unlawful for a pedestrian to walk along the roadway when a sidewalk is provided, said a spokeswoman for the department.
By stepping into the road, the protesters stepped off Statehouse property. A state law passed in the 1960s allows judges to sentence anyone convicted of demonstrating inside the capitol to up to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
That law had hampered the South Carolina protests, which were modeled after Moral Monday demonstrations last year in North Carolina where nearly 1,000 people were arrested protesting the state's sharp conservative turn.
There are discussions among the South Carolina protesters about whether to have anyone arrested under the tougher Statehouse protest law so the group can fight it in court. But Bursey said they would have to find someone willing to spend money on lawyers and risk the hefty punishment.
Meanwhile, the Senate briefly discussed the amendments made by Sen. Tom Davis to a bill that initially sought to nullify the Affordable Care Act in South Carolina.
Under Davis' amendments, people could still sign up for health care under the ACA's federal exchange, and South Carolinians who have already signed up would not lose their new plan.
Among the amendments proposed by Davis, the bill would prohibit state agencies from using state dollars or employees to help implement the Affordable Care Act. It would also reject an expansion of the Medicaid program.
Before the session, Davis said South Carolina would not be able to afford the Medicaid expansion if the federal government said they could no longer afford to pay their share.
"I don't think the federal government is going to be able to keep its promises in the long term," Davis said. "I think eventually the house of cards in Washington, D.C. will crumble."
The Associated Press and The Post and Courier's Jeremy Borden contributed to this report.