COLUMBIA (AP) — Eleven protesters who want South Carolina lawmakers to accept federal money to expand Medicaid and spend more on education and other programs got themselves arrested Tuesday as they blocked a road leading into the garage at the Statehouse.
The well-orchestrated protest was part of the Truthful Tuesday demonstrations that the South Carolina Progressive Network and other organizations have staged since lawmakers retuned to Columbia in January. But this was the first time members of the group went away in handcuffs for their cause.
About a dozen police officers were on hand as the group stepped off a sidewalk and into Pendleton Street. Some officers quickly blocked off access into the garage, while interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago approached and told the group they were breaking the law.
“I understand your position, but you can’t block the road,” Santiago told them.
The interim chief gave them a chance to step back on the sidewalk, but no one budged.
Santiago handcuffed almost every one of the 11 people arrested himself, each time making sure the protester wanted to go to jail. They were all charged with blocking the roadway, a misdemeanor similar to a traffic ticket that carries a maximum fine of $100 and up to 30 days in jail. They were ordered to court on March 28.
The first one handcuffed Tuesday was retired United Methodist pastor Tom Summers, wearing his clerical collar.
“I’m doing this to draw attention to the horrible thing this state is doing,” Summers said before he was arrested. “How many people are going to die because our elected officials were selfish and didn’t take this money?”
The Truthful Tuesday protesters say 1,300 people in South Carolina will die this year because South Carolina didn’t accept federal money to expand Medicaid to cover more poor people who make more than the federal poverty line.
But lawmakers have shown no sign of reconsidering their decision last year. State Sen. Tom Davis said he supported the position of Medicaid director Tony Keck, who said even though federal money would pay for the expansion in the beginning, he feared much more of the tab would be left for states later. Keck supports other ideas to improve health care for the poor through telemedicine programs where patients can see specialists far away and providing more money to rural hospitals that treat a higher percentage of poor people.
“I want the U.S. government to be able to keep all the promises it makes,” said Davis, R-Beaufort. “Eventually, this house of cards is going to fall on everyone.”
Tuesday’s protest was carefully coordinated. South Carolina Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey was in touch with police, so they knew what to expect. The venue was important too. By stepping into the road, the protesters stepped off Statehouse property. A state 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.
That law had hampered the South Carolina protests, which were modeled after Moral Monday demonstrations last year in North Carolina where nearly 1,000 people were arrested protesting the state’s sharp conservative turn.
There are discussions among the South Carolina protesters about whether to have anyone arrested under the tougher Statehouse protest law so the group can fight it in court. But Bursey said they would have to find someone willing to spend money on lawyers and risk the hefty punishment.
Other Truthful Tuesday protests this year included a rally outside the Statehouse and a group who chanted “shame” outside the Senate chamber. They were slightly louder than the normal din in the lobby, but not loud enough to reach the disruptive level cited in the Statehouse protest law.
“It’s another step,” Bursey said about the arrests Tuesday. “I think people will be thinking and talking about what led those nice, decent-looking citizens to stand in the middle of the road.”