Protests against police violence against Black Americans crowded Charleston streets in May | File photo, Lauren Hurlock

Don’t Look Away

 Five days before the Proud Boys showed up at a Dec. 5 protest in front of city hall, Charleston was named one of America’s friendliest cities.

Unfortunately, monikers like this may as well be a quiet rallying cry for the Lost Cause: another year to pat ourselves on the back and go on whistlin’ “Dixie.”

Members of Charleston City Council last week were forced to reckon with how one of its members, Harry Griffin, was buddy-buddy with Proud Boys sympathizers. It turns out, he doesn’t seem to care too much for his colleagues either. Or at least that’s what it sounded like based on what Griffin apparently told protest organizers who recruited him with primitive populist talking points.

The city has taken some steps in the right direction. But after an election season spiked with inflammatory racial rhetoric, nobody should be too surprised that hate found a home among the members of Charleston City Council. We should be disappointed with how its members reacted timidly to Griffin’s coziness with these hateful groups.

Until the Emanuel AME Church massacre, Charleston leaders often found it difficult to acknowledge issues of race and injustice. In many ways they still do. It simply has not been required of them. Charleston was a boom town. Tourism counts went up, along with home prices. The glossy magazine accolades kept coming. “Look away!”

Now with the face of one of its own plastered on the poster for a Proud Boys rally, too many Charleston leaders stayed quiet. Even those who were the most critical — City Councilmembers Jason Sakran and Carol Jackson — initially only mustered a tentative scolding with the mayor and most of council silent.

The Proud Boys is a recognized hate group, but its leaders claim it is not racist. Those claims belie the scenes of violence we saw just this past weekend at pro-Trump rallies in Washington, D.C., as Proud Boys reportedly targeted Black Lives Matter signs.

Is it too much to ask our leaders to unequivocally condemn their colleagues’ involvement with allies of such hate-filled violence?

What message does their silence send to the Charleston residents who could be the Proud Boys’ victims?

Every elected official at city hall should heed the words of school district engagement officer Crystal Rouse during last week’s meeting of the city’s Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation, attended by Griffin along with the mayor, Jackson and Councilmembers William Dudley Gregorie and Marie Delcioppo: 

“When you’re doing equity work, it’s not a place for comfort. It’s a place for the real work and to tackle it head-on.”

We must remain friendly and welcoming. But it’s time to put aside friendliness for the sake of comity.

It’s time to stand up, Charleston. It’s time to move forward and do the real, hard work of conciliation.

Get to work.