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How the George Floyd protest and rioting changed Charleston

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How the George Floyd protest and rioting changed Charleston

Ahmed Hassan gripped the steering wheel of his Ford Edge as he raced toward downtown Charleston, desperate to see what remained of the small market that helped sustain his family.

Hassan was grilling steak and chicken at his suburban home when a call from one of his workers sent him scrambling to check the store’s security video feed.

He and his wife Sandra watched in disbelief as a horde of strangers stormed the College Market — stealing, breaking, smashing, risking everything Hassan worked so hard to build since emigrating from the Middle East two decades ago.

Hassan grabbed his car keys. His wife dialed 911. The clock read 9:40 p.m.

“Everybody’s inside my store and they’re taking everything,” Sandra told a police dispatcher. “They’re taking cigarettes, beer, everything, everything. ... Do you have the National Guard or anybody that’s going to help, or are we just vulnerable?”

Hassan arrived downtown to find his business was one of many under siege along King Street. Alarms blared and fires crackled as rioters and looters roamed the central business district, now scarred with slashes of graffiti and broken glass.

A peaceful protest devolved into violence and chaos as night fell on May 30. Those who stayed behind when the calls for justice faded then split into packs of restless marauders. They stalked the streets of South Carolina’s oldest city, breaking into businesses and pummeling bystanders and police officers in their path.

The destruction that followed marked the worst rioting Charleston had seen in over a century, damaging more than 150 businesses and this tourist-friendly city’s reputation as a bastion of Southern gentility and grace. It tore at the scab of racial injustices and animosities that have lingered since the days of slavery and Jim Crow. It exposed the fragility of Charleston’s deeply held sense of community. And it raised fresh questions about the leadership of those chosen to shepherd and protect the city through a period of myriad challenges.

In the end, it would take over five hours and more than 230 law enforcement officers to quell the unrest and restore order.

Three months have now passed, and aside from some boarded storefronts, there are few physical reminders of that night still visible along King Street. The broken glass has been swept away; the graffiti scrubbed clean. But the tensions and societal threads that gave rise to the violence remain, burbling just beneath the surface.

To better understand the events of that night and the factors that fueled it, Post and Courier reporters pored over hours of police radio communications, 911 calls and public records. They interviewed dozens of officers, business owners and protesters.

What emerged is the most complete account yet of a fractious night that continues to change Charleston. This is that story.

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Demonstrators are confronted by police on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

Seeds of conflict

2 p.m.

It started at Marion Square, an expansive and centrally located park surrounded by shops, restaurants and historic buildings in the heart of Charleston’s central business district.

The park had long been a gathering spot for city residents, home to a popular weekly farmer’s market, posh festivals and sunbathing College of Charleston students. It served as a perennial site for protests as well, surrounded by symbols from some of the darkest corners of the city’s past.

Along the square’s northern edge sat a hotel originally built as an arsenal to protect the city’s White population after a foiled slave rebellion. To the south, a glowering statue of former Vice President John C. Calhoun, a fierce defender of slavery, towered 115 feet above a street named in his honor.

On this May afternoon, the temperature hovered at 85 degrees downtown, but felt even hotter in the humidity. The forecast called for rain.

The city’s leaders weren’t sure what to expect as a crowd gathered in the square. Mayor John Tecklenburg learned of the planned rally that morning when he spotted an announcement on Facebook.

“Join us SATURDAY in Marion Square with BLACK LIVES MATTER signs/apparel, and any protest materials pertaining to justice and opposing systematic racism and the unjust murder of so many for simply existing while black,” the post read.

Tecklenburg didn’t recognize the group organizing the event, the People’s Solidarity Society, and they hadn’t received a permit to march. The mayor called Black community leaders to learn more. But most said they didn’t know anything about the rally.

Five days earlier, a White Minneapolis police officer killed a Black man named George Floyd after kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Calls for justice spread from city to city. Police and protesters clashed in streets around the country.

From what authorities could tell, the Charleston rally would be a smaller affair, near a gurgling fountain on the square’s edge at King and Calhoun streets. The police chief called in 100 officers to keep watch and make sure the event didn’t get out of hand. They didn’t expect big trouble.

After all, the city earned a national reputation for its poise and civility in dealing with tragedy and injustice.

Cities such as Minneapolis, Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore erupted in violence and destruction after Black men were killed by police in questionable encounters. But Charleston stayed calm when tested by twin tragedies of its own in 2015.

First came the death of Walter Scott, a Black motorist gunned down by a white North Charleston officer after a traffic stop in April of that year. Then, a gun-wielding white supremacist massacred nine Black worshippers at a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church two months later.

The community responded with peaceful protests and demonstrations of unity. Anger surfaced, but so did prayers, forgiveness and kindness.

To some observers, Charleston became a symbol of what could be possible in the so-called New South. But for many who showed up to the rally in Marion Square, the wounds of the past never really healed. The spot sat just two blocks from Emanuel AME and less than a mile from a wharf that served as one of the epicenters of the slave trade.

A new crop of grassroots activists put the event together, bypassing the usual channels used by establishment civil rights groups in an effort to be heard unfettered. They hoped to channel the resentment and frustration that followed Floyd’s death and shine a light on the many other injustices that preceded it.

Now, long-simmering tensions were about to boil over.

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Demonstrators are confronted by police on May 30 in Charleston. The peaceful protests over George Floyd’s death would descend into a night of chaos and violence in the Holy City. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

Standoff

3 p.m.

By the time Candace Livingston arrived downtown, the crowd swelled and protesters faced off with officers at King and Calhoun, one of four entrances to Marion Square.

Livingston, a 25-year-old teacher from West Ashley, felt compelled to attend the rally. A community activist since her high school days in Georgetown, she’d been enraged by the video of Floyd’s death. She thought of her students — many of them young people of color — and the pain they felt witnessing such brutality. Their voices had to matter.

She saw a few of her students in the crowd and smiled. She felt confident the shared struggle with other demonstrators would lift their spirits, if only for an afternoon.

Still, Livingston felt a slight unease as she took in the scene. What would she do if police cracked down on the crowd? How would she keep herself safe? How would she get away?

At the intersection, police and protesters stood at a standstill. Whoever held King and Calhoun controlled the crossroads of the peninsula.

From that central point, protesters could move into well-to-do residential neighborhoods nearby. They could march down lower King Street, past row after row of upscale shops and restaurants. They could block one of the city’s busiest streets, strangling traffic on a Saturday afternoon.

Once predominantly Black, the peninsula had rapidly gentrified in recent decades as tourism boomed and Charleston attracted thousands of new residents willing to pay soaring real estate prices to enjoy the region’s beaches, fine dining and arts. Blacks were pushed out of the neighborhoods that had been home for generations. Many in the crowd this day counted themselves among the displaced.

They squared off with police for at least 15 minutes before the line of officers parted and let demonstrators march down King.

As they passed police, Livingston saw officers strike people with what looked like batons. One grabbed her, but she managed to wrestle away.

She considered it a victory. They’d made it through. Spirits rose as the crowd marched about a mile down King to the Battery seawall, passing antebellum mansions and walled-off homes of the city’s elite.

There, at the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula, facing the harbor and Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, they gathered around a monument to the Confederate Defenders of Charleston.

This was contested ground, home to weekly confrontations between defenders of the Confederate battle flag and protesters who considered the banner a racist symbol.

As the marchers stopped to regroup, a thin man in black grabbed a megaphone. His sunglasses glinted in the harsh afternoon light.

Marvin Pendarvis had something to say.

A call to action

3:40 p.m.

Pendarvis surveyed the crowd as he pulled down the cloth face mask he wore to protect against the coronavirus.

He’d grown up in North Charleston, about a dozen miles from this spot and a world away in terms of affluence. He spent his childhood in a rented home in the Charleston Farms neighborhood, one of the region’s last affordable enclaves. The home was torn down soon after he graduated from high school in 2007, replaced by a Bojangles chicken restaurant.

Pendarvis forged ahead, graduating from college, then law school. He became an attorney and won a seat in the state Legislature in 2017. By age 30, he’d established himself as a fighter for affordable housing, quality education and economic opportunities.

The night before the protest, Pendarvis woke at 3 a.m. and clutched his infant son to his chest. He cried and felt hopeless.

He thought about his community and how African Americans had fought the same struggle for more than 100 years. He questioned if he was doing enough, if his work in the Legislature was making a difference.

But on that afternoon, in the heart of old Charleston, Pendarvis keyed the megaphone and let his voice boom.

“The only way we’re going to see change in this country is from a structural change,” he shouted. “Sometimes it takes agitation to get that kind of change.”

The crowd cheered and applauded.

Pendarvis told them he wasn’t advocating violence. Instead, he called on the community, particularly White people, to speak out against injustice wherever they saw it. And he urged everyone to vote.

“You have to be actively against it,” Pendarvis said. “Silence is complicity and I will tell you this, we’ve got a lot of work to do in this country.”

2,000 people protest

4:15 p.m.

Pendarvis’ words lingered with the protesters as they marched on to the City Market under a sweltering sun, merging with a smaller group that arrived from Marion Square. Some 2,000 people had joined the protest since the rally’s start, a number 20 times greater than the assembled police force.

The crowd filled Meeting Street in front of a narrow set of brick buildings where vendors sell books, jewelry, T-shirts and sweetgrass baskets woven in the tradition of enslaved West Africans. They slowly climbed the steps of Market Hall, which once served as a recruiting station for Confederate soldiers, and unfurled a banner commemorating Floyd’s last words: “I can’t breathe.”

Officers looked on from a distance as more speakers addressed the crowd. Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds had instructed his troops that they should let the marchers proceed unhindered if people weren’t violent or damaging property

A trim, bespectacled man, Reynolds had served as the city’s police chief for two years, earning a reputation as a compassionate and progressive cop. He worked to bridge gaps with minority communities and embraced change after an audit found Charleston police were stopping and using force on Black people at disproportionate rates.

After 31 years in law enforcement, Reynolds understood police could not arrest their way out of societal problems. But he also knew how quickly well-meaning protests could turn violent.

Reynolds spent most of his career with Maryland’s Montgomery County Police Department, near Baltimore. He worked the riots that engulfed that city in 2015 after a Black man named Freddie Gray died in police custody. He saw officers pelted with concrete and buildings torched by protesters. Similar violence flared in 2017 when he worked the inauguration of President Donald Trump in Washington.

Reynolds came away from those experiences with the belief that controlling a crowd takes strategy and patience, along with enough manpower and equipment to shut it down if things turn ugly.

After arriving in Charleston, he made sure his officers had enough gas masks, helmets and batons to go around. He also required every officer to complete eight hours of civil disturbance training in 2019. But would it be enough?

Charleston police had not experienced a full-blown riot since May 1919, when young, White sailors, fueled by racial hatred, roamed the city smashing windows and attacking Black residents. Three men died in the rampage; more than 18 others were injured. It was the beginning of what became known as the "Red Summer," when more than three dozen race riots swept the United states, and it remained a black mark on Charleston’s history.

But a full century had passed since local police had been tested in such a conflict.

Reynolds hoped this day would pass without incident as well. He had initially considered sending 40 of his officers to the capital city of Columbia to assist with a protest where more problems were anticipated. Now, he was glad he had nixed that plan.

He and his commanders sensed something different about this crowd.

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Demonstrators are confronted by police on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

The protest was far bigger and angrier than any in the city’s recent history. The demonstrators didn’t stay in one place or stick together as one group.

Bit by bit, signs pointed to trouble ahead.

Fireworks exploded in front of a Walgreens store by Marion Square. Officers spotted graffiti on businesses. The Confederate monument at the Battery was tagged with spray paint.

Another group of demonstrators confronted Mount Pleasant police officers at Meeting and Calhoun streets, smashing a window on one of the patrol cars.

A protest organizer told an officer he was trying to push the demonstrators back to the park. The officer remained skeptical.

“I don’t know how much control the organizer has anymore,” he said over the radio.

Police hoped a storm forecast for that afternoon would send the crowds home.

But first, a large group of protesters mounted a push up Meeting Street, heading toward Interstate 26. An officer radioed his supervisors asking if police should intervene.

“Are we going to let Mother Nature work, or do we need to start staging things?”

“Confirm we’re trying to hold out for Mother Nature,” another officer replied.

‘There’s gonna be some trouble’

5:45 p.m.

Rain fell, slowly at first, but the storm soon picked up.

Lightning struck, closer and closer to Marion Square. Protesters sought shelter under awnings. Many headed home, but others refused to give in to the weather.

Officers got word that the remaining groups planned to march on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, a vital artery that links Charleston to suburban Mount Pleasant across the Cooper River.

Jonathan Thrower, a longtime activist also known as Shakem Amen Akhet, followed the crowd while broadcasting on Facebook Live. A tall man with an easy smile, Thrower towered above others in the crowd that moved up a ramp onto Interstate 26 off Meeting Street. Traffic came to a standstill.

“I-26 is blocked off, both lanes,” Thrower said in his livestream. “It’s a bunch of people out here. I got people all behind me.”

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A group of demonstrators sit on a ramp from I-26 towards the Ravenel Bridge on May 30 blocking traffic. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

A one-time drug dealer, Thrower had reflected on his life while serving 8½ years in prison on gun and drug charges. He worked in the law library and taught GED classes. He vowed to take a different path when he was released and get involved in lifting up his community.

By 2010, Thrower started to get involved. He became a familiar figure at protests and marches, lending his voice to the fight for justice. He set up community centers and was mentoring Black youth.

Like others, he sensed frustration and the anger in the crowd this night, tension he had never experienced at other protests in Charleston. The crowd had dwindled by the time they reached the interstate, but Thrower knew it wouldn’t take much to set them off.

“If these people are still out here when it gets dark, there’s gonna be some trouble,” Thrower mused.

Riot begins

8 p.m.

Thrower’s predictions bore fruit after the protesters left the interstate and marched back downtown. As they descended on the City Market, police prepared to close roads and debated how best to contain the crowd in this central tourist hub.

Lights from souvenir shops and restaurants flickered on in the gray-blue haze of dusk as the throngs arrived, greeted by a line of police officers with helmets, batons and gas masks.

Then came the radio calls.

“Be advised, they started smashing windows in the Market,” an officer said, calling for additional units.

“I’m telling you right now you need to get as many units into the Market to clear it out, right now,” another officer said.

Police tried to pen the protesters in, but the crowd splintered into smaller groups that dodged the officers.

“You’re aware that we’re being thrown rocks at, and they’re damaging property, and you don’t want us to do anything to disperse the crowd right now?” an officer said.

“Negative,” a commander replied. “You should have enough units there to disperse the crowd.”

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Police block off North Market Street on May 30. What started as peaceful rallies would end in a night of violence that shocked city leaders, business owners and residents alike. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Police commanders decided against firing pepper balls or spray in the confined spaces of the Market, worried that bystanders would be harmed. They called in a helicopter to give officers a better view of how events were unfolding on the ground.

Reynolds huddled with his commanders back at police headquarters, about 2 miles away. Tecklenburg, the city’s mayor, joined them as they watched the disturbance play out on a bank of television screens in the department’s Public Safety Operations Center.

With unrest threatening to spread from the Market, Reynolds and Tecklenburg stepped away to attend an emergency City Council meeting where an 11 p.m. curfew would be enacted for the city. The session went quickly. But by the time they emerged, the chaos had spilled over into the surrounding area.

At Meeting and Hasell streets, about a block from the Market, people smashed the window of a Charleston police cruiser and set it ablaze near FIG, one of the city’s most prominent restaurants.

Reynolds and his commanders gave the go-ahead for officers to fire pepper balls and canisters to scatter the protesters. They urged officers to make arrests, wherever possible.

Police knew they needed to keep the protesters away from King Street, a crowded artery lined with high-end shops and tony dining spots. After weeks of lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, King Street’s restaurants were open again and filled with house-bound families eager for a night out. Injecting a mob into that scene could prove disastrous.

But where else to send them? To the north and south lay residential neighborhoods with stately historic homes and a warren of back alleys and side streets. Meeting Street had plenty of shops and offices as well, but the road offered a straight path back to Marion Square, where all this had started.

“Just let them go towards Meeting (Street) and cut them off so they can’t go southbound,” a commander said. “We’re trying to disperse them but we don’t want them going on King Street whatsoever.”

The crowd had other ideas.

Gerald Nunoo, a 23-year-old server at Halls Chophouse, was on the patio when a police officer arrived with a warning: Rioters were fast approaching the swank Upper King steakhouse, where ribeyes top out at $99 a cut.

The restaurant went into a frenzy. Staff cleared tables and hustled customers outside.

The eldest of nine children, Nunoo’s protective instincts kicked in. He and another employee quickly escorted people to their cars, homes or hotels.

Nunoo worried most about the tourists. They weren’t from here. They didn’t know the real Charleston. This wasn’t it, he told them.

But his eyes told him differently as he walked back to Halls. Nunoo watched in disbelief as people tossed bricks through the front windows of O-Ku, a nearby sushi restaurant.

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A Charleston police cruiser was set on fire at Hasell and Meeting streets during the chaos. 9-1-1 calls poured in to emergency dispatchers as law enforcement, overwhelmed and under attack themselves, struggled to get control over the situation. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Calls for help

9 p.m.

As police struggled for control, a Charleston County Sheriff’s Office helicopter gave officers an overhead view of where rioters were headed.

“Can we get the air unit to give us an idea of what the crowd is doing so we can get an idea?” an officer said over the police radio. “Because I feel like we’re chasing each other.”

Officers formed lines along a block of Calhoun bordered by King and Meeting streets, the two main thoroughfares running north and south on the peninsula. They prepared to push north, hoping to drive the rioters out of downtown before more damage was done.

At the police command center, supervisors cheered when an officer nabbed a looter at King and Calhoun streets. But the cheers soon died. Within moments, 20 or 30 rioters swarmed the officer and dragged him off the suspect. They punched and kicked the officer before he managed to escape.

As the violence escalated, Reynolds called for reinforcements. More than 130 additional officers raced in from area police departments, sheriff’s offices and state agencies. But it would take time for them to get downtown and suit up for battle.

Meantime, Reynolds’ forces had to slow down and control what they could. That meant holding King and Calhoun, a base from which they could launch an eventual push to restore order. Their overriding goal: Protect life first and property second.

As Tecklenburg called Gov. Henry McMaster to request help from the National Guard, the rioters descended on restaurants along King, rattling and smashing windows while horrified diners looked on.

A wine bottle sailed through a window at The Ordinary, an upscale seafood restaurant on King near Cannon street, ricocheting off the floor without hitting anyone.

At The Rarebit, a nearby eatery known for comfort food, staff rushed children and seniors to safety in upstairs rooms.

Someone lobbed a firecracker inside O-Ku, setting off a crackling cascade of pyrotechnics in the center of a dining room where guests were seated.

Down the street at Halls, a staffer fired gunshots to scare off a group of protesters who had jumped a diner outside the restaurant, knocking him to the ground.

Soon, 911 calls flooded the emergency dispatch center.

At John King Bar and Grill, a female employee’s voice trembled as she pleaded for police to send help.

“We’re all upstairs trying to hide,” she told a dispatcher from the restaurant’s third floor. “I think they’re inside. They’re downstairs. ... The guys are staying on the second floor trying to make sure they don’t come up.”

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Officers in riot gear block off Calhoun and King Street in an attempt to control the escalating violence and answer the calls for help. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

‘They broke everything’

9:50 p.m.

Ahmed Hassan dialed for help as well, about 10 minutes after his wife Sandra had alerted police to looters ransacking the couple’s convenience store, College Market. He’d left a dinner with friends and family to protect the business he had invested so much time and effort to build.

“They broke the glass, they broke everything,” he told a dispatcher. “They took everything from my store. We have an emergency. We need protection for the business.”

Hassan, who grew up in Kuwait and Egypt, moved to the United States in 1997 in search of a good education and fruitful work. He met Sandra in Texas and they moved in 2009 to Charleston, where Hassan worked for Boeing, making parts for airplanes.

He struck out on his own in 2011 and opened a convenience store at Line and Ashe streets. College Market came along four years later and Hassan eventually left Boeing to work as a contractor, manage his two stores and open a pair of restaurants.

Hassan felt wounded as he took stock of the damage to his King Street store.

Someone had sawed off the top of the front door while others hurled rocks and concrete through the windows. They knocked over shelves, destroyed merchandise, broke a brand new walk-in beer cooler and made off with reams of unscratched lottery tickets.

With the riot raging around him, Hassan set to work putting up plywood boards where his front door used to be.

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The King Street Grocery was one of the businesses looted during a night

of unexpected mayhem May 30 in downtown Charleston. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

Fever pitch

10 p.m.

As Hassan labored, reports continued to pour into the dispatch center of looting, damage and destruction across downtown Charleston.

Shots fired outside a seafood restaurant. Two men prowling King Street with an assault rifle. A store owner assaulted with bricks. Pillagers ransacking a clothing store.

Callers demanded to know when help would arrive.

“I’m watching a live video of our city being destroyed and I don’t see a single police officer on the scene,” one caller barked. “I’m wondering where the hell are the cops?”

A man living in an apartment above O-Ku called 911 to report people trying to break down the gate to his apartment.

“I think I’m safe if they don’t break this gate down,” the caller said. “I understand you guys probably knew this was coming, right?”

“Unfortunately,” a dispatcher replied, “we were expecting it but I don’t think anyone really expected it to be this bad.”

The caller likely didn’t know that police were gathered en masse just two blocks down from O-Ku. But they had little hope of reaching him at that point. They struggled just to hold their position at King and Calhoun as the chaos swelled.

“Once we get enough units, we’ll start being more proactive,” a commander told officers.

Minutes before, they tried pushing north on King but came under attack from rioters lying in wait in the darkness shrouding Marion Square. Another group of rioters was fast-approaching from their rear, threatening to pin the officers between two unruly factions. And the threats kept coming.

“Please be advised, they’re throwing large rocks over there (by) King and Spring at any police vehicle coming by,” an officer said.

In the command center, Reynolds listened anxiously to his officers struggling in harm’s way. He knew he had to stay calm. There was chaos in the streets, to be sure. But they couldn’t solve this crisis, he reasoned, if there was chaos in the command post as well.

The chief focused on preparing his officers for a final push north to reclaim Upper King from the rioters. Reinforcements were arriving and the time neared when police could put their strategies in motion.

Meantime, the riot reached its zenith.

Amid sidewalks littered with broken glass and other debris, a cacophony of burglar and fire alarms blared as people roamed the streets lighting fires and pillaging what they could find.

Smoke from one blaze filled the West Elm modern furniture store on Upper King as looters stepped through shattered windows and snatched pillows, chairs, blankets — whatever they could carry before the fumes overwhelmed them.

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Charleston Fire Department put out a fire at West Elm Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Charleston.Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

'That was ugly just now'

11:30 p.m.

Just down the street, looters pushed down a metal door at El Jefe Texican Cantina and vaulted over the bar to grab liquor from the Tex-Mex restaurant.

Thrower, the activist, walked through the area, still streaming live videos on Facebook. As he surveyed the bedlam, he decided he’d had enough.

“I’m on my way out, y’all,” he said, after coming across a tense altercation between a group of young women. “I’m done. ... This has been, literally a disaster tonight, y’all. Well, people asking why. I think you understand why.”

A loud pop suddenly echoed. Thrower cursed.

“That was ugly just now,” he said. “That was a gun. A dude just sat in the middle of the street and shot a gun in the air. ... Oh yeah, this is definitely ‘The Purge.’”

Turning the tide

Midnight, May 31

An hour into the curfew, police had started their move, issuing an ultimatum over loudspeakers: Rioters must clear out immediately or be arrested.

But progress was slow.

Lines of officers clad in helmets and gas masks brandished batons as they marched up the peninsula, walking in tandem up St. Philip, King and Meeting streets.

Some clutched paintball guns used to fire pepper balls at looters. Others launched pepper spray canisters ahead of them. Clouds of stinging, gray fumes billowed in the warm breeze, sending people running.

“Turn around or go to jail,” an officer yelled through a megaphone. “This is your last warning.”

Block by block, officers pushed north, marching past gaping holes in storefronts left by rocks, bricks and hammers.

A stream of water flowed out of West Elm, pooling in the street as the store’s fire alarm pulsed through the night.

Police worked methodically to clear each block they passed, peering down side streets, behind trash bins, planters — anywhere someone could hide. The process would take hours, but the tide had begun to turn.

Farther up the street, an older Black man walked past a group of looters at a shoe store and shouted, “It’s over. Enough damage has been done. Y’all hurt King Street.”

By 3 a.m., it was over. Police had finally cleared the peninsula, 13 hours after protesters arrived at Marion Square.

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Police block off Calhoun and King Street on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

Aftermath

As the sun rose on May 31, Charleston residents streamed to King Street to see the destruction for themselves. They brought brooms, dustpans and shovels to help business owners clean up.

Many criticized the city’s response, accusing authorities of passively standing by as rioters ravaged Charleston. Rumors flew about a so-called “stand-down order” that prevented officers from making arrests.

Reynolds, the chief, maintained no such order was issued. He insisted his officers did all they could to tamp down violence, arrest looters and bring the riot under control.

The chief has promised more answers when an after-action report on the police response is completed and made public, likely at the end of September. Meantime, the city and state have worked to get federal emergency funds or loans to assist damaged businesses, and the Small Business Administration announced a loan program to help. City officials waived permitting fees and approvals needed for repairs.

Protests continued on a daily basis after the riot. There was no further violence, but area police were criticized for arresting peaceful demonstrators. Resounding calls for change helped convince the city to remove the controversial statue of John Calhoun from its towering pedestal in Marion Square in late June.

The rallies have since dwindled in size and frequency over the past two months. But frustrations linger for many.

Some residents have criticized police for donning riot gear on May 30, saying the presence of officers in military-style equipment inflamed a delicate situation. Others argue that authorities should have cracked down on protesters at the first signs of trouble.

“When did our Police Department become spectators and not providers of justice?” Andrew Slotin, whose family owns a King Street antiques shop, wrote in an email to the city. “In addition to being closed for 9 weeks due to Covid-19, this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

Geoff Alpert, a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina, wrote after-action reports for the Miami-Dade Police Department following riots in the 1980s. He thinks Reynolds took the right approach to controlling the riot, but he suspects mistakes were made in the response, given officers’ inexperience with handling major civil disturbances.

Reynolds was quick to blame outsiders for the violence in the immediate aftermath of the riot. But jail records later indicated the majority of those arrested hailed from the Charleston region.

Thrower, the activist who chronicled the riot, said city leaders were clearly caught off guard by the anger festering in the community and the emergence of a new crop of activists pushing for social justice.

“All the people that we saw that night, you can hear their frustration,” he said. “The more and more people don’t listen, the more people make bigger pushes. You’re actually seeing it play out in front of your eyes.”

Hassan, owner of the College Market, has spent several weeks repairing $180,000 worth of damage looters did to his store. His insurance company balked at paying the bill, so Hassan must come up with the money himself.

“It was so sad to see all your effort, all your work, gone,” Ahmed said.

Now, he rebuilds, alone. He doesn't understand why looters targeted his store, or why police didn't do more to stop it. 

Down on King Street, a sense of normalcy is struggling to return. The heart of old Charleston is quieter than usual during the lingering coronavirus pandemic. Gone are the thronging crowds of tourists that would normally pack bars and restaurants during high summer.

The days slip ceaselessly toward fall and the memory of the riot fades into a nightmare of fires and broken glass. 

But the echoes of that night continue — calls for justice, demands for change — simmering just beneath the surface. 

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Protesters confront police on Meeting Street downtown as darkness falls in Charleston. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/ Staff

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

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