COLUMBIA — With the looming threat of armed protests in capital cities nationwide, South Carolina lawmakers believe adequate safety measures are in place to protect not only themselves but also visitors to the state government’s nerve center.
Leading lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said while Statehouse demonstrations and rallies are welcomed, any that turn violent should be treated as criminal behavior in the wake of the riot at U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
This week, the FBI informed the State Law Enforcement Division of possible armed gatherings between Jan. 16 and Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated.
“While we respect everybody’s First Amendment rights to be heard and protest, the line was way crossed last week when it became violent. We’re not going to tolerate that,” Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, told reporters Tuesday. “We’re here to do the business of the people of South Carolina, we’re looking forward to it, we invite people to use the Statehouse grounds as they have in the past for peaceful protest, but I stress the word ‘peaceful.’”
Officials said Monday there have been no credible threats of violence, but the Palmetto State legislators went to work on the first day of the 2021 legislative session alongside a heightened police presence.
Several SLED and state Department of Natural Resources officers, who don't normally patrol the Statehouse on legislative days, were visible through the building Tuesday.
There were simultaneous demonstrations outside in the morning: One calling for the removal of a statue honoring former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Benjamin Tillman, an avowed white supremacist, and another urging lawmakers to reject any potential mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations. Both drew small crowds and were peaceful.
S.C. Capitol grounds have been heavily used over the past several months for assemblies from people across the political spectrum, including Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd's killing, and SC We The People, a faith-based grassroots organization that supports President Donald Trump and religious liberty.
During a town hall Tuesday night, University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen told students and parent the school is preparing for possibility of pre-inauguration protests reaching the campus a block from the Statehouse grounds.
"We are strongly encouraging all of our students not to participate in any type of activity like that," Caslen said.
State Rep. Micah Caskey, a West Columbia Republican, said Tuesday that he blamed Trump for not “lowering the temperature” when he could have, but condemned rioters who break the law.
“If people think violence is the mechanism by which they should try and redress their political grievances, whatever the goal, violence is not the answer,” Caskey said. “They worsen the cause they’re trying to advance.”
State Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican, said he was “nauseous” at images of the U.S. Capitol being overrun by a violent mob. Though he wasn’t aware of any threats against South Carolina’s Legislature, Davis said the stepped-up security made him feel safer. He also had strong words for anybody committed to harming property or other people in the name of a cause.
“That symbol, the Capitol, is emblematic of everything we stand for as a country, and it’s a sacred place. To see that mob desecrate that made me physically ill,” he said. “It wasn’t people exercising their First Amendment right. It wasn’t a gathering of patriots. All Americans ought to be angry to see that happen.”
There was a moment of drama on the S.C. Senate floor Tuesday that had one lawmaker worried that talk of unity isn’t being followed through by action.
State Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Hopkins Democrat, said he was frustrated that a resolution he attempted to introduce on the floor Monday congratulating Biden and his running mate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, was blocked by Spartanburg Republican Shane Martin.
Such a move, Jackson said, only contributes to the discord that’s been brewing in the months since Trump was defeated.
“I don’t think it’s helpful, because what it says to the average citizen is even in the highest divisions of the state, the Senate, they are still holding grudges, and it sends the wrong message,” Jackson said.
Martin did not respond to a request for comment.
Andy Shain contributed to this report