Troopers arrest 19 at Occupy Columbia

Melissa Harmon was arrested at the Occupy Columbia protest Wednesday.

COLUMBIA -- Under the Confederate battle flag at the Statehouse, 19 Occupy protesters were arrested Wednesday and escorted by troopers to a basement corridor in the Capitol, where they lined the hallway and sang "God Bless America" with their arms handcuffed behind their backs.

The arrests were made on the order of Gov. Nikki Haley, a first-term Republican who said no one is a bigger fan of freedom of speech then she is. Haley told the protesters to come back today and bring their signs but to leave their mattresses at home and stop urinating in the bushes.

"There is nothing I love more than to see people who know the power of their voice -- nothing," the governor said around 4 p.m. After 33 days of the Occupy Columbia protest, Haley said the protesters have cost the state more than $17,000, mostly in overtime expenses for state troopers to stand guard. She gave them a two-hour warning to get off the grounds or be arrested.

Haley said she was ready to draw the line.

"We go by the rule of law in South Carolina," Haley said. "We are not California. We are not New York. We are South Carolina and we believe in respect of property and respect of citizens."

Melissa Harmon, a young woman from Columbia, helped corral a group of protesters who were prepared to be arrested after the 6 p.m. deadline. The troopers gave the protesters about 30 minutes to leave before they made the arrests, which were peaceful.

"This is my voice," Harmon said. "People would like to think that democracy happens at the ballot box. It doesn't. This is where it happens."

Like the other 18 who were arrested, Harmon chanted, "Who do you serve? Who do you protect?" as a trooper hauled her away and a soaking rain began to fall.

The arrest was Harmon's first. She works as a Wing Zone delivery driver and a freelance photographer. On her arms, she scrolled phone numbers in black permanent marker so she could call for a ride after her arrest. She wore jeans and T-shirt with the Alice Walker quote: "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any."

The protesters were taken to Richland County jail and charged with unauthorized use of Statehouse grounds, an offense that carries $100 fine or 30 days in jail, said Sid Gaulden, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.

It was not immediately clear when protesters were last arrested at the Statehouse. Until Wednesday, law enforcement had reported no incidents involving the Occupy protesters.

As troopers began making the arrests, the bulk of the 70-some protesters backed off the Statehouse grounds to a sidewalk across the street. They disbanded shortly after the final arrest.

Most of the sleeping bags, coolers and mattresses that had been piled under blue tarps earlier in the day were removed before the arrests were made. The protesters also had a portable toilets to use. The governor said, however, that they were relieving themselves on the grounds and leaving toilet paper in the bushes.

Leslie Minerd of Columbia stayed until the troopers told her to leave. She said she wants America to put an end to the country's great economic disparities, but because she has a child at home, she wasn't willing to get arrested.

"This is passive resistance," Minerd said.

Occupy Charleston protesters have come and gone. They held a 99-hour protest at Brittlebank Park in October. Across the country the protests continue, some with violent results.

The loosely organized group is protesting corporate greed, inequities in America and the sway the wealthy can have over politicians, among other complaints.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855, follow her at twitter.com/yvonnewenger and read her Political Briefings blog at postandcourier.com/blogs.