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Business leader accuses Charleston officials of abandoning citizens during riot

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Video on 400 block of King Street of unidentified armed men during protests and riots May 30

This image from video shot on the 400 block of King Street shows unidentified armed men during protests and riots on May 30. Provided.

As Charleston heads into its second weekend of protests, the head of a prominent real estate firm says city officials abandoned their duty to protect residents from rioters last week in a "pathetic failure of leadership and judgment" that left people to fend for themselves against an unruly mob bent on destruction.

In a letter to Mayor John Tecklenburg, PrimeSouth Group President Christopher Price described watching masked men tote guns, including one with a military-style rifle, outside one of his buildings with no police in sight.

Barricaded inside with his team, Price said they watched as rioters laid waste to neighboring retail stores while their repeated calls to police went unanswered.

“Seventeen of my buildings were damaged by the riot, but that’s not what’s important here — the scar that will never heal is the feeling of abandonment by City leaders who placed the citizens, men, women, and children on Upper King Street in clear and present danger and forced them to defend and protect themselves,” he wrote.

Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds said he understands the anger and frustration of business owners like Price who suffered extensive damage after months of weathering losses from the coronavirus lockdown. He said his officers faced an unexpected and unprecedented level of violence that night, and they did their level best to protect lives and contain the damage. Police learned from the incident and their response to the ongoing protests has grown better with each passing  day, he said. 

“This is a legitimate complaint,” Reynolds said. “And part of what we have to do is listen, embrace the lessons learned and do better.”

The riots followed a peaceful demonstration Saturday to protest the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25. Suspected of passing a counterfeit bill, Floyd died after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Problems erupted in Charleston after the organized protest ended and darkness fell on the city. Some in the crowd went amok, smashing windows, looting stores, torching buildings and setting fire to police cars.

Restaurant, bar and store owners have ripped the city’s response, accusing police of ignoring their calls for help and allowing the violence to flourish. 

Mike Seekings, a Charleston City Council member, also received Price's letter Friday. He said he went to the corner of King and Calhoun streets on the night of the riot to see what was going on. He saw a line of officers forming a human chain that prevented people from going south on King but not north.

"I've got a lot of questions about what happened," he said. "One of the lessons learned is that you have to have a plan for civil unrest, and then you have to be comfortable that you can execute it. I think it's fair to say that we were caught by surprise and didn't have a holistic plan in place."

Jim Moring, owner of Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar and a longtime restaurant broker, said police were caught flat-footed. “Everywhere we’ve had these rallies, there have been problems, so they knew there there would be problems,” he said. “I don’t know what the cops were doing.”

Reynolds said police did have a plan in place, and some things worked well that night, but there was no prior indication the demonstration would attract so many people or that a massive display of violence was in the cards. 

In his letter, Price described a scene of utter chaos and frustration. Between 7:30 p.m. and 3:30 a.m., he said, he watched an “inexcusable” breakdown in law enforcement unfold throughout the central business district, leading to “the endangerment of hundreds of citizens who were left with absolutely no protection.”

Price questioned why police didn’t muster additional forces and move in to contain the violence after the mood of the crowd noticeably darkened and someone set fire to a police cruiser on Meeting Street near FIG restaurant about 8 p.m. Instead, he said, police herded rioters up George Street to King, and then into a thriving entertainment district packed with diners, families and children out for a peaceful Saturday night.

After an officer was assaulted by the mob, Price said, police formed a line at Calhoun and King Streets, leaving Upper King to the mercy of the mob for more than three hours with no warning to innocent people trapped along the corridor.

“Citizens hid in the backrooms of businesses, second floors, battled (at) front doors to prevent entry, and diners looked up to the mob waving handguns inside restaurants,” he wrote.

Barricaded and armed, Price said he and his team watched the violence play out on security camera feeds while their 12 calls to police went unanswered. “We should not have to rely on ourselves for protection from marauding like this, but we were left alone.”

By the time police cleared the area about 1:30 a.m., the damage had been done, Price said. He said the episode was a heartbreaking experience that demonstrated “a horrible, pathetic failure of leadership and judgment.”

“If these are the tactics of our police department, then we need to find leadership that knows different tactics,” he wrote.

The identities of the masked men with the military-style rifles remain unknown, as was their purpose. Camera footage reviewed by The Post and Courier showed them milling about by their car with a third person carrying a club. At one point, two young women approach them, and one with a camera asks them to pose.

Reynolds said the city faced some very dangerous people that night intent on causing harm. Police learned from the experience, brought in more reinforcements, asked the National Guard for help and made dozens of arrests. The lessons learned helped them avoid similar problems on Sunday and Monday. Each day since, people have exercised their rights to free speech in an atmosphere devoid of violence, he said. 

"I know a lot of people are traumatized by what happened," he said. "But we are going to do our best to make sure we have a much better outcome in the days ahead."

Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier. He has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reach him at 843-937-5554 and @tbartelme

Watchdog/Public Service Editor

Glenn Smith is editor of the Watchdog and Public Service team and helped write the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, “Till Death Do Us Part.” He is a Connecticut native and a longtime crime reporter.

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