Tourism in Charleston

Palmetto roses stirring controversy in the City Market once again. Grace Beahm/Staff

As scams go, it’s a pretty good one.

A teenager walks up to someone on the sidewalk and hands them a rose crafted out of a palmetto frond. If the person accepts it, the kid demands money.

And if the mark attempts to hand it back or refuses to pay, they get cussed out. Basically, it’s shaming for dollars.

As Gregory Yee reported last week, the City Market has been overrun recently by teenagers hawking palmetto roses ... as well as intimidating and screaming at vendors, harassing tourists and stealing supplies from rose sellers who are part of a city-sponsored program.

That may sound small-time, but it’s not. In a few instances, there have been assaults, even a robbery or two. Guns have factored into a couple of altercations.

Charleston police take this seriously, but they face some serious challenges in this latest palmetto rose squabble. See, there’s a long history here.

For years, it has been illegal to sell palmetto roses — a long-time Charleston tradition — in the street. Children ages 9-16 are invited to sell their crafts downtown, so long as they do it from city-sponsored booths and are enrolled in the free Palmetto Artisan Program.

Some people don’t like the idea of government regulating African-American children just trying to make a buck, even if the program gives them a place to sell and keeps them out of traffic. This involves race and history, so it’s complicated.

This controversy flares up periodically, and briefly became a thing last July. An officer spotted two teens selling palmetto roses in the street. When he tried to detain them, one fought the officer. Of course, someone shot a video of it and folks on social media were outraged.

On social media, someone is always outraged — whether or not they know what they’re spouting off about.

Amateur videos of police encounters with black citizens around the country have uncovered many instances of unjust arrests and even deaths, including the Walter Scott shooting in North Charleston.

Sometimes, however, even a justified arrest can look bad. As much as people harped on the palmetto rose seller incident last year, that officer did nothing wrong. He wasn’t even planning to arrest the teen.

But it’s made the recent situation in the Market a touchy subject. No officer wants to end up on CNN — or worse — because a tourist shoots an out-of-context video of police arresting a black teenager on the street.

The trouble is some of these youths are committing crimes, harassing people and unfairly giving legitimate rose sellers a bad name. So what can the police do?

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, says use common sense. The safety of citizens, tourists and children should be the priority for police, she says.

“We have to move beyond ‘let’s see how this looks.’ Do the right thing and the people will stand with you,” Scott says. “The NAACP is going to stand for what’s right.”

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In other words, if someone is committing a crime — whoever it is — arrest them. Just be fair about it.

Scott is right, of course, and she’s injected much common sense into this debate. But credit the Charleston Police Department as well. It has done everything correctly here. It’s touched base with all involved parties, increased police presence in the Market as a deterrent and told officers to focus on public safety.

“Our city will not tolerate criminals victimizing innocent citizens, tourists and business owners,” Police Chief Luther Reynolds says. “I’m hearing that loud and clear. But this is a significant problem and it isn’t going to solve itself. Us arresting them is not a long-term solution.”

That’s the way to handle this, rationally and sternly without getting heavy-handed.

Unfortunately, to some folks it looks like the city is punishing legitimate palmetto rose sellers as a result of all this. Scott says limiting Palmetto Artisan Program children into one spot in Waterfront Park isn’t fair. If the city really wants to help, she says, they should expand the program.

Charleston officials are doing just that. The city has reserved space for the palmetto rose sellers in the Market beginning this school year and is in talks to secure them space at the new Visitors Center. That’s the right move, and should do much to help the situation.

There should be room for everyone in the City Market — and no room for crime.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.