It was an hour before the start of the Black Panther rally, scheduled from 12 to 4 p.m. on the Columbia, South Carolina capitol grounds. It was to overlap with the Ku Klux Klan rally, scheduled at the same location, from 3 to 5 p.m. That gave an hour for both groups to occupy the same space simultaneously. We wanted to attend to see the messages from both groups and to learn why those who oppose both groups revere the Confederate flag. We wanted to find a redemption story.
We had no idea what to expect other than theatrics from two groups stuck in a self-imposed time warp. We developed a game plan ahead of time (which we needed) in case things got out of hand and our group was divided.
When we arrived on site the Black Panthers were just warming up. A few members stood onstage, their arms outstretched into fists, sporting the full black ensemble replete with black chapeau.
“Black power!” shouted the emcee, who was with Black Educators for Justice.
“Black power!” the small crowed shouted back.
A few supporters of the Klan and the Confederate flag were in the audience, surrounded by Columbia police officers, as members of the Panther crowed took turns arguing with them. One of the men holding the Nazi flag gave the Nazi salute, and when confronted by a veteran, told him to “shut up.”
“Are you in shackles?” the Klan man said to a woman who confronted him. She continued to yell at him. “Are you in shackles?” he repeated. “Are you in shackles?”
“No,” she responded.
“Well you should be. You should be in shackles,” he said.
A succession of speakers began: One spoke “spiritual languages” and called people “crackers.” Another man, who said he was 46 years old, screamed “The Klan wears hoods because when they take them off they put on the uniform!”
The crowd cheered.
I went glass-eyed at one point because there is only so many times a person can hear “cracker this, cracker that” and attacks on faith before consciously bowing out.
A representative from the national Black Panther group arrived, in lieu of the hoped-for Malik Shabazz. Shabazz was detained by the Transportation Security Administration, according to the replacement. He said it was a conspiracy to keep the leader from his audience. Shabazz’s deputy then launched into a blistering 30-minute speech wherein he called Jesus a “cracker,” slammed the “white man’s religion,” and blamed all of the country’s racial ills on the Klan. The Black Panthers give more influence to the Klan than the Klan actually possesses.
“They may be the two percent but the 98 percent benefit from what the Klan does!” he shouted. The crowd roared.
It also grew: A family of about six adults arrived carrying a Confederate flag and stood peacefully in the background. They were there for heritage, not hate, they said, and were careful not to antagonize dissenters. Unfortunately, they were completely outnumbered.
After we saw a man get hit over the head with his own Confederate flag, the local police, state troopers, and highway patrol began mobilizing. The Klan had arrived.
Police formed a human barricade on each side of the sidewalk approaching the back steps of the capitol and around 40 or so Klansmen theatrically marched two-by-two towards the capitol’s steps. They wore Klan shirts with the group’s symbols; some were dressed like the Black Panthers and instead of Panther logos had “white knight” patches with hierarchy designations. Some proudly wore swastika patches and shirts. Others sported swastika tattoos.
They antagonized the crowd by yelling racial slurs, giving Nazi salutes, and giving the crowd the finger. The group didn’t even make it to the barricades by the steps before all hell broke loose: Rocks and bottles were thrown; a woman was hit in the face with a rock right in front of our cameraman. Her face busted open and blood was everywhere. My crew and I had to duck to escape the melee.
Police quickly contained it, arresting several people and taking the injured to ambulances. For the next hour the Klan, most of whom weren’t even from South Carolina, utilized the massive police presence to taunt the crowd from behind the safety of not one, but two layers of barricades. The man who had given Nazi salutes at the Panther rally joined the KKK on the steps and made monkey noises at every black counter protester he saw.
The Klan waved their flags, made crude gestures, screamed slurs, and told white counter protesters to “shut up, boy” or “shut up, girl.” Counter-protestors screamed obscenities in return. The Grand Dragon of one group -- which sounds incredibly magical, except that these are grown adults sorting themselves out in some make-believe hierarchy based on what I assume is shared DNA and bigotry -- hesitantly answered my questions and limited his time near the barricade. The counter-protester numbers -- black and white -- swelled to 2,00, according to Columbia police. It became so tense that authorities shut down the rally an hour early.
“Yeah, we showed them we aren’t scared of anybody!” the man yelled.
“But then how do you explain your need for the police presence?” I asked. He gestured to the crowd.
The Klan wasn’t out of the woods yet; the police had to barricade them in the garage and clear a way for them to leave, but not after they mooned people below from the third level, gave more Nazi salutes, and flipped off everyone again. When they did leave one drove his car into a light pole and had to be saved by police before the crowd, now a mob, swarmed his car. None of the vehicles leaving the garage carrying Klan members had South Carolina plates.
Five people were arrested, several others were injured in the skirmishes. Anyone who attended the rally to peacefully support the Confederate flag was completely overshadowed by the hate exhibited by the Klan -- and as a result, anyone who did show up to protest peacefully was immediately assumed by protesters as part of the hate cult. Those individuals quickly packed up and left, any message they had hoped to impart was completely hijacked by the white burka-wearing racists.
I’ve been to numerous rallies over the years and have never witnessed such division and hate as I saw Saturday. It was completely fostered by both the Black Panthers -- who inflated the influence of, and blamed everything on, the Klan -- and Klan members, who used their freedom of assembly to be crude, derogatory, and tried to start a riot.
The good news is that this is no longer the 1960s and the membership of both groups has waned. They looked like anemic, anachronistic clowns on the capitol steps, their salutes similar, their all-black outfits similar, their hateful rhetoric similar. They are mirror images of each other, one black, one white, each attempting an appeal to the far fringes of the races.
A photo posted by Dana Loesch (@dloesch) on
“It was hijacked by the Klan,” said one woman. “It was never supposed to mean all this. We love everyone, we just want to remember our ancestors.”
Their hatred for the Klan was obvious.
“No one wants to be associated with them, that’s why they don’t come out,” one South Carolinian emailed me upon seeing photos of our coverage on Twitter.
Growing up in Southern Missouri with Ozark roots, the Confederate flag was never a part of my culture. I never understood the reverence for it. My husband’s great-great grandfather, Charles Gustavus Loesch, fought for the union and was one of the survivors from Andersonville, the Confederate prisoner of war camp. All I learned in school was that it was a symbol of division. I have tried desperately to understand the perception of the Confederate flag by those who revere it, but it is so hard to do when these groups do all they can to preserve it as a symbol of hate.
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