Protesters exhort Trump, McMaster: ‘You represent us, too’

Hundreds, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, gather in Columbia to send message to political leaders

As America’s political divide deepens, protesters assembled Monday on Presidents Day at the S.C. State House to send a message to President Donald Trump and the state’s new – and unelected – Republican Gov. Henry McMaster.

Though living in an unmistakably red state, a group of nearly 600 people from across South Carolina – along with representatives from a wide range of statewide centrist and left-leaning political interest groups – nonetheless reminded the two politicians the state’s social and political conservatism is not monolithic.

The Rev. Al Sharpton (Photos by Hal Millard)

The crowd and the speakers – including national civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, in a surprise appearance – warned that liberals and progressives still make up a significant percentage of the state’s electorate.

They demanded that both men, along with the state’s and nation’s current GOP-dominated leadership, heed their concerns and grievances, and govern accordingly.

The groups also vowed to work together as one to make sure their voices are heard collectively.

“Our fight is everybody’s fight,” said Pastor Thomas Dixon of Charleston, co-organizer of Monday’s event, billed as the “People’s March on Columbia.”

“We’re trying to work our way out of a job (as protesters) … but I’m here for the long haul,” said Dixon, a former democratic U.S. Senate candidate and co-founder of The Coalition – People United to Take Back Our Community, who coordinated the rally along with Elder James Johnson, who heads the S.C. branch of Sharpton’s National Action Network.

State and national Republicans, added Dixon, should enjoy their victory now, “because we are coming for it, and we’re coming for it hard.”

“There’s a lot wrong with our nation right now,” he said, exhorting the crowd to keep up “the resistance.”

“But what we do will not be confined to a closet any longer.”

Solidarity also was the mantra of Sharpton, who joined the event after attending funeral services for the late state Rep. Joe Neal, whom Sharpton said would have been there if he could, and who would have wanted Sharpton to speak.

In a six-minute extemporaneous speech that whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and speaking in the shadow of the capital dome where flags flew at half-mast in Neal’s honor, Sharpton said:

“Just like we stood together, black and white, and Asian, Latino, and gay and straight and queer, Muslim, Christian, and Jew around the Confederate flag [removal], we must stand together now against Confederate immigration policies, Confederate sexual-orientation policies, Confederate healthcare policies,” Sharpton said.

“You can’t fight for nobody – unless you fight for everybody.”

‘Out of many, one’

Monday’s rally had a little something for everyone still smarting from last November’s electoral defeat.

Among the groups and issues represented were the LGBTQ community, Native Americans, the environment, a panoply of minority concerns, women’s reproductive rights and domestic violence, voting rights, healthcare, immigration, unionized labor, public education, gun control, refugees and Muslim civil rights, among others.

In all cases, those speaking on each of those topics fretted that the current national and state leadership were ignoring or imperiling them in a culture grown increasingly but unnecessarily hostile and fearful.

Unlike in the past, where single-issue groups have often worked independently of one another, the various speakers echoed Dixon’s call to work together as a unified force going forward.

Jeff Ayers, who chairs the LGBTQ group S.C. Equality, said his organization was able to defend and defeat a S.C. anti-transgender bathroom bill last year, similar to North Carolina’s divisive and nationally controversial bill H.B. 2, by building a coalition of more than 75 groups against it.

That, he indicated, is a blueprint for South Carolinians to emulate.

“They want us to stay divided on our own single issues,” Ayers told the crowd. “But we stand with everyone here…. A fight with one of us is a fight with all of us.”

“We’re speaking with one loud voice and we’re not going to stay silent,” he vowed.

On the assault against Planned Parenthood, regional official Susan Yarbrough Smith asked the crowd: “Why in 2017 are we still arguing about the rights of women?…. We live in a state whose governor and legislature will not accept Medicaid expansion. Together, we must resist; we must persist. There’s all kinds of hateful legislation coming out of the State House.”

Expanding on the healthcare theme, Columbia’s Arik Bjorn, who ran against U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson last year, lamented the lack of Medicaid expansion available to the state under Obamacare, which he said has left around 300,000 state residents in the lurch, and has left too many in life-or-death medical predicaments.

“Healthcare is a human right. Period,” said Bjorn, who hinted at a run for governor against McMaster in 2018.

Pastor Thomas Dixon, co-organizer of the “People’s March on Columbia.”

“Perhaps some folks gathered here today do not know what expanded Medicaid means. It’s not a particularly sexy term. Let’s come up with a new label. How about ‘The ACA Lifesaver?’” he said.

“Imagine you are poor and metaphorically drowning because you don’t have healthcare. No worries!” he added, dripping sarcasm. “In 2010, President Obama tossed you an Affordable Care Act flotation device to save your life. The poorest of the poor among us – those with incomes below nearly 140 percent of the poverty rate – have an easy way to access decent healthcare: Their governor just has to give a damn about them.

“Yes, it’s that simple. The governor waves his or her hand in the air – and voila! Healthcare for hundreds of thousands of folks. And Uncle Sam will pick up most of the tab – 100 percent during years 2014-2016, and 90 percent in 2017 and beyond,” Bjorn said.

‘Help us, please’

On Native American rights, Dr. Will Moreau Goins, CEO of the Cherokee Indian Tribe of South Carolina & United Tribes of South Carolina, reminded the crowd that there are more than 40,000 natives in the state, and that too often they continue to be marginalized or altogether forgotten or forsaken.

Wearing full Cherokee headdress, Goins told the crowd “we need all South Carolinians to stand with the native peoples,” and said in return the state’s tribes stood with all the groups assembled Monday.

“We want the governor to know that,” he said. “I am an American, but first and foremost I am a South Carolinian…. Help us, please. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the only thing we want.”

Several groups were on hand to represent women. Aside from Planned Parenthood’s representative, 85-year-old Tootsie Holland – a legend in the state for her women’s advocacy over the decades – said she had been fighting for women’s reproductive rights since she was 30. However, she lamented, she now feels all the accomplishments she and others have fought for through the years “is all going down the drain.”

“It’s really strange,” she said to laughter, “the people these days who don’t seem to understand a woman’s anatomy.”

With S.C. women experiencing domestic violence and death at the hands of men at a rate that’s among the highest in the nation, Danielle Richardson exhorted Gov. McMaster to continue recent efforts to keep guns away from abusers and to recognize domestic violence as one of the state’s gravest ills.

Richardson, a victim’s advocate and the CEO of The Abuse Ministry Foundation, recalled how she witnessed the death of her mother, who was stabbed 37 times. “I held her in my arms till she took her last breath,” said Richardson, who added she prayed for McMaster to do the right thing by women.

With immigration atop the news since Trump’s election, two women with vastly different stories captivated the crowd with their stories of the immigrant experience.

First, fifth-generation Mexican-American Diana Salazar, of the Latino Association of Charleston, brought her family onstage to explain how immigrants have contributed to the American diaspora.

Drawing laughter for her frank language, Salazar said, “we’re proud to be Americans; damn right!”

She and her family have fully assimilated over the past century, while keeping their Latino heritage intact. Salazar said it’s immigrants such as her family that make America great, referencing the mass deportations in the Carolinas and other states within the past week following an executive order by President Trump.

“Latinos come in all colors (and nationalities),” she reminded the crowd. “Don’t judge us because we want to work hard – and believe me we work damn hard…. Please don’t judge us, that’s all we’re asking. We want to be part of society.”

To Gov. McMaster, she pleaded: “you’ve got to stop deportations,” and asked that he not support Trump’s stated plan and executive mandating the construction of a vast wall on the nation’s southern border.

“We’re not all criminals,” Salazar said, adding that such a characterization “is just looking for an excuse to take us out.”

“Immigrants and differences is what made our country great,” added Dixon.

A somber coda on the issue of immigration, and differences, came from Arab-American Muslim May Hamdy of Myrtle Beach.

Stepping to the microphone to applause, Hamdy said, “not everyone is as welcoming as you.”

She then recounted her passage to America as a refugee, and her experiences in the country, which were less than ideal, and which she said had caused her depression, emotional pain, and anger.

Looking every bit as American as most, wearing none of the trappings usually associated with Muslims, such as a hijab or veil, Hamdy told of Americans, even co-workers, asking such questions as whether she was “wearing an explosives belt,” and other comments that questioned her place in a country she desperately wanted to call home.

Trump’s recent ban on Muslims and Muslim travel to the United States from seven Mideast countries, currently in flux due to court rulings, has only exacerbated her fear and trepidation about living here. And it has made her hesitant to travel home to visit her widower father, for fear she won’t be allowed to come back, she said.

But, she indicated, she’s actually one of the lucky ones, lamenting the fate of current refugees seeking asylum here in the United States.

Their home, she said, is “a living hell.”

“Many have helped save your (service member) sons and daughters, only to be shunned here,” she added. Hamdy recalled what it was like for her.

“I was stuck in a war zone with my mother covering my face with a gas mask so I wouldn’t die,” she said.

The United States already has an extensive refugee vetting process that can take at least two years to complete. If the Trump Administration’s so-called “extreme vetting” is allowed to stand, Hamdy said it is likely that innocent mothers and children will die as they seek to flee their war-torn countries only to be turned away.

“Gov. McMaster, I’m pleading to your humanity – don’t join that ban,” she said. “Don’t tear families apart.”

Just hours after the “People’s March,” a crowd in Lexington on Monday night gathered to celebrate Trump and support him as part of an event called “Trump is My President.”

On its heels, another pro-Trump event – The Spirit of America Rally – is scheduled for Feb. 27 at the State House.

In an interview with Cola Daily, co-organizer Dixon said he didn’t expect much to change from Monday’s event, but said it at least gave protesters something to build on in the resistance against Trump and – especially – his ardent supporter Gov. McMaster.

“We’re going to build on this and come back strong,” Dixon told Cola Daily. “We’re going to keep on until he respects our views – or until we remove him from office.”