An incident involving a black teenager, a police officer and a group of white civilians has ignited controversy that spilled onto the streets of downtown Charleston on Saturday.
Protesters held a rally in front of the U.S. Custom House, 200 East Bay St., and marched through the nearby City Market in response to the teen's July 2 arrest for selling palmetto roses in the market area without a permit and resisting a Charleston police officer who tried to detain him. Photographs from the scene emerged on social media and showed a white, male civilian helping detain the teen, who ended up on top of the officer before several witnesses intervened.
Both the officer and teen suffered small abrasions during the struggle, police said.
Activists and two state legislators who represent the Charleston area called for ending the ordinance that regulates palmetto rose sales, and for lifting up youth.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg pushed for the creation of a task force that will discuss the effort's future. City attorney Susan Herdina said last week that eliminating the ordinance would be detrimental to the sellers and that all peddlers in the city are required to obtain a permit. Other officials have said that the ordinance also helps ensure safety for the young sellers and others walking and driving in downtown Charleston.
During the rally, State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, went over the history of the Palmetto Artisan Program, which is required for any youth who wish to sell the roses and is offered by the city free of charge.
The program was formed out of a proposal brought before Charleston City Council about 10 years ago while Gilliard was a sitting council member. Its intent, the representative said, was to encourage entrepreneurship among youth, not to set up strict rules or restrict sales.
"In other words, if you had a good to sell, you could sell it, but you had to go through this program to teach entrepreneurship," he said. "Over the years, as the district grew, they decided to tamper with the program."
Gilliard and others stated they believe that having police officers enforcing what is a ticketable offense is a waste of resources and that the city's elected officials need to be held accountable.
Marvin Pendarvis, a state representative and attorney representing the teen who was arrested, also called for examining the ordinance.
The city program might be well-intentioned but it's having a disproportionate impact on black youth, said Pendarvis, D-North Charleston.
"While we want to encourage tourism in downtown Charleston and we want to encourage economic activity, we have to be mindful to ensure that tourism, that what we do, is inclusive of everyone that's down here," he said.
Pendarvis said he wants to work with city officials and have a productive dialogue.
Other activists called upon city leaders more aggressively.
Shakem Amen Akhet, an activist with the Charleston Black Nationalist Movement who also goes by Johnathan Thrower, pledged to organize protests at city council meetings.
"We're going to escalate until something gives," he said. "We will not tolerate this anymore."
Tamika Gadsden, a local activist, spoke about the displacement of black residents from downtown Charleston and argued that the ordinance is a pipeline to get black youth into the criminal justice system.
"We have disturbing schools laws, we've got this ordinance and it's not going to stop there," Gadsden said. "We have to stop policing blackness and stop meeting black youth with punitive measures."
Enslaved Africans built Charleston and activists like Gadsden say black youth should be free to earn money through traditional Gullah crafts like weaving sweetgrass baskets or making palmetto roses.
"Stop telling us you don't want us," she said. "You want our culture but you don't want us selling it. That's what's going to happen next. You're going to have someone who doesn't look like me selling these roses and I bet you that it will flood this city."