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Charleston protests turn violent overnight after day of peaceful demonstrations

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Demonstrations in Charleston and Columbia turned violent Saturday night, mirroring scenes across the country as protesters clashed with police in the wake of an African American man’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota.

Four police offers were injured, one seriously, in Columbia after tensions escalated following an afternoon of mostly peaceful protests. As night fell and curfews were enacted, tensions intensified and reached a violent crescendo in the downtowns of two of South Carolina’s largest cities.

In Charleston, police vehicles burned, storefronts were destroyed and gunshots were reported along historic King Street. As an 11 p.m. curfew hit, police used spray and smoke to move the protests turned riot away from the city’s core.

“It’s not going to look good when the sun comes up tomorrow in our city,” said Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds.

The protests were in honor of George Floyd, an African American man, who died in Minneapolis on Monday while handcuffed in police custody. Floyd was seen on videos gasping for breath during an arrest in which an officer stayed kneeling for almost eight minutes. The officer was arrested on Friday afternoon. 

Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said at least one of his officers was injured while responding to a man who was hurt when a group of people attacked him.

Mayor Steve Benjamin imposed a curfew in Columbia effective at 6 p.m. Saturday to help calm the situation. It will remain in effect there through the weekend. Officers used squad cars and armored vehicles to push protesters off the street.

But the unrest in downtown Columbia continued into the night. Some officers were fired upon at Gervais and Assembly near a parking lot, and officers chased after the shooter. Armored police forced a crowd away from the Five Points area.

Columbia's was just one of several protests in South Carolina. Marches in Greenville, Charleston County, Myrtle Beach and other areas allowed residents to vent frustration following the death in Minneapolis.

In Charleston, protesters cornered two supporters of President Donald Trump near a downtown fast-food restaurant in the afternoon and burned a Keep America Great hat taken from one of them. Police protected the men and got them out of harm's way. 

Others marched onto Interstate 26 as some branched off to the downtown tourist corridor, where they spray-painted "BLM" and "traitors" on the Confederate Defenders statue at The Battery and shattered windows on Market Street.

Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey imposed a curfew Saturday night, effective from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Sunday, and Charleston City Council matched that curfew's times, as well.

"Charleston County joins the rest of the nation grieving over of the death of George Floyd. Our citizens have the right to be angry and the right to protest this unspeakable tragedy. Now is the time to join together and honor Mr. Floyd’s memory peacefully," Summey said in a prepared statement.

Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds followed the marchers through part of their route. He denounced the Minneapolis police who kneeled on George Floyd's neck as the man took his final breath.

"They're exercising their rights," Reynolds said, gesturing to the crowd. "What happened in Minneapolis was wrong."

The Peoples Solidarity Society organized a gathering at Marion Square, which quickly turned into a march down King Street. Officers followed the crowd for several blocks before two dozen of them, wearing helmets and armed with batons, blocked them from continuing south past Burns Lane. They held their ground for several minutes as protesters crowded the street.

"I don't think all cops are racist, I know that guy's just trying to do his job and get paid," said Barinwa Wiwuga of Charleston. "But it's bad seeds, and it keeps happening ... racism never surprises me."

Dev Brown put her hands up immediately. She’s fallen victim to police brutality before, she said.

As protesters approached the line of officers, a second row filed behind them.

“We built Charleston,” Brown said after climbing onto a table that had been dragged to the street. “This is a slave city. ... It’s ours.”

A man emptied an extinguisher into the air before using it to shatter the windows of a civilian car and then a sheriff's SUV.

One protester grabbed a patio chair from FIG and sent it flying through the air at a line of geared-up officers.

Protesters paused to pay their respects at Mother Emanuel AME Church before climbing up the steps to speak to the crowd below.

"Y’all’s cousins, aunties, uncles lost their lives at this church,” one protester said. “Nine beautiful souls, and they took (Dylann Roof) away in handcuffs and took him to McDonald’s.”

(After Roof's arrest in Selby, N.C., an officer brought him Burger King while they waited for FBI agents to arrive to interview him.)

Another man shouted, “We will let nobody qualify or disqualify who we are or what we stand for."

After dark, a group of fewer than 100 protesters starting damaging vehicles and breaking windows downtown, Reynolds said of the Charleston protests. 

Several businesses were damaged when windows were broken through and at least one hotel's lower-level windows also were shattered by rocks.

"It’s not going to look good when the sun comes up tomorrow in our city," he said in a hastily called City Council meeting to impose the curfew.

At least two armored vehicles in Columbia were deployed to contain protesters. Across the street from where three Columbia Police Department cruisers were set ablaze, two other cars in a parking garage were torched. One exploded.

Some protesters tried to break into a jewelry store on Lincoln Street.

Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire" could be heard faintly from a nearby vehicle.

Several journalists were struck by full water bottles. Benjamin, talking from a loudspeaker, urged protesters to "go home and go home peacefully" as he announced the curfew in Columbia.

"Hands up, don't shoot" a crowd yelled as police funneled them up Lady Street.

Brandon Fragger stood on the porch of the restaurant where he works watching the smoke roll down Lincoln Street from where several cars burned.

Fragger said he knows burning things down is not the answer, but he’s attended peaceful protests himself that garnered no results. “So I understand why people are frustrated and fed up and who feel invisible in a lot of ways,” he said.

“In two weeks it’s going to be somebody else,” Fragger said of the repeated incidents involving African Americans and police. “Because it always is. And it shouldn’t be.”

He talked about his own fears being an African American man and getting pulled over. He gets nervous pulling out his wallet or worried that he’ll drop something and have an officer see it as a threat.

“I hate feeling like that because I have friends who are police officers, but it’s just scary because you never know who you’re going to get. It’s sad,” he said.

"Body cams on!" deputies told one another as they tried to clear streets.

Police formed a line, locked arm-in-arm, urging crowds to disperse and go home, but their commands were ignored.

Just before 8 p.m., authorities began shooting smoke and tear gas canisters into the crowd. On Assembly Street, a tax office was broken into, glass shattered and two chairs on the sidewalk.

People broke into the Carolina Western Pub on Lady Street, taking bottles of beer and climbing over the counter to destroy furniture.

Columbia police officers directed traffic in the initial march from City Hall to the Statehouse. Holbrook said he watched his officers, there early in the morning to protect those peacefully assembled, be pelted with water bottles, then rocks, thrown at them. Then their vehicles were set afire.

“What I have witnessed this afternoon, it’s a travesty,” he said. It’s going to stop and it’s going to stop right now.”

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said he actually attended the morning march and walked with the group to the Statehouse. One of the organizers even asked him to speak when they gathered at police headquarters.

“The group here now has nothing to do with the group that stood at the Statehouse and peacefully protested,” he said. “This group is not going to be allowed to take over the city of Columbia.”

Lott said he had no count on the number of protesters injured. He said a firefighter was injured when he was struck by a rock, in addition to the four injured police officers.

Earlier, a couple blocks west of police headquarters, a group got into a confrontation that ended in protesters throwing rocks and breaking windows of an SUV. Police in riot gear pushed back the crowd and stood around the SUV. One person was arrested after firing a gun, officials said, and others shattered businesses' windows.

Several protesters climbed scaffolding of a nearby hotel under construction and hung a banner. Another spray painted graffiti on the parking garage across the street.

Benjamin said the city welcomes peaceful protest and discourse, "but this is unacceptable."

“I understand the power of peaceful protest,” said Benjamin, who got his start in politics protesting racial inequity at the age of 17. “I use my voice. I train my children to use their voice.”

Saturday’s I Can’t Breathe South Carolina protest started with thousands of people protesting peacefully within the bounds of their rights.

“They did a good job,” Benjamin said. “But when a protest goes from being peaceful to being violent, the conversation changes.”

Echoing coordinated events across the country, crowds began marching Saturday morning on the steps of the S.C. State House. While some protests have erupted in violence, the event in the Capital City on Saturday remained mostly peaceful.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott posted a Tweet on Saturday urging calm.

"If you’re in Columbia and aren’t from there, go.home. Our state came together&showed the world how to do this the right way and find a solution after Walter Scott&Mother Emanuel. Let’s do it again & keep finding solutions together. Violence will only mean more broken lives&hearts," said Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate.

While Floyd's death is just the latest to grip national headlines, organizers said the event was not just in remembrance of him but all victims of police brutality and racial violence, from Mike Brown to Eric Garner.

Serving as a reminder of South Carolina’s own pain was a poster bearing the image of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who in 2015 massacred nine black church members in Charleston's Emanuel AME church.

Under Roof's photo, the poster read "alive." Under Floyd's, "dead."

The rally was a first for Takayla Hart, 19, of Orangeburg.

"We're just honestly tired," she said. "And this straw was just the last straw for me."

Gov. Henry McMaster tweeted “South Carolinians are well within their rights to publicly and peacefully express anger over the inexcusable taking of George Floyd’s life. We should all be angry. There is no excuse for this.”

And state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, stood up at the rally to say, “This has to stop now.”

“Every time I turn on the TV, I watch a man as life leaves his body,” he said.

The continued threat of the coronavirus also hung over the day.

Alex Hursey and Mike Lewis chose to embrace it, with the Hartsville and Florence residents writing "I can't breathe” across their masks.

"I got to stand up, because this is not fair what's happening," Hursey said of her decision to attend. "I've spoken out on social media, but that's not enough."

Pittman referenced the virus saying, the common refrain ”we’re in this together” doesn’t ring true when these deaths continue to happen.

Protesters left the Statehouse grounds, marching to the Columbia Police Department. Along the way, marchers briefly stopped traffic on busy streets so the group could pass through safely.

The scene outside Columbia police headquarters was mixed. One African American officer shared hugs with two female marchers. But tensions occasionally flared with marchers throwing water bottles until march leaders calmed the crowd.

Officers dressed in riot gear and holding shields emerged from the station to hold back the crowd. Barriers were pulled away and marchers and officers stood toe to toe. It culminated in marchers removing the American and S.C. state flags from poles outside the station and caring them on the lawn.

Saturday evening, a group of sign-toting protesters marched down Main Street in downtown Greenville, chanting “Black Lives Matter!”

A black woman and a young boy lagged behind. The boy approached a white police officer, who offered his hand and a slight grin. They embraced — the woman recorded the moment on her cellphone — and parted ways.

It was a lighthearted moment during an otherwise emotionally charged evening. Protesters held signs — one read "‘Blue Lives Murder" — and shouted at Greenville police officers. At several junctions officers acted as human blockades, halting the march’s progress. Police placed handcuffs on one white woman, who had engaged in a shouting match with a counter-protesting white man. Later, a black man was led away from the protest by officers.

Protesters stood shoulder to shoulder, setting aside social distancing guidelines even as coronavirus cases in the state increase.

Josh Needelman and Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this report.

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

Benson joined The Post and Courier's Columbia bureau in November 2019. A native of Boston, he spent three years at the Greenwood Index-Journal and has won multiple South Carolina Press Association awards for his reporting.

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