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Columbia police stack charges, steer narrative against George Floyd protesters

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Columbia protests - Leon Lott

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott walks past officers arresting Jennifer Doyle during May 30 protests in Columbia in the wake of George Floyd's death. Doyle learned later she was charged with felony that accuses her of looting and damaging property, an accusation she denies. City attorneys are looking at reducing the charge five months later. Thomas Hammond/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — Police in Columbia have repeatedly condemned protesters arrested during the first demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, characterizing them as a violent bunch stoked by outside agitators and bent on destruction.

But a closer examination by The Post and Courier reveals a number of the claims don’t stick.

Among the roughly 100 people arrested from the protests on May 30 and 31, Columbia law enforcement have documented violent actions in just a fraction of the cases. Most charged are locals and face nothing more than a misdemeanor.

And while police have arrested some of those responsible for assaults and looting, more striking is the attention they've paid to protesters who took part in far less serious acts.

Half a dozen people accused of lobbing water bottles or spray painting vehicles now face felony charges that carry serious prison time. The newspaper identified 10 other protesters charged with felonies even though their arrest records refer only to a violation of curfew.

Asked about those charges, a Columbia police spokeswoman said her department is working with city attorneys to correct mistakes in five of the cases — all filed more than five months ago.

As of last week, Columbia law enforcement has brought no fewer than 245 criminal charges, including nearly 100 felony charges, against protesters during those two days, The Post and Courier found.

That’s a stack of cases roughly twice as large as what law enforcement levied in Charleston, where there was far more property damage, with more than 150 businesses looted and 20 police vehicles burned or damaged.

Lawrence Nathaniel, the 27-year-old founder of Black Lives Matter South Carolina, said his group is calling on Columbia law enforcement to drop charges against protesters accused solely of minor violations, like breaking curfew.

"I think our cops handled this incident and blew it up in a way that never should have happened," Nathaniel said.

Caught in the middle are people like DeMarcus Bolton, a 30-year-old Columbia contractor who maintains he did nothing illegal on May 30. That scorching Saturday, Bolton said he spent much of the afternoon hauling cases of water downtown and handing them out to people.

A video of his arrest shows he did little other than stand alongside a line of protesters and ask an officer to remove his sunglasses.

Yet police handcuffed Bolton and charged him with a felony that implicates him for looting or disturbing property, even though arrest records state that he broke curfew.

That pending charge has sidelined him from a job he had supervising a local construction project. Instead, every weekday since May, he has traveled from Columbia to the Charlotte area for work. He returns from his hours-long commute late, sometimes after his two young daughters are asleep.

“I can’t do anything for myself, for my family,” Bolton said. “As a father, it does get to me.”

Columbia Protests - Burning car

Demonstrators watch a Columbia police car burn across the street outside the Columbia Police Department headquarters during a May 30 protest in the wake of George Floyd's death. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Like Bolton, few of the accused have had an opportunity to contest their charges, largely because of pandemic-shuttered courtrooms.

That’s opened the door for police to lob sweeping allegations against protesters without having to back most of the claims up before a judge.

In repeated appearances in front of TV cameras throughout the summer, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has said the protests were infiltrated by violent gangs, outside agitators and others who planned to burn down Columbia police headquarters.

Later, as The Post and Courier called some of the claims into question, Lott and Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook have declined to address several key issues, saying it would come out in court.

And unlike other cities, Columbia police have promised but not yet published an internal report reviewing the department’s actions. 

Columbia vs. Charleston protests

The Post and Courier reviewed more than 400 pages of police reports, emails and court documents. The newspaper also interviewed protesters, lawyers, former prosecutors and legal scholars.

To be sure, officers did face risks to their safety when protesters hurled heavy objects. More than a dozen officers were injured, including one who was struck in the leg by a chunk of cement, chipping his tibia, according to police.

And police do appear to have evidence of dangerous or destructive behavior that backs their position that the unrest led to some serious incidents of looting, torched property and assaults.

But there are others, including those with no prior run-ins with the law in South Carolina, who say they were caught up in the chaos and falsely accused of serious crimes.

The arrests now lie in the hands of the Columbia prosecutor’s office.

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson declined to discuss any case specifically, stressing that they are still pending.

In brief interviews, Lott and Holbrook defended their police work.

“I think our job is to apply the law evenly and allow the judge or jury to decide,” Holbrook said.

‘The emotional tenor’

Police said they expected that Saturday, May 30, to be like any other demonstration in Columbia, the seat of government that draws people from across the Palmetto State.

But Floyd’s death touched off a national reckoning around police brutality, and South Carolina was no exception.

After a couple contentious hours, police realized the day would be different.

“We may have underestimated the emotional tenor of this,” Holbrook told The Post and Courier.

Following peaceful demonstrations at the Statehouse, some protesters marched on to confront Columbia police outside the agency’s headquarters on Washington Street. Over the course of two hours, the crowd dismantled police barriers and tagged a parking garage with graffiti. Someone lowered the U.S. flag outside the station and set it ablaze.

A little before 4 p.m., several in the crowd chased and beat up a man wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, prompting officers to intervene.

Police escalated their response. They called in a busload of officers and sought assistance from neighboring police departments, state law enforcement and highway patrol. Just as they arrived, a crowd broke the windows, dented the sides and jumped on the roof of an unmarked police SUV.

Just after 4 p.m., one person pulled out a gun and fired shots in the air. About an hour later, some in the crowd knocked a man unconscious and stomped on him. Others set fire to three police cars parked on the street and another vehicle in a nearby parking garage.

A little past the hour, city officials issued an emergency curfew, retroactively effective at 6 p.m. Standing with police in the evening sun, Mayor Steve Benjamin pleaded with people to go home.

When crowds didn’t move, officers began rounding up protesters and placing them in police wagons. That’s when law enforcement alleges some in the crowd vandalized businesses, shattered windows and stole liquor from a restaurant as they fled the advancing caravan of police.

Law enforcement worked over the next few months to round up those responsible for the most destructive acts. They’ve charged three people in connection with assaults on bystanders, and another two dozen with burglary, looting or property damage.

One Columbia man also faces federal charges, accused of smashing windows on a police vehicle and ripping the door off and burning another.

But that represents about a quarter of those arrested, The Post and Courier’s examination found. By comparison, more arrested protesters are accused of minor violations, like breaking curfew, arrest records show. 

'They didn't know'

Nadia Richardson, a 33-year-old marketing specialist from Virginia, maintains she broke no law on May 30 other than staying out past a curfew she says she didn’t know had been enacted.

She was visiting her friend Jennifer Doyle, a 32-year-old educator in Columbia.

Around dusk, police had begun rounding up protesters who were out late. One cavalry of officers was stationed on a blocked-off street, outside a downtown hotel. Richardson, Doyle and five other protesters lined up in the street across from the officers, standing arm in arm.

Just as the officers began marching toward the group, cell phone video captures what happened next. 

“All of us are just standing here, peacefully,” Doyle said while recording the incident. The officers, carrying riot shields, grabbed Doyle and forced her to the ground. She and the others were placed in handcuffs.

Columbia Protests - Women in line

Nadia Richardson (third from right) and Jennifer Doyle (fourth from right) were among demonstrators arrested after walking toward officers in downtown Columbia during May 30 protests in the wake of George Floyd's death. The women thought they were charged for staying out past curfew, but they learned later they were charged with a felony tied to looting and damaging property. Now city attorneys are looking into reducing the charges. Thomas Hammond/Special to The Post and Courier 

At Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, two of the people arrested said in separate interviews that an intake officer expressed confusion over their charges.

“We asked what we were being charged with,” Doyle said about the arrests, which were first reported by WIS News. “They didn’t know.”

Also among those in lockup that night, contractor DeMarcus Bolton.

The next morning, they all learned they had been charged with a felony relating to a statewide emergency order. The charge implicates them in looting, damaging or disturbing property, accusations each of them deny.

Like Bolton, each of their arrest reports and warrants clearly state they were taken in for curfew violations. And the felonies were filed in Columbia Municipal Court, even though that court only has jurisdiction over misdemeanors.

Asked about these cases by The Post and Courier, a Columbia police spokeswoman said there was a mistake. Richardson, Doyle and three other women were incorrectly charged under a felony section of the statute rather than the misdemeanor section, spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said on Nov. 6.

Police have huddled with the city’s lawyers to address the issue, Timmons said, and court records show hearings scheduled for Richardson and Doyle on Dec. 14.

Todd Rutherford, a defense lawyer who is representing Bolton, said he has approached the prosecutor’s office to also seek a correction in Bolton’s case. Rutherford, who is the Democratic leader in the S.C. House of Representatives, said there’s no excuse for what he considers false charges sitting on someone’s record.

“That’s not how our system works,” he said. “We don’t presume people guilty and then wait on someone to fix clerical errors to get the charges right.”

'Position of strength'

Law enforcement experts said it’s not surprising that Columbia police would be aggressive in the charges they’ve brought against protesters.

That’s not unlike the approach for any criminal case in which the threat of heftier charges is used as a negotiating tool in plea deals, said Johnny Gasser, a former state and federal South Carolina prosecutor.

"What’s underlying all of these is the common practice to charge with as much as they can so they're negotiating from a position of strength,” he said.

For instance, half a dozen people accused of acts like hurling water bottles at police or spray painting vehicles now face felonies that, upon conviction, carry as much as five years behind bars.

The Post and Courier shared those and other findings with Colin Miller, a professor with the University of South Carolina School of of Law.

“It would really be a stretch defining water bottles as dangerous weapons,” Miller said. “It’s beyond the typical gun or knife.”

The aggressive approach was borne out in an August news conference, months after the protests, when Lott declared his department was continuing to round up offenders.

“We're still going to get them,” he told reporters. “We're still going to knock on that door at four o' clock in the morning and put handcuffs on them.”

Columbia protests - Faceoff

Demonstrators found a line of police officers awaiting when they reached Columbia Police headquarters after walking from the S.C. Statehouse during a May 30 protest in the wake of George Floyd's death. Thomas Hammond/Special to The Post and Courier

Lott's department had been targeting one protester, 54-year-old David Lovett, since June.

That was when Lott disseminated video from May 31 that showed Lovett hurling a tear gas canister toward a line of officers stationed behind police headquarters.

The canister initially landed by Lovett’s feet while his back was turned. Lovett, who has no prior criminal history in South Carolina, scooped the canister from the ground, twirled and side-armed the object back.

Though it is not clear from the video, Lott said the canister struck two unidentified officers. Many of the officers were in riot gear, equipped with helmets and face shields.

The video Lott shared did not show what happened next.

Lovett, standing about 10 yards away, again turned his back on the officers. That’s when they opened fire on him with non-lethal rounds, striking him in the back, the video shows.

One of the projectiles gashed the index finger of his right hand, a wound that required stitches to hold the finger together, photos show. Lovett declined an interview through his attorney.

Lovett faces a breach of peace charge and an obscure rioting violation that, according to the state’s criminal codes, is “no longer used.” Lott and Gipson, asked about that charge, declined to elaborate. 

Pinning blame

Lott has said that the protests were upended by agitators who sought to capitalize on the unrest to cause destruction or stoke violence.

He said the national far-right group Boogaloo Bois was partly responsible. To back that claim, he has pointed to photos showing several men dressed in Hawaiian shirts, a trademark of the extremist group that holds a variety of anti-government views.

Thus far, authorities have directly tied two of the roughly 100 arrested to the group. Both were from the Columbia area. Attorneys for both men declined to comment.

As another example of what Lott described as the protests’ “criminals,” Lott pointed to the arrest of one protester who law enforcement have tied to a 2016 slaying in Goose Creek.

“These are the type of individuals that were out here, that were rioting and causing problems,” Lott said at an August news conference.

Columbia protests - Holbrook and Lott

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, left, and Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook speak about arrests and suspect searches in connection with May 30 and 31 protests in Columbia during a news conference in August. Adam Benson/Staff 

While Ali Smalls, 29, was arrested and accused of murder and armed robbery, his lawyer, Chad Shelton, stressed that Smalls has not been indicted on those charges. Smalls denies any involvement in the slaying, Shelton said.

After Smalls joined the protests in Columbia on May 30, police accused him of lobbing a water bottle toward officers outside the police station. He’s charged with a felony.

Lott has not elaborated on his claims that gangs called for members to come to Columbia to participate in the protests. He did mention an arrest of a 16-year-old from Orangeburg, but did not detail any affiliations.

The Post and Courier sent Lott’s office a detailed list of questions about his department’s actions and his claims of outside meddling. Lott declined to address any of the questions specifically. A spokeswoman said, “Sheriff Lott stands by all statements he has previously made."

Scholars who study civil demonstrations say pinning blame on “agitators” has almost become a standard in the police playbook.

Wadie Said, a USC law professor, described the allegations of outside meddling as a “timeworn tactic." 

Thomas C. Holt, a professor of African-American history at the University of Chicago, told the New York Times in June that the rhetoric is a common trope that was also used by local officials in an attempt to delegitimize Civil Rights protests of the 1960s.

“Part of the motivations for the charge was to sustain the myth that the locals were satisfied with things as they were,” he told the Times.

More recently in Minneapolis, the mayor said four days after Floyd's killing that every protester arrested during that city's demonstrations were from out of state.

After arrest records showed that wasn't true, he walked back those comments the following day.

Public perception

Police have said they used force in some instances because of the safety risks that officers faced when protesters lobbed objects at them.

But even some of those claims have failed to stick.

In June, Columbia-area law enforcement leaders accused protesters of filling water bottles with substances that resulted in “burns, blisters and irritation” for officers who handled the objects.

“Suspicious Bottles Found,” Columbia police and the sheriff’s department wrote in a news release that was disseminated by local media.

Holbrook suggested the bottles were “evidence of not a spontaneous or peaceful protest but an orchestrated and planned attack against law enforcement.”

Then, in a move first reported by The State newspaper, the FBI tested the bottles. They contained water and liquid antacid, a mixture that protesters said was intended to help deal with the effects of tear gas.

Holbrook has promised to have a full accounting of his department's actions. His internal affairs division is preparing a report, but has not yet published it. Charleston police already conducted its own internal review, and a draft of the findings was made public.

Holbrook's department also denied a request from The Post and Courier for access to the police department's radio dispatch. The audio, a public record, likely would shed light on the police's decision making during the weekend's most critical moments. 

Columbia protests - Police

Columbia police officers guard a law enforcement vehicle after it was damaged outside the Columbia Police Department headquarters during May 30 protests in the wake of George Floyd's death. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

That includes Officer Sean Rollins' use of force against 23-year-old protester Paul Drinkwine.

Rollins fired four bean-bag rounds toward a crowd of protesters on May 31, striking Drinkwine in the leg. Police said Rollins responded after Drinkwine “repeatedly displayed sharp-edged weapons while aggressively approaching officers.”

Drinkwine’s arrest report, obtained by The Post and Courier, states he had a hunting knife holstered to his waist. In the moments before Rollins opened fire, video shows Drinkwine standing at the front of the crowd outside the Statehouse. At one point, he got on his knees and put his hands up.

He was yards away from Rollins, who was standing with more than a dozen officers on Gervais Street. Columbia police's use-of-force policy mandates that officers may only fire less-than-lethal rounds during a demonstration upon the direction of a supervisor. 

It's unclear if Rollins was given that direction, either verbally or over police radio. In denying The Post and Courier's request for dispatch audio, Columbia officials said the release of most of the information would interfere with an unspecified “law enforcement proceeding.”

Seth Stoughton, a USC law professor and policing expert, stressed that — in the wake of a large scale law enforcement response — commissioning internal reviews and releasing public records are critical to maintaining the public trust.

“Public perceptions are really important in policing,” Stoughton said. “If you just assert you did everything right and there’s nothing to learn, you’ve let your community down.” 

Timmons, the police spokeswoman, said the department reviewed Rollins' actions and concluded he “used the least amount of force necessary to take an unruly suspect into custody."

Drinkwine, who declined an interview, now faces a misdemeanor weapons charge. A hearing is scheduled for February, nine months after he was arrested.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

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