COLUMBIA, S.C. — Organizers of the Truthful Tuesday protests at the South Carolina Statehouse say a state law specifically targeting demonstrations inside the capitol is stifling their movement.
The law, passed in the 1960s, allows judges to sentence anyone convicted of demonstrating inside the capitol to up to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Prosecutors have told protest organizers they will try them under that law, instead of something like trespassing, which would carry much smaller penalties.
Protest organizers told the 25 people gathering for Tuesday's protest about the law before the demonstration began. It is one of the biggest reasons protesters aren't getting arrested in South Carolina like they did in similar demonstrations over Republican policies and social injustice in North Carolina or Wisconsin
"It makes a big difference," 65-year-old protester Labarre Blackman said of the steeper penalties. "I can't afford to put my time or my wallet where my mouth is.
The protests were the third of the Truthful Tuesday demonstrations to ask South Carolina lawmakers to accept federal money to expand Medicaid.
Protesters split up in several places at the Statehouse to catch senators as they came into the capitol. They asked them whether they supported the expansion and told them "shame" if they didn't.
Then they all gathered outside the Senate chambers and chanted "shame" at a volume just louder than the normal din in the lobby, but not loud enough to reach the disruptive level cited in the Statehouse protest law.
South Carolina Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey is organizing the protests and has spoken to prosecutors and officers in the Statehouse to make sure exactly what will be allowed and what won't. He has been protesting since the Vietnam War and the end of the civil rights era and hasn't seen anything like the Statehouse protest law.
"I do this for a living, so to speak, and there's nothing else like it anywhere," Bursey said.
The law was passed in the 1960s after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the arrest of a large group of black protesters outside the Statehouse was unconstitutional. It also served as a warning shot to anyone who wanted to protest the Vietnam War, Bursey said.
Organizers wanted the South Carolina protests to have the same kind of impact as the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina, where almost 1,000 people were arrested last year. The demonstrators in North Carolina were charged with trespassing and failure to disperse, which carry sentences of just weeks in prison at most. Those convicted have faced a $100 fine and court costs.
"In the old protests, like civil rights or the Vietnam War, it was important to have bodies and people willing to give up their freedom to make a point," Bursey said. "Getting arrested still gets people's attention."
Bursey is being helped by the Rev. Nelson Rivers III with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Rivers said civil rights groups are looking to see whether they can win if they challenge the law in court. The law is vague, including language saying it is unlawful for anyone "to parade, demonstrate or picket within the capitol building."
"It has got to be unconstitutional to prevent people from telling their government they don't like the direction it is heading," Rivers said. "But people in power don't like to hear from the people they don't want to have power."
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