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Political group targeting Charleston City Council vote on racial conciliation commission

Charleston City Hall webref web recurring building exterior

Charleston City Council is set to vote on a new commission aimed at addressing inequities in the city. File/Staff

A conservative advocacy group is challenging Charleston City Council to vote against a recently revised ordinance that would clear the way for a racial conciliation commission.

The American Heritage Association has claimed — in a paid newspaper advertisement, in social media posts, in emails sent to West Ashley residents, and in an online petition — that City Council members, should they vote in favor of a commission, are promoting critical race theory, defunding the police, reparations and releasing criminals without bail. Public speakers before council on Dec. 21 made similar claims.

"This commission is an assault on the people of Charleston. It is based on the false idea that Charleston is a systemically racist city," American Heritage Association President Brett Barry said.

In September, City Council voted against making the Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation permanent. The temporary commission had been created in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent protests. 

The special commission spent a year studying the history and current manifestations of racial, social and economic injustice in Charleston, and drafted 125 recommendations for addressing a host of issues. Council voted against accepting the commission's final report, though members were under no obligation to approve any of the recommendations.

The new ordinance, up for a vote Jan. 11, replaces the name "Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation" with "Human Affairs and Racial Conciliation Commission," and does not include any of Barry's assertions. That's the point, according to two council members singled out by what they consider to be the American Heritage Association's misinformation campaign.

“Apparently, someone’s out there forwarding information with my name on it saying I’m favoring an extremist position, defunding the police,” Councilman Peter Shahid said.

The email and social media blitz also suggests that Shahid and his colleague Karl Brady Jr., support teaching critical race theory in schools and adopting a reparations program.

Both councilmen said their records speak for themselves. They oppose reparations and CRT, and they have voted repeatedly over the years to increase police department funding.

The only reason they are now able to vote in favor of the amended ordinance is because reference to specific policies was purposefully omitted, and because the commission now would have a three-year renewable term.

"We don't want to bind a future council," Shahid said.

The American Heritage Association is funding a lawsuit against the city of Charleston to prevent it from lending the decommissioned statue of John C. Calhoun to a Los Angeles-based art exhibit.

In a press release circulated with the lawsuit, the association included a quote from state Rep. Lin Bennett, R-Charleston, who said she would introduce legislation withholding state funding from Charleston if the city agrees to relocate the statute.

State funding directed at cities helps pay for essential services such as policing, firefighting, garbage collecting and more, Shahid said.

Barry said it was his understanding the state funding would not affect public safety.

"This is a desperate attempt by Councilman Shahid to deflect," he said.

Barry said it's not possible to separate the commission from the recommendations contained in the report, and any effort to establish the group now is not substantially different from the first time around. 

"It's the same thing," he said. "They’re just trying to put a new coat of paint on it."

The new commission would "acknowledge" the original recommendations, but it would not be obligated to consider them. Some of the original suggestions, including teaching CRT, do not fall under the purview of council.

Brady said the current vote is only about forming a commission with a revised scope and purpose that would consider ways the city can better serve all marginalized communities, not only African Americans.

“We wanted this to be seen as a new commission that would look at issues of equity in city government, and the city’s racial history is part of that, but we didn’t want it to be just that," Brady said. Supporting a newly conceived commission is in "no way an endorsement of the report.”

Before their last meeting on Dec. 21, West Ashley council members Brady, Shahid and Ross Appel — who all had voted against accepting the original report and forming a permanent commission — met with their colleagues Jason Sakran and William Dudley Gregorie to hash out a compromise that resulted in a revised ordinance. No public debate ensued, and the changes were not reflected in the meeting's public agenda, perhaps leading to some confusion over what exactly was under consideration. It passed a first vote. The revised ordinance, now publicly available, is up for a final vote on Jan. 11.

In a statement, Tecklenburg rejected the American Heritage Association's claims.

"I've increased, not decreased, the police budget every year I've been mayor," he said. "I've supported affordable housing and minority business opportunities, not cash reparations. And like most 1960s music fans, I know a lot more about CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival) than CRT, but wouldn't impose either one on our school kids. Long story short, Council won't be voting on any of those issues Tuesday night and the claims in the petition are false."

Gregorie said he was comfortable with the new ordinance. The recommendations in the report now are merely a matter of reference, a potential starting point for a new commission, he said.

"What we have is a compromise I can live with," he said.

Reach Emma Whalen at 843-708-5837. Follow her on Twitter @_emma_whalen. 

Emma covers the city of Charleston for the Post and Courier. Previously, she covered city hall and general assignments for newspapers in Houston and Austin. She is a Boston-area native, former student athlete and graduate of The University of Texas.

Adam Parker has covered many beats and topics for The Post and Courier, including race and history, religion, and the arts. He is the author of "Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.," published by Hub City Press.

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