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ACLU to SC Police: Explain 'Violent Escalation' at Protest

An injured protester is attended to during a rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Columbia, S.C., May 30, 2020.
An injured protester is attended to during a rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Columbia, S.C., May 30, 2020.

Civil liberties advocates in South Carolina are calling on some of the state's law enforcement agencies to explain and apologize for what they're calling a "violent escalation" by officers during weekend demonstrations.

A letter from Frank Knaack, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, sent Tuesday to four Charleston-area law enforcement agencies and the State Law Enforcement Division demands answers to questions about the officers' use of weapons and arrests of citizens whom Knaack described as "people peacefully protesting against police violence and for racial justice."

One Charleston police officer announced that Sunday's protest in a large Charleston park had been declared an "unlawful assembly," Knaack said, and then officers from several agencies began "firing projectiles" at protesters and "what appeared to be tear gas."

The protesters remained peaceful despite officers' "clear, dangerous and counterproductive escalation," Knaack wrote, and this was before the city's 6 p.m. curfew. The ACLU has received similar complaints from elsewhere in the state, he said.

Law enforcement officials said that more than 110 people were arrested over the weekend throughout the state, and that some businesses and other properties were damaged in Columbia and Charleston.

Organizers say they plan to continue daily protests this week. More demonstrations were planned for Wednesday afternoon in Florence and Anderson, where businesses and public buildings planned to close.

The protests were sparked by the death on Memorial Day of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who pleaded for air as a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against his neck for several minutes.

Among the topics Knaack asked agencies to explain were why officers ordered protesters to disperse and used riot gear to do so.

Knaack said the letter was sent to Berkeley County Sheriff Duane Lewis, Charleston Sheriff Al Cannon, Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds, Mount Pleasant Chief Carl Ritchie and State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel. None of the agencies immediately responded to a request for comment.

The letter came as police in Charleston put a call out for any "relevant videos or photographs" people might have taken of people committing "unlawful acts" during the weekend protests.

In its message, the Charleston Police Department said it "respects the rights of individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights," noting that the "mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution is dual and simultaneous, not contradictory."