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Man sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for role in Charleston riot

RIot Night_2.jpg (copy) (copy)

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

A Charleston man was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for civil disorder connected to last year's riot in downtown Charleston.

Abraham "AJ" Jenkins was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Gergel to 18 months in federal prison followed by 36 months of supervised release for the offense. 

"The U.S. Attorney's Office will always protect the First Amendment rights of South Carolinians," Acting U.S. Attorney M. Rhett DeHart said in a statement July 8. "However, when peaceful protests turn into violence and destruction, the violent agitators committing crimes will be brought to justice." 

Jenkins, 26, pleaded guilty in the fall to civil disorder after admitting he damaged police equipment and harassed law enforcement officers attempting to quell the vandalism and looting that erupted May 30, 2020, following protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer. 

Abraham Jenkins

Abraham Jenkins. CCSO/Provided

Cameron J. Blazer, Jenkins' attorney, said in a sentencing memorandum her client jumped onto a Mount Pleasant police cruiser during the protest to catalyze what he saw as a complacent, disorganized crowd. 

"He knew he was taking a risk, openly damaging a police vehicle," Blazer said. "But he felt it was a risk worth taking to draw attention to the pervasive problem of extrajudicial killings of black people in America." 

Jenkins did not minimize what he did in statements to police after the riot, Blazer said. He admitted to spraying a fire extinguisher toward one group of officers and later throwing the extinguisher at another group of officers. He also took a flaming rag and threw it into the back of a Charleston police cruiser, causing the vehicle to catch on fire, and threw a water bottle at a patrol officer. 

But the crimes, Blazer said, were only a response to police tactics that forced protesters into smaller and smaller areas of the city. 

Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds said his department applauded the successful resolution of Jenkins' case. 

“While the Charleston Police Department will always support our citizen’s right to peaceful protest, we will never condone violent or destructive acts that endanger our citizens or damage property," Reynolds said. "More work remains to be accomplished as we continue investigating and prosecuting those violent offenders responsible for the significant destruction of property, assault on our citizens and attack on our officers. We will not rest until justice is accomplished for all impacted by those criminal acts.”

On May 30, 2020, peaceful protests against Floyd's killing transitioned into rioting as night fell, with protesters downtown shooting fireworks and deploying fire extinguishers at police while others looted and vandalized businesses. Panicked residents and business owners flooded dispatch systems with calls for service as officers in riot gear confronted protesters in the city's business district. 

Thirty-five people were arrested in connection to the riot, and fires alone caused an estimated $2.28 million in damage, according to a report later released by the city. 

Jenkins was one of six people charged in federal court in the fall with committing acts of violence or vandalism during protests in Charleston and Columbia, which experienced its own violent protests following Floyd's killing in May 2020. 

Jenkins is the second person sentenced in connection with the Charleston violence. 

In April, Tearra Guthrie, 23, was sentenced to time served and ordered to pay $1,224 in restitution to the city of Charleston after pleading guilty to a civil disorder charge, according to court records. 

In letters of support written for Jenkins before his July 7 sentencing hearing, friends and community leaders described the 26-year-old as a caring and passionate young man who was active in the community.

After the riot, Jenkins started a barbecue business and a community organization, Big Bros 4 Life, which provides mentoring, life skills and community service opportunities to boys and young men in Charleston, according to Allison Hilton, his longtime friend and Big Bros 4 Life board member. Pastor Nathan Smalls of Mount Carmel United Methodist Church said Jenkins also led a mentor group that recently conducted a community trash pickup.

Jenkins remains charged in the 9th Judicial Circuit with arson, riot, assault and vandalism in connection with the riot, according to state court records. 

Reach Steve Garrison 843-607-1052. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT.

Steve Garrison covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native of Chicago who previously covered courts and crime in Wisconsin, New Mexico and Indiana. He studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Missouri.

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