COLUMBIA — A half-dozen Occupy Columbia protesters returned to the Statehouse grounds Thursday, a day after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley ordered them off the lawn after sunset and 19 of them were arrested.
Holding signs and getting periodic honks from passing cars, several of the protesters said they intend to continue their activities and maintain their right to protest under the Constitution.
“We’re back!” said Dillon Corbett, 21, of Columbia. “Regardless of what the governor says, we are going to continue.”
Corbett said he was not among those arrested Wednesday evening, nor were several others who raised posters in the air and were greeted by periodic honks from passing drivers. Corbett said he and others decided not to join the group that was arrested so they could return Thursday.
“Democracy. Government by the People,” his placard read.
Richland County officials said all 19 protesters were released from jail early Thursday morning. A spokeswoman declined to say what type of bond they had posted.
On Wednesday under a driving rain, the protesters made a stand between a Confederate flag and a monument to Confederate war dead on the Statehouse grounds.
Haley had ordered them to leave after complaining about public urination and toilet paper strewn in bushes. She said the occupation of more than a month had cost $17,000 in police overtime and other expenses.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin issued a statement Thursday questioning the governor’s concerns about the protests and noted they have been nonviolent so far.
“The Statehouse doesn’t belong to 124 representatives, 45 senators or one governor. It belongs to the people of South Carolina and our rights to free speech and peaceful assembly trump any other concerns that have been raised,” Benjamin said.
Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, also questioned Haley’s approach.
“Putting property before people and their constitutional rights suggests our state government has the wrong priorities. Peaceful protest is the right of every American, and untidiness does not justify abridging First Amendment rights,” Middleton said in a separate statement.
In a telephone interview Thursday, arrested protester Tim Liszewski, 52, said all the protesters were released without putting up bail money after an 11 p.m. bond hearing.
He said they all face the same charge of unauthorized use of the Statehouse or its grounds. While the Department of Public Safety said the fine for that is $100, Liszewski said they face a $470 fine on the misdemeanor charge.
Liszewski said they have a Dec. 14 trial date. He said he intends to ask for a jury trial “because it will give us a chance to give our side of the story.”
Corbett and fellow protester Lauren Rhue, 23, of Columbia, said the group will fight the charges.
“Until the legal fight plays out, we’ll be here,” Rhue said.
“I plan to be here all day,” added Greg Rockwell, 25, of Fort Mill, S.C.
Rockwell said he is a University of South Carolina student in his second year of graduate work preparing to be a social worker.
Both Rhue and Corbett said the group may choose another location to protesting. They also said they chose not to be arrested on Wednesday so they could return the following day.
As they spoke, workmen behind them in a bucket truck continued to prepare a Christmas tree for a lighting ceremony set for next week.
Liszewski, who described himself as a writer and editor, said the group’s arrests brought out support for them that hadn’t been apparent before.
He pledged to continue the campaign and fight the charges because they hadn’t done anything wrong.
“Last night I felt more like a political prisoner because it was a political game. There wasn’t anything we were doing to the Statehouse ground or to the state of South Carolina that was making it unsafe or unsanitary or an unhealthy place to be. I’m going to continue speaking out,” he said.