- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina legislators say state officials didn’t use common sense when they allowed two opposing hate groups to hold overlapping rallies at the Statehouse that resulted in violence, despite a massive police presence.

A legislative panel that oversees Statehouse grounds asked a Department of Administration official Tuesday why he authorized the Ku Klux Klan and a group affiliated with the New Black Panther Party to rally July 18 on opposite sides of the Statehouse.

“The KKK, they hate black people. The Black Panthers hate white people. It seems to me somebody would realize they weren’t coming to eat cookies and drink lemonade,” said Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia.

Nolan Wiggins, a division director at the agency, said it came down to people’s free speech and assembly rights under the First Amendment. Requests to hold an event on Statehouse grounds are approved on a first-come, first-served basis, he said.

“In the interest of not having the state embroiled in litigation, we approved both,” he said.

But the panel’s chairman, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, faulted the Cabinet agency for not even asking the groups to rally on separate days or at least several hours apart. The State House Committee will review other states’ rules before considering changes, Peeler said.

Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith encouraged legislators to restrict known hate groups from holding events at the Statehouse.

Activist Brett Bursey asked legislators to do nothing.

“Don’t let outside groups in this rare instance change the laws that have been working so well,” said Bursey, director of the South Carolina Progressive Network.

The Southern Poverty Law Center considers both the KKK and New Black Panther Party racist extremist groups.

Wiggins did not address why the agency felt it could change one group’s requested location but nothing else.

Signed forms show both groups sought permission to rally July 18 on the Statehouse’s front steps, near the Confederate Soldiers Monument. At the time of the requests, the Confederate battle flag still flew on a 30-foot pole beside the monument.

The North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights of the KKK applied June 23, the day after Gov. Nikki Haley called for the flag’s removal. An email dated July 1 instead gave the group permission to rally on the opposite side of the Statehouse. The Florida-based Black Educators for Justice applied July 6. It received written approval the next day.

Neither group’s requested time was altered, allowing a one-hour overlap.

Legislators praised law enforcement’s handling of the situation. Law enforcement chiefs said they weren’t consulted about the requests until permission was given.

Wiggins said that, from now on, his agency will notify both the State Law Enforcement Division and the Department of Public Safety about all Statehouse event requests and not respond until hearing back from both agencies.

Seven state and local law enforcement agencies had officers present. The Department of Public Safety, which is responsible for Statehouse security, has declined to specify how many. It has estimated the crowd at 2,000 at its peak.

Fights broke out as shouting and obscenities between the white supremacists and their counter-demonstrators behind a police barricade escalated. Officers ended the white supremacists’ rally an hour early for safety reasons.

At least five people were arrested during the rally. Law enforcement chiefs said Tuesday more were arrested afterward, and agencies are reviewing video in an attempt to identify and prosecute additional offenders.

“We tried to prevent it, but there were crimes committed. We were outnumbered. The crowd got so large, by the time we got into that crowd and tried to find the violators, they’d moved,” SLED Chief Mark Keel said.

The rallies occurred a week after the Confederate flag’s removal.

Haley’s call and the Legislature’s vote to take it down followed the massacre of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston. The victims included its pastor, Sen. Clementa Pinckney. The 21-year-old white man charged with killing them posed in photos with a Confederate flag.

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