The Daily Gamecock

‘Occupy’ returns to Statehouse

Protesters march to City Hall, police headquarters

And as of Monday night, they were right, as Leroy Smith, director of the Department of Public Safety, said that demonstrators who remain at the Statehouse after 6 p.m. would not be arrested, provided they don't bring sleeping bags or establish another encampment.

Last Wednesday, Gov. Nikki Haley announced at a press conference that protesters were no longer welcome on the grounds after 6 p.m., citing concerns that they were damaging and defiling the property.

That evening, 19 of those protesters were arrested, and "Occupy Columbia" appeared to be dealt a significant blow.

On Monday, though, Brett Bursey, executive director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, which organized the rally, announced Smith's decision, adding, "We're declaring victory."

Protesters erupted in cheers at Bursey's announcement, but the group still had qualms with the new restrictions on setting up sleeping and living arrangements.
"We don't believe that our First Amendment rights cease to exist when we enter a sleeping bag," "Occupy Columbia" said in a press release.

The fate of those demonstrators who were arrested last week didn't appear to have changed, according to Zackary Wise, chief of police for the Bureau of Protective Services, which has jurisdiction over the Statehouse and made arrests last week. Their cases would not be dropped, and they were still headed to court, he said.

But Bursey speculated that the charges wouldn't hold up.

"I believe that as soon as it gets in front of a judge, the judge will ... not be able to draw a line between the charge and the statute," he said.

The concession came after "Occupy Columbia" saw nearly a week of newfound energy and support from the public and elected officials.

Earlier in the day, about 35 protesters marched through downtown to City Hall and the police department's headquarters to thank Mayor Steve Benjamin and Police Chief Randy Scott. Last week, Benjamin publicly offered his support for protesters' right to assemble, and Scott denied the Bureau of Protective Service's request for a paddy wagon to transport those arrested.

Though the mayor did not personally meet with protesters Monday afternoon, he offered a letter they read aloud multiple times throughout the evening.

"At issue here is not the cause of your protest but your right to do so," his letter read. "When I took office as mayor of Columbia, I swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of this state and of the United States, so help me God ... and it is a responsibility I take very seriously."

Monday night, Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat representing Orangeburg, also expressed her support, standing alongside about 150 others who gathered around the Statehouse steps.

"I don't buy the argument [made by Haley] that the occupiers had trampled on the grounds," Cobb-Hunter said. "The information that I had was contrary to that, so I think everybody just needs to take a deep breath and recognize that this too shall pass, but we ought not trample on people's rights to make a point."

The arrests appeared to have also reenergized the protesters, who have marched through campus and around town and who massed on Monday with numbers that far surpassed the demonstration's norm.

Elaine Cooper, of Columbia, who has been involved with the protests since their first day, noticed that surge in enthusiasm and energy.

"It's gained momentum," she said. "... If anything, what Nikki Haley has done to us is revved [us] up."


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