Several Charleston-area groups gathered in protest of Steve Bannon's appearance at a Citadel student organization's annual fundraising dinner Friday night. 

Protesters started gathering shortly before 4 p.m. outside of Johnson Hagood Stadium, across the street from the Holliday Alumni Center where the controversial former chief strategist to President Donald Trump was slated to speak. The rally is expected to last until 8 p.m. By 6 p.m. the crowd had swelled to about 200 people. 

Protesters came from variety of backgrounds and included at least a few military veterans as well as Citadel alumni.

Citadel alumna Heather Hall, who graduated in 2017 with a master's degree in education, said outside the venue that she is disappointed Bannon is speaking on campus. Hall said she respects First Amendment rights but wishes the event was held off campus.

Campus leadership should have denounced the kind of political rhetoric Bannon represents, Hall said. 

"It doesn't represent The Citadel at all," she said. 

Robert Swartzel, a Charleston resident who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, was also present at the rally and said he was upset that public money was being used to provide security for the event, in the form of law enforcement personnel providing security in the area.

Asked how he felt upon hearing that Bannon would be speaking at the dinner, Swartzel said he was disappointed.

"I would have thought that (Citadel President) Gen. Rosa had better common sense then to let a fascist, Nazi, race-baiting (expletive) show up," he said. 

Groups such as Indivisible Charleston, Indivisible Midlands, the National Action Network and The Coalition: People United to Take Back Our Community, were among the organizations to take part in the rally.

Bannon's participation in the event as the featured speaker drew immediate criticism from many liberal leaders in the Charleston area, such as S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, who equated inviting Bannon to inviting Adolf Hitler to speak, in a prior interview.

During the rally, Gilliard spoke about what he saw as intense dysfunction in Washington D.C. exemplified by Trump and Cannon. He called on those in the crowd to step up.

"We're not going to hate the (Republican) Society for bringing Bannon down," he said. "We're not going to hate no one. Those are our young people. They have to go out into the world. They're going to become our community leaders, our CEOs, our business men and women. It's dangerous ... we don't know what type of atmosphere that Mr. Bannon is going to leave when he leaves that ceremony tonight."

When Walter Scott was fatally shot by a white North Charleston police officer in 2015, followed by the shooting of nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston by Dylann Roof a few months later, a movement began in the community, he said.

It's up to residents to take up the mantel of ensuring that Charleston is a community where people of all backgrounds are welcomed and embraced for who they are. 

"And now the whole world is under siege because of our poor leadership," Gilliard said. "Jesus Christ, man, I don't care if Donald Duck was in office. At least he got common sense. We have to understand that. The leaders, we need leaders in Washington. We need leadership at all levels of government."

Elder James Johnson, president of NAN's South Carolina chapter, said in a prior interview that he worried that having someone like Bannon speak would divide the community further and that his appearance could bring instigators to Charleston from outside the community.

"We don't want another Charlottesville," Johnson said, referring to racially-charged protests that broke out during August in the Virginia city after white supremacist groups descended for the so-called "Unite The Right" rally.

This story is developing. Check back for more. 

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Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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