Bucolic Southern City Erupts In Aftermath of George Floyd Killing

June 1, 2020 by Dan McCue
Protesters gather outside the Daughters of the Civil War Museum in downtown Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Dan McCue)

CHARLESTON, S.C. – A day of peaceful protests in one of the South’s most bucolic cities turned violent Saturday night as angry crowds smashed storefronts, battled police and engaged in clashes with business owners trying to protect their property.

The daytime protest, which drew several thousand people to King Street, Charleston’s main shopping area and ordinarily a magnet for tourists, was called to honor George Floyd, an African-American man who died in Minneapolis, Minn. Monday while handcuffed and in police custody.

The incident was caught on video that was later seen around the world. The video shows Floyd gasping for breath during an arrest in which an officer knelt on his neck for almost eight minutes.

The officer, Derek Chauvin, was immediately fired and was arrested late Friday morning and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Three other officers involved in Floyd’s curbside detention were also fired, but they have not been arrested or charged.

But those arrests have done nothing to quell days of violent demonstrations across the United States.

Charleston was just one of at least 10 U.S. cities to see protests in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd while in police custody. While most of the protests were peaceful, some turned violent, leading to the activation of the National Guard in at least 21 states.

In Washington, D.C., the area around the White House was the hardest hit with fires set, cars overturned and windows smashed on prominent windows of buildings near the national mall. The Secret Service briefly moved President Donald Trump to the underground bunker at the executive mansion to ensure his safety.

In Charleston, Black Lives Matter had organized the initial gathering at Marion Square, a large park just north of the city’s historic district, and a few short blocks from the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, where, in June 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof murder nine African-Americans during a bible study class.

The assembly of protestors soon morphed into two groups, one that moved on to block traffic on Interstate-26, the highway leading into the city, and the other that marched down the commercial heart of the city.

About two dozen police officers, wearing helmets and armed with batons, met the second group of protestors several blocks later in front of the Williams Sonoma store, and tried to persuade them to either disperse or go back to the park.

Instead, the protest surged forward, before turning east, toward Meeting Street, and the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum.

There, several members of the crowd gave angry speeches, and a number of banners and signs were affixed to the brass railings on the building and its staircase. Despite the stirred passions, no altercations had occurred to this point, and the only reported vandalism, was the defacing of the “Confederate Defenders” statue at the harbor-front battery, which was spray-painted with the word “traitors” and the letters “BLM” before the crowd, which had continued to grow throughout the day, proceeded to march back to Marion Square.

The day’s tensions began to escalate when the protesters encountered two men who were carrying an American flag and wearing red hats that said “Keep America Great” and “Trump 2020.”

Several members of the crowd ran up and started punching the men, driving them backwards into a Moe’s Southwest Grill restaurant from which it appeared they’d just emerged.

Even then, the crowd continued to pelt the men with water bottles and other debris until Charleston city police officers created a barrier between the protestors and the Trump supporters, and the men were escorted away.

As they were, however, one of the protestors grabbed the Trump hat one of the men was wearing and set it on fire.

At this point, Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey imposed a curfew beginning at 11 p.m. and ending 7 a.m. Sunday morning.

“Charleston County joins the rest of the nation grieving over the death of George Floyd. Our citizens have the right to be angry and the right to protest this unspeakable tragedy. Now is the time to join together and honor Mr. Floyd’s memory peacefully,” Summey said in a prepared statement.

At about the same time, Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds told reporters following the marchers, and that the members of the crowd were exercising their rights.

However, as night fell and anger on the streets continued to grow unabated, dozens of storefronts were smashed, and at one point a police officer was knocked to the ground and punched by several protesters.

On Calhoun Street, the avenue that separates the park from the commercial area to the south, a protester climbed atop a police car and jumped on its back windshield, shattering it as a young woman witnessing the scene yelled, “No, this is a peaceful protest.”

Even reporters weren’t safe, with a van from the CBS affiliate in the city having its windshield smashed as well.

With that, the night exploded. Swarming mobs smashed the windows of restaurants, causing diners to rush away leaving half finished drinks and plates of food amid shards of glass.

Among the stores that appeared to sustain the greatest damage were the local Apple store and a furniture store that was briefly set ablaze before its sprinkler system went off, drenching whatever merchandise was left.

At one popular restaurant, the Chops Steakhouse, managers and employees were seen fighting back against the protesters, spraying them with what appeared to be pepper spray.

At the 11 p.m. curfew, police used pepper spray and smoke to move the protestors out of the heart of the city, telling the stragglers they would be arrested if they didn’t go home.

“It’s not going to look good when the sun comes up tomorrow in our city,” Chief Reynolds said as he spoke at a hastily called city council meeting.

He estimated that fewer than 100 of the thousands of protestors who had been in the city Saturday caused the damage.

On Sunday morning, King Street was filled with the sight and sound of grim-faced store owners and employees, cleaning up as armored vehicles moved through the area.

Meanwhile, another day of protests began with a peaceful gathering of about 400 people on the Charleston battery.

Responding to the protest in Charleston and an equally violent protest in the state capital of Columbia, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster said he welcomes citizens “peacefully assembling to express their concerns,” but added “We do not tolerate lawlessness and violence and the destruction of property and harm to people.”

On Sunday afternoon, the City of Charleston imposed a curfew running from 6 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Monday morning, and requested National Guard assistance to deal with any overnight riots. 

At the same time, hundreds of business owners were boarding up their establishments fearing another night of mayhem as protests spread throughout the Charleston region.

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