Free Speech and Black Speech in Charleston, South Carolina

Last night in Charleston, South Carolina, police arrested local Black Lives Matter leader Muhiyidin d’Baha for taking away a Confederate flag from a member of the “SC Secessionist Party” and damaging it. Authorities held d’Baha overnight. Today they charged him with disorderly conduct and malicious injury to real property. He was released this afternoon.

A sea of primarily student protesters greet Confederate enthusiasts at the College of Charleston
A sea of primarily student protesters greet Confederate enthusiasts at the College of Charleston

The incident occurred at an event sponsored by the College of Charleston featuring Bree Newsome, herself arrested in 2015 for tearing the flag of the dead slaveholder’s republic from the flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina State House. The College, of which I am a faculty member, created a “free speech zone” for those Confederate flag enthusiasts who sought to intimidate those attending the event even though the group has threatened to visit our campus every Sunday in retaliation for asking Newsome to speak.

Muhiyidin d’Baha, however, was the one arrested for disorderly conduct.

About seven neo-Confederates appeared (four according to a colleague) and faced a counter-demonstration of perhaps two hundred students and community allies, including BLM and a white anti-racist ally organization called SURJ (Showing Up For Racial Justice). During the event, one man held the Confederate flag while others stood by facing the massive counter-protest.

At least one of the neo-Confederates yelled insults, including racial epithets at African American students. Police and campus security fully protected the S.C. Secessionist Party in their free speech zone, including the symbolic act of waving a symbol that reminds not only of slavery but the 150 years of racial violence that have followed, including the 2015 slaying of nine black parishioners of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church by Dylann Roof, himself a fan of the Confederate flag.

But the authorities have charged Muhiyidin d’Baha with disorderly conduct.

SURJ began a fundraising campaign for d’Baha last night and quickly met their goal for his bail. SURJ allies also went to court today and stood in solidarity with him. However, one member of SURJ told me they had been disturbed that some white liberals expressed anger at d’Baha’s action, suggesting that he violated the tenets of peaceful demonstration. The SURJ activist confessed concern over this attitude since it reflects the tendency of even allies to be shaped by white privilege and expectations about “proper” Black behavior.

After all, Muhiyidin d’Baha took a symbolic action just as did the whites who sought to intimidate with their use of the flag. They received a free speech zone. He went to jail for disorderly conduct and, in context, the ridiculous charge of malicious damage to real property.

The American South, even in the century after slavery, maintained a tradition enforced by violence of racial etiquette. d’Baha rejected that whole tradition last night. In the spirit of Bree Newsome’s talk that the SC Secessionist’s wanted to prevent, he sought to “tear hatred from the sky.”

I don’t expect white conservatives to think Muhiyidin received any less than he deserved. So I don’t write for them. But white allies owe him more.

At a public forum today on Frederick Douglass, one of my colleagues read a portion of his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” “It is not light that is needed, but fire,” she read, “it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and Man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

Last night in Charleston, a city slavery built, Muhiyidin d’Baha brought the storm, the whirlwind and the earthquake. Others brought their shameful efforts to frighten and intimidate with a symbol that festers with a sordid past.

So the police arrested d’Baha for disorderly conduct and the damage he did to “real property.”

In South Carolina, there is free speech and then there is Black Speech.

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