John A. Carlos II

President Donald Trump’s visit to a criminal justice forum at Benedict College in Columbia on Oct. 25, 2019, was met with protests. John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier

A limited number of people, including just a handful of students, were allowed inside an auditorium at Benedict College Friday to hear President Donald Trump deliver a speech on criminal justice reform. 

But that didn't stop hundreds of people — including a boisterous group of anti-Trump protesters, and a healthy number of supporters of the bombastic Republican — from filling the streets around the historically black college on Harden Street in downtown Columbia. 

Trump coming to SC, joining 2020 Democratic challengers, for criminal justice forum

Trump delivered remarks and received an award from the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, which honored him for backing a law that aims to reduce prison populations and help offenders re-enter society.

But protesters were swirling near Benedict before the commander-in-chief ever arrived on campus. A large crowd gathered just outside Democrat Cory Booker's presidential campaign office on Taylor Street, where the South Carolina Democratic Party, members of the state Democratic Black Caucus, various activist groups, and staff members and supporters of a number of Democratic presidential campaigns (including those of Booker, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Beto O'Rourke and Elizabeth Warren, among others) came together with citizens for a protest and a march to the front of Benedict's campus on Harden Street.

Columbia author and activist Kevin Alexander Gray was among those present for the protest. Gray was particularly fired up over Trump's recent tweet comparing an impeachment inquiry into his presidency to a "lynching." The president's use of a term loaded with racial connotation came just days before he was to appear on the campus at Benedict, the black college founded in 1869.

"The lynching statement, then coming to a black college and essentially not allowing the kids to participate in the event, it's playing to race politics, which is what he does," Gray said. "He's doing it here."

While there were few Benedict students who got to see the president speak, there were some students out on the streets among the protesters, which apparently came against the wishes of Benedict administration. Two students told Free Times that Benedict officials, including President Roslyn Artis, had told the student body to stay in their dorm rooms during the time the president was on campus. The Post and Courier reached out to Benedict officials for confirmation of that order.

Benedict student Keishay Swygert, a freshman from California, was among those who protested. She said she simply could not sit on the sidelines while Trump was on campus.

"It's been said that Benedict has invited Trump, and as a student at Benedict, I'm just saying that we are not OK with this," said Swygert, who was brandishing a sign that that labeled Trump a white supremacist. "We don't agree with this. We are not OK with him being on our campus. I am just making a stand as an African American student that I'm not OK with this."

The area around Benedict certainly wasn't devoid of Trump supporters. Claire McConaughay was among them, showing up well before the president arrived and brandishing a large blue Trump flag.

A resident of Indian Land, McConaughay said she stands firmly behind the president and his run for re-election in 2020.

"I joined an organization in Indian Land that just started last year, Women for Trump, because we felt that after the #MeToo movement that the message of Trump supporting women was lost," McConaughay said. "We are going to be a big voting bloc in the 2020 election. We are going to make ourselves much more visible than we were in 2016."

It's safe to say that Columbia resident Tony Hendon doesn't feel the same way as McConaughay does about the president. He protested the president's appearance on Friday, and he made his feelings about Trump plain.

"I hate this man," Hendon said. "I hate what he's doing. Everything he stands for is against my better judgement."

Gail Moseley, from the Lancaster area, was out in support of Trump, holding a large Trump flag just outside the gates of Benedict. She told Free Times she had at least one negative interaction out on Harden Street.

"I had someone come by on a bicycle and spit on me," Moseley said. "I guess they don't like Trump, apparently, so they don't like me. That's fine. But it does disappoint me to see other Americans doing that. That's ridiculous."

South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson attended the protest, grabbing a microphone at one point and whipping the crowd outside Booker's office into a frenzy.

Robertson said he thought Trump was using Benedict to appeal to black citizens.

"Let's not sugarcoat it," Robertson said. "The fact is that he is coming to this college to create an appearance that people of color support his campaign."

Tameika Isaac Devine, the longtime Columbia City Council member and the city's mayor pro tem, was among the throng rallying outside Trump's speech. She said she recently spoke with Benedict students about the president's visit.

"I was at Benedict College just Monday [Oct. 21] with students, and the question came up, 'What should we do because the the president [was coming] here?'" Devine said. "Several of us said that he is the sitting president, and that they have the right to hear what he has to say and that they have a right to ask him questions about his position on things they don't agree with. But, only 10 Benedict students were allowed to see the president. Local media [largely] weren't allowed in to see what he has to say.

"So, when the president says he wants to come to Columbia and come to an HBCU, if you are coming for a photo op, if you are coming to show people that you care about black students but you don't allow the students at the school to come in, then you should not be here."

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