On February 25, 1963, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the petitioner in Edwards v. South Carolina. The petitioner, Edwards, consisted of 187 African Americans who organized a march on the public grounds of the S.C. State House, protesting the policies of segregation in the state. The marchers did not block the street, and the only disturbance they caused was singing patriotic songs like the “Star Spangled Banner.” They were all arrested and convicted of breaching the peace. The ruling in their favor set an important precedent for protecting First Amendment rights, and set the tone for what peaceful protesting could and should look like in the state.
With the recent resurgence in this kind of grassroots activism, Brett Bursey, director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, urges that knowing your rights, and being aware of the significant precedents that protestors have set before us — like in Edwards v. South Carolina — is all part of being a successful demonstrator.
Bursey has been the state’s protest ambassador for decades. “It’s been one of my crosses to bear to educate citizens and police,” says Bursey. From protesting against Nixon’s administration to George W.’s, Bursey has been part of hundreds of public demonstrations; perhaps most famously Bursey is responsible for bringing to the fore those Orwellian “free speech zones” we are now (mostly) familiar with.
In October 2002, Bursey was in Columbia with hundreds of Bush supporters and four other Bush protestors waiting for the president. The protestors were supposed to be kept in a “free speech zone” located 3/4 of a mile from the airport where the president was landing, but Bursey, with his “No War for Oil” sign, decided to stand on site. This was too close for the Secret Service, who gave Bursey the option of going back to the approved zone or getting thrown in jail. Bursey chose the latter. The federal government, in the name of counterterrorism, charged Bursey with violating a very rarely cited law: Title 18, Section 1752(a) (1)(ii) of the U.S. Code makes it a federal crime to “knowingly and willfully enter an area restricted by the Secret Service during a presidential visit.” Bursey was fined $500 and received no prison time, but the verdict was still deeply disturbing for Bursey and all First Amendment champions.
First, and most important, says Bursey, is understanding that you do not need to ask permission to do something legal. Sounds simple enough, but following the letter of the law means knowing the laws of your city, state, and national government. “I have a right to do something that’s legal; I need permission to do something that is illegal.” For example, “you need a parade permit in Charleston if you want to walk through the streets,” says Bursey, “but if you and a group of people gather on the sidewalk and obey traffic signs and stay out of the street, you do not need to ask permission.”
Second, establishing a good rapport with law enforcement is critical. While Bursey says he can now easily get the head of S.C. state police on the phone, his relationship with police has not always been so sanguine. In fact, in 1969, Bursey spent two years behind bars for spray painting “HELL NO WE WON’T GO” on the wall of his draft board office. While spray painting HELL NO on a draft board office may make quite the statement, Bursey says you must realize that there is a “strategic approach to using our First Amendment rights.”
Recognize and respect the specific target you’re protesting against says Bursey. Otherwise, you’re raging against the machine just to rage against the machine, and that leads to a dilution of whatever message it is the protest is hoping to get across. Or, you’ll be caught raging with a specific purpose, but your rage becomes the end instead of the means to an end. “We have to educate the people,” says Bursey, “If the problem is climate change, then the problem is not the cops.”
Approaching a protest of any size with a calm, rational plan ensures that there will be fewer reasons for whoever or whatever you’re protesting against to shut you down. Bursey encourages acute situational awareness: “Do you know the neighborhood? Do you know who owns the property you’re on? Is there a noise ordinance for the area?” Bursey says he always contacts the local police wherever he is to let him know what he’s doing, “I don’t ask permission, I just let them know where I’ll be and then I do what I say I’m going to do. And we don’t have any problems.” If someone does approach Bursey in a public space where he has assembled peaceably and asks if he has a permit, he calmly pulls the Constitution out of his bag, “I flip immediately to where it says we have a right to gather and assemble.”
And if there continues to be a problem, well, Bursey has the State police on speed dial, and wherever he is, the local police have his number; “I call them and tell them what I’m doing and give them my cell, say ‘call me for any reason.’ Isn’t that the type of relationship you want to have in a civil society?”