A police car burns in downtown Columbia.
Two weeks ago, my church started having live masses again. I continued to watch them online, but they were happening. Now, they’ve been stopped again — by a curfew, in response to violence.
I didn’t post about this yesterday, because I was hoping to know a lot more if I waited. I still can’t say I know a lot. Local media seem to be trying hard, but there are more questions than answers.
So I’m still where I was when I saw the first reports of violence and gunshots near the police station downtown. My reaction then was, Hold on. Something is really, really off here. Things like this don’t happen in Columbia.
And they don’t. Normally, public demonstrations — particularly those having to do with issues touching on racial tension — are very much in the dignified, MLK tradition of civil witness. I’ve certainly been to plenty of them, with regard to the flag and other matters. And there are certain things you expect — things that make you proud to live in a community such as this one.
Columbia has a long tradition of this. In the early and mid-’60s, both black and white leaders in the community looked around the country, and they began talking to each other to try to get us through desegregation without the strife seen elsewhere. This was harder than it looks from today’s perspective. There was no venue for such conversations — black and white folks coming together as equals — to take place. Then-president Tom Jones offered to let them meet on campus at USC. These conversations led, among other things, to a relatively peaceful desegregation of downtown businesses.
Out of those conversations grew the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, whose board I felt honored to serve on for several years (until just a few months ago). We didn’t accomplish anything so dramatic during my time, but the spirit that those meetings in the ’60s represented — let’s get together and figure out how to solve this — seemed reflected in how we talked about difficult issues in Columbia.
Even when horrible, evil things happened in South Carolina — such as the murders of those nine good people in Charleston in 2015 — I remember seeing comments from people wondering why South Carolina didn’t explode violently the way other places had with less provocation. Instead, leaders came together to mourn, and then to take action, together, to get rid of the flag. Yep, all they did was something that should have been done decades earlier — which means that yes, we still have plenty to be ashamed of in South Carolina — but they did it.
So when I saw that there would be a demonstration in Columbia about the death of George Floyd, I figured it would be a demonstration that would show other places how this kind of thing is done — sober witness, a sharing of grief, an airing of frustration that would demand respect.
And, from what I have heard, that’s what happened. There was such a demonstration at the State House.
But then later, several blocks away, all hell broke loose. Violence. Police cars — and a U.S. flag — set on fire. Rocks thrown. Shots fired. Fifteen cops injured. It’s probably happened before, but I can’t remember when one cop has been injured in a riot in Columbia. Certainly nothing like this.
I’m not seeing these comments in the paper this morning, but yesterday I kept hearing from family members (as y’all know, I’m not much of a TV news watcher) that local leaders such as Mayor Steve Benjamin and Sheriff Leon Lott were saying (if you can help me with a link, it would be appreciated) the violence was the work of people from out of town.
In other words, their reaction sounds like it was the same as mine: Things like this don’t happen in Columbia.
Mind you, these are leaders who themselves had expressed their outrage at what happened to George Floyd. But they weren’t going to let people tear this town apart with pointless violence.
In Columbia, people protest. But they do it in a civilized manner, as we saw at the State House.
This was something else. And thus far, local officials are reacting appropriately to calm things down: Honoring those who express their grief and concerns in a rational manner. Stopping those who do things that don’t help any cause.
There’s a lot more to be done, locally and especially nationally. There are a lot of conversations to be had, and action to be taken. But for a community that’s unaccustomed to this kind of violence, we seem to be responding to it pretty well so far…