Scouts fanned out across the Charleston peninsula at 6 a.m. Monday, on the lookout for Confederate battle flags. Their clash with flag-toting members of the South Carolina Secessionist Party over the weekend had ended peacefully, but they weren't about to let their guard down.
Monday came and went, and no one had spotted any flags. A brief calm settled in.
Protesters and counter-protesters will be back on high alert Wednesday night when the College of Charleston welcomes Bree Newsome, an activist best known for climbing a flagpole and personally removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds in 2015, to speak at the Sottile Theatre.
Her guest lecture, titled "Tearing Hatred from the Sky," has drawn the ire of the Secessionist Party — which has in turn sparked a lively counter-protest from local groups including Southerners on New Ground, Indivisible Charleston and Showing Up for Racial Justice.
"We see all this white nationalism and racist rhetoric coming out of the woodwork, but it’s been there a long time," said SONG organizer Skyelynn Landry, who was one of the first counter-protesters to meet the secessionists Saturday atop the public parking garage by the Francis Marion Hotel. Looking out toward the chapel of Emanuel AME Church, where avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof gunned down nine worshippers in June 2015, Landry said of her counter-protest, "It's about solidarity."
S.C. Secessionist Party founder James Bessenger said his group will protest again Wednesday night, although likely in smaller numbers than over the weekend when they hoisted flags atop city parking garages, starting standoffs with counter-protesters who flew rainbow and other flags. "Protesting on the weekend is our strong suit because our folks have jobs," Bessenger said.
Bessenger said his group is dedicated to preserving Confederate heritage and not white supremacy. A few members of the group, which boasts 352 members statewide and was originally formed in 2014 to call for the Palmetto State to secede from the Union, obtained free tickets to the event before it capped out at 500 tickets on Monday. Bessenger said that between five and 30 protesters from his group will likely show up outside as well. Charleston police will set up designated protest areas along George Street for the event.
College of Charleston spokesman Mike Robertson said the cost of Newsome's honorarium and travel expenses is $9,000 and covered by student activity fees. The event is sponsored by the Office of Student Life and Office of Multicultural Student Programs and Services. Campus police will provide security, and backpacks, large bags and purses will not be allowed in the venue.
"The college attempts to provide the campus community with access to speakers who represent a variety of viewpoints, perspectives and opinions. Each proposed speaker is evaluated on a case-by-case basis," Robertson said. College President Glenn McConnell, who previously drew criticism for his defense of Confederate memorabilia, was out of town and unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Newsome is not the first invited speaker to stir up controversy on a college campus in South Carolina. Last October, conservative student organizations at Clemson University allied with the political action group Turning Point USA to host Milo Yiannopoulos, a flamboyant polemicist for the far-right nationalist website Breitbart News. Student organizers said Yiannopoulos agreed to waive all speaking fees for the event.
But while some students voiced their displeasure about the event, there was no major protest on campus to match the incendiary riots that greeted Yiannopoulos at UC-Berkeley in February. Some minority student organizations declined to attend. Yiannopoulos took the stage at Tillman Hall in a plush white bathrobe that he said his "Daddy," now-President Donald Trump, had bought him, prepared to be pelted with eggs and paint. He taunted supposed protesters for being "too low-energy to show up." More recently, Yiannopoulos resigned from his position at Breitbart on Tuesday after a video emerged in which he appeared to speak positively about pedophilia.
The Spartanburg campus of University of South Carolina Upstate had its own turn in the glare of the spotlight in spring 2014, when its Center for Women's and Gender Studies invited the actress Leigh Hendrix to perform her one-woman show "How to be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less" during an academic symposium on LGBT topics.
Amid conservative consternation over the assignment of LGBT-themed books at colleges across the state, multiple state lawmakers declared that the play was a lesbian recruiting event. The school canceled the production. A month later, the school announced it was also ending the women's and gender studies program.
School leaders said the program's funding was being reallocated to support classes on the U.S. Constitution, but several professors saw the closure as political retribution.
At the center of it all stood Professor Lisa Johnson, director of the women's and gender studies program at USC Upstate. She started the annual Bodies of Knowledge Symposium in 2008 after the fatal beating of 20-year-old Sean Kennedy outside a Greenville gay bar, hoping to send a message that the lives of young gay people in the Upstate had value. The symposium had never elicited controversy until the title of a play stuck in some lawmakers' craws.
"I find it hard to understand this effort to shield students from artists and activists who are so passionately engaged with civic duty, so passionately engaged with the politics, the inequalities that shape our world, our state, our imagery," Johnson said. "That all seems really important."
Students and professors rallied in front of the USC Upstate administration building, opposing the planned shuttering of the program, and the university walked back its plan. The Center for Women's and Gender Studies was safe.
And Hendrix? She ended up performing the play, for a larger crowd, at nearby Wofford College. Johnson said she learned a few things about the state of political discourse in the process.
"In a lot of ways, it’s a really positive story that had some horribly painful, disheartening steps in the process," Johnson said.