Todd Rutherford is familiar with protests.
Whether it’s stretching back to his time at Howard University or during his 22 years in the state House of Representatives — where the Columbia Democrat has long served as the House Minority Leader — Rutherford has, on many occasions, seen people take to the streets to push for social and political change.
The north lawn of the South Carolina Statehouse along Gervais Street in Columbia has long been a rallying point for groups and individuals looking to have their voices heard, and Rutherford has seen large crowds gather to protest for everything from taking down the Confederate Flag — first from the Statehouse dome in 2000, to finally being removed completely from the grounds in 2015 — to widespread public education reform.
But the African American representative says he’s never seen anything quite like this summer, when citizens and activists from an array of groups and organizations have continued to protest and push, for months, for police reform and racial justice.
It’s a movement that caught fire in May, following an incident in Minnesota where George Floyd, who is Black, died after a White police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly eight minutes. The movement has continued to smolder with undulating intensity across the summer, and has sparked yet again after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot in the back seven times by a White police officer in Wisconsin in an incident captured on video.
“I’ve been doing this [for years], and I have never seen anything continue the way this has,” Rutherford, a criminal defense attorney, says of the continuing spirit of protest and activism this year. “And it has continued, mind you, under COVID-19.
“Even when people aren’t really supposed to be out, they still come. And they come back. And they come back again. And they stay for hours in the stifling heat. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Indeed, if there has been a slogan for summer 2020 in Columbia, it has been the siren chant of “No justice, no peace!” at rallies, marches, protests and gatherings large and small. That chant and others — such as the demonstrative, call-and-response assurance that Black lives matter — have thundered and echoed across the Capital City, capturing the attention of the public, the media and those in positions of power.
It’s been a movement that has melded the voices of older organizations that have been in the civil rights fight for decades with newly formed groups who are bringing fresh energy to the struggle, forming a sort of old/new school collaboration as various groups push, in their own ways, toward common goals of racial and social justice.
More than simply taking to the streets, activists and leaders across different professions are now demanding tangible action from government — greater police accountability, the demilitarization of law enforcement, registering people to vote in a highly contentious presidential election year, or removing monuments and building names with racist underpinnings.
Even Dawn Staley, the University of South Carolina’s championship-winning women’s basketball coach, has been highly visible in the effort to make real change for racial equality.
When asked on Aug. 28 if she could envision her own USC hoops players wanting to sit out a game in protest of systemic racism, Staley said it’s possible.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” she said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they decided that this is something in which they want to flex. And if we get to that point, we get to that point and we’ll have to have discussions. But, hopefully we’ll have some discussions prior to it getting to that point. And if it ever got to that point, what can I do? I’m not going to stand in their way.”
Indeed, as summer begins its turn into fall, many are making active pushes to use this season of protest as fuel for real change.
‘We’ve Got to Keep the Hope’
It’s a scorching Friday morning in famously hot Columbia, but the heat does little to slow down Tiffany James. She’s on a mission to make demands to change the law.
James, 38, is the president of the Columbia chapter of the National Action Network, the civil rights organization that was founded nearly three decades ago by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
On Aug. 28 — the 57th anniversary of the famed March on Washington — the network hosted a peaceful protest in Memorial Park, then marched up Hampton Street to Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s Columbia office to make a pair of demands: that the state’s senior senator help pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, two measures that have passed the Democrat-controlled U.S. House, but have not gained traction in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Graham wasn’t at his Columbia office the day the National Action Network protesters delivered their demands, and, when they arrived at the Hampton Street building, they were met with a small group of Republican President Donald Trump’s supporters who were brandishing, among other things, a flag depicting the 45th president as action movie hero John Rambo.
As protesters shouted “Black lives matter,” counter-protesters sang “God Bless America.”
A verbal back-and-forth between the protesters and Trump supporters ensued and led to a briefly intense scene, but cooler heads ultimately prevailed.
Graham’s absence and the brief dust-up with Trump’s supporters aside, James says she thinks it is critical to leverage the current momentum of the movement to try to bring about changes in the law.
“You have to be forcing policy, as well as working in the community,” James tells Free Times. “You have to do both things. We have to take it to the next level by making sure our elected officials are accountable and they are looking out for the best interests of all people, which includes Black people, Black lives.”
James admits she was stunned by the recent shooting of Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It’s an incident that is particularly galling in that it came in such short order after the killing of Floyd in Minneapolis. For many in a nation that hasn’t healed from the wounds ripped open in the Floyd case — and that has frankly been grappling with racism for hundreds of years — seeing a Black man shot seven times in the back by an officer was especially heartbreaking.
“For me, when I hear about incidents like that, sometimes I’m numb,” James says of the Blake case. “But, I know that can’t stop me from working, and advocating for change. But I do feel numb, because it happens so much and sometimes you feel hopeless.
“But, we have to keep the hope. In South Carolina, we say, ‘While I breathe, I hope.’ We’ve got to keep the hope.”
Rye Martinez was similarly troubled by Blake’s shooting. The 29 year old from Columbia is the executive director of Empower SC, the activist organization that was founded in June and has quickly gained a foothold in the consciousness of Columbia and the state.
“It makes you feel lost,” Martinez says of the Blake shooting. “As an African American, what it does is put you in a space where we feel like we don’t belong. We are Americans that are not welcomed in America. That’s the statement that George [Floyd’s] incident and Jacob [Blake’s] incident tells us. It’s telling us we are not welcome here. What we want to do is have a welcome home. We can’t forget about history. But let us take off our shoes.”
Unlike a group such as the decades-old National Action Network, Empower SC is a young organization in multiple ways. It was founded earlier this summer, and Martinez says all of its volunteers have been 35 or younger.
Martinez notes that Empower SC is focused on issues of equality on the local level, in larger cities like Columbia and the rural areas of South Carolina.
“Yes, national things get more attention. But what we want to do is focus on the issues that can help our community a little faster than how those national issues may be able to reach our communities,” says Martinez, who is pursuing a degree in criminal justice from Columbia Southern University.
The organization connected directly with the community earlier this summer when it partnered with S.C. activist groups EveryBlackGirl and Good Trouble to kick off the Harden Food Justice Initiative in Columbia, an effort to address food insecurities in a section of Harden Street — near historically Black neighborhoods like Waverly, Celia Saxon and Edgewood — that lacks nearby access to a traditional grocery store. The initiative resulted in hundreds of families receiving free boxes of fresh food and childcare items, along with voter registration and census forms.
Meanwhile, Empower SC also has pushed for the City of Columbia to reallocate about $3 million of its $42 million police budget to other city initiatives, including homeless services, the public defender’s office, food programs for senior citizens, economic stabilization programs and more.
While that reallocation didn’t make it into the current year’s budget, Martinez says Empower is continuing to talk with city leaders.
“We always have work to do, but Empower SC most definitely is being heard by City Council,” she says. “I hope they will continue to hear us out and hopefully are willing to fit some of our budget proposals inside of the budget next year.”
Kevin Gray is no stranger to the movement for racial justice. As the Rev. Nelson Rivers III, the National Action Network’s vice president for religious affairs and external relations, said at the organization’s Aug. 28 rally in Columbia, Gray has “been on the battlefield” for years as a civil rights activist. Gray, a widely published writer, authored the book Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics.
As he marched with NAN protesters to and from Graham’s office on Aug. 28, Gray noted that it’s time for the next steps in the current protest movement. He noted that if well-funded Black Democrat Jaime Harrison is able to oust Graham in November, both of the state’s U.S. senators would be African American. (Black Republican Tim Scott holds the other Senate seat.)
Gray says that could send shockwaves across the Palmetto State.
“Everybody knows the movement has to go from protest to politics,” Gray tells Free Times. “It means doing something beyond marching. It means legal action. It means voting people out of office. [Voting Graham out of office] would be historic for South Carolina, if the ideological home of white supremacy, the soul of the Confederacy, has two Black senators. That makes a statement.
“What that means is that there has to be a massive turnout to vote in the Black community, so that Lindsey Graham can be unseated and people can start seeing organized power to make change in this state.”
Rock the Vote
And there are organizations working to generate the kind of massive turnout of African American voters that Gray is hoping for.
One of them is Amplify Action, a nonprofit that formed earlier this summer that promotes the civic mobilization of Black men. The group — which is focusing its efforts in Southern states such as South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama — has a goal to register 110,000 Black men to vote before the November elections, and mobilize up to a quarter-million people to vote.
Amplify Action is led by executive director Brandon Upson, an African American political strategist and military veteran who, among other things, served as a national organizing director of Democrat Tom Steyer’s campaign earlier this year. Upson and members of the Amplify Action team were on-hand for Aug. 28 protests from the National Action Network and Black Lives Matter South Carolina, urging those in attendance to get registered to vote.
“Our message is that we must vote like we protest,” Upson tells Free Times. “So, the same energy, the same vision, the same level of action has to be going into that. Truly, our best weapon to change the policies and change the people who are in authority is to vote them in or out of office. If we are not voting, we are not truly creating the long-term change we want to see.
“Ultimately our goal, and the solution we see — and everyone has a role — is that we take ownership of our power, and that power is in our vote.”
As Amplify Action has worked across the summer, Upson notes that Black men aren’t the only demographic getting signed up to vote. He says that, for every Black man the organization has helped get registered, three Black women are registering.
The importance of registering to vote and getting to the polls isn’t lost on Black Lives Matter South Carolina executive director Kayin Jones, particularly in a year in which there is a contentious presidential election on the ballot and many have questioned the policies that have shaped a deeply flawed American justice system. Black Lives Matter South Carolina recently held a march with the express purpose of encouraging people to register to vote.
“I live by the mantra that, ‘All politics is local,’” Jones says. “So, a lot of the legislation that has been tabled or not heard before a governing body, we want them to bring that and put it on the table. We just want to shed light on what’s going on in the African American community. We want to organize, strategize and mobilize. Right now, we are in the strategy portion of those three layers.”
Jones says it was deeply disconcerting to see the Jacob Blake shooting play out, particularly so soon after the George Floyd incident.
“It is frustrating,” he notes. “But it lets us know that the fight is real. The struggle is real. We are going to have to put our boots on the ground, and put on our thinking caps on and work evermore hard to make sure we see a difference in our lifetimes.”
Staley knows how to win on the basketball court.
She was a three-time Olympic gold medalist as a player, and the point guard was the United States’ flag-bearer during the opening ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympic games.
That success as a player has been matched by similar heights as a coach. She has veritably transformed the women’s basketball program at the University of South Carolina, guiding the Gamecocks to two Final Four appearances and the 2017 national championship.
The 2019-20 USC team won the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament titles, and was ranked No. 1 in the nation when COVID-19 cut the season short and forced the NCAA to cancel its traditional championship tournaments.
But Staley also has been at the forefront of the push for racial justice.
The championship coach has been unabashed in advocating for civil rights on her social media platforms, and she’s recently gotten involved in the movement to remove late former S.C. governor and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond’s name from USC’s wellness center.
Thurmond was a segregationist who once ran for president on a platform that was opposed to civil rights for Black people, and he often worked to hold up related legislation in Congress.
As noted in an August story from The Post and Courier, USC’s board of trustees has been receptive to asking lawmakers to rename a dorm that memorializes physician J. Marion Sims, who performed medical experiments on slaves, but has been more hesitant when it comes to Thurmond.
Various groups — including the advocacy organization Repeal the Heritage Act, which has often used the #BeGoneStrom hashtag on social media — have called for the removal of Thurmond’s name from the building. Recently, a group of current and former USC athletes rallied for the removal of Thurmond’s name, and Staley joined them.
During an Aug. 28 news conference in which she talked at length about issues of race and social justice, the women’s hoops coach said it is time for a change at the campus fitness center.
“Anything that represents a racial divide shouldn’t be on college campuses, where there are different ethnic backgrounds,” Staley said. “It seems pretty simple to me. It’s pretty simple. I don’t know how you get any more simple than if something or somebody promotes racial divides, it shouldn’t be part of our university and it shouldn’t be part of our existence.”
The racial justice movement has often bled over into the sports world through the years, from sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in a Black Power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and systemic racial injustice.
In recent weeks, NBA, WNBA and Major League Baseball teams postponed some games as players sat out in protest following the shooting of Blake in Wisconsin.
Jones, the Black Lives Matter South Carolina director, took notice of the sports stoppages.
“It says to me, ‘I hear you,’” Jones says. “They are telling me, ‘I hear you.’ That’s what we have been asking since the struggle started some 400 years ago. Hear us.”