'Your survival is your resistance'
The damage done in South Carolina in 2021, with testimonies from those who fought back
Here in South Carolina we’ve made it past sine die, the date when most legislative action ends for the calendar year. If our elected leaders get a notion to, say, bring back debtors’ prisons or buy surplus napalm for police departments, we can take a little comfort in the fact they’ll have to wait until 2022.
Sine die is a grim day of relief every year. This time around, I wanted to highlight the ingenuity and resolve of some South Carolinians who staved off the worst attacks by our ruling class.
“The best and only thing we can do is hold the light for what we believe to be right,” said Marsha DeRosier, treasurer at Clayton Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church in Newberry.
DeRosier’s tiny rural church made headlines across the state in 2018 when the congregation announced it would serve as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants facing deportation orders. They planned to renovate the fellowship hall as a living quarters for that purpose.
I was thinking about Clayton Memorial’s role as a sanctuary earlier this month when South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed the Open Carry with Training Act, a gun-fetish bill that he claimed would also make South Carolina a “Second Amendment sanctuary state.”1
“Sanctuary state” reads as a retort to the “sanctuary city” movement, in which some municipalities with large undocumented immigrant populations refuse to cooperate with the U.S. government’s deportation and family-separation regime. The sanctuary city movement, in turn, took its inspiration from the network of churches that sheltered Salvadoran immigrants in open defiance of the U.S. government in the early 1980s.
McMaster ran for re-election in 2018 on a platform that included banning sanctuary cities, of which there were none. As a result, South Carolina is emphatically not a sanctuary state for people fleeing war, starvation, gang violence, and CIA-backed despotism.
Instead, starting this fall when the new gun law takes effect, South Carolina will become a sanctuary state for people who want to strap a Glock on the outside of their pants before they walk into Starbucks.
I sent a message to the Clayton Memorial Facebook page asking what ever came of their immigrant sanctuary efforts from 2018. DeRosier wrote me back.
“We did what we felt was right, in line with our 7 Principles, positive and thankful about all efforts involved,” DeRosier said. “We have not as yet served anyone in sanctuary and continue to offer the space for that purpose if needed. Hopefully, it won’t be.”
This week for the newsletter, I reached out to some South Carolinians who know the practical and emotional burdens of struggle. Year after year, whatever new depredations are proposed by the plantation class, you will find people like these providing sanctuary to our most vulnerable neighbors and fighting back — quietly at times, loudly at others. Sometimes they even win.
The mightiest act of solidarity I’ve witnessed in South Carolina was the educators’ march of May 1, 2019. An estimated 10,000 people swarmed the Statehouse demanding better pay and working conditions and full funding for education.
They did it on a school day, forcing some of the largest districts to close for the day. For the first time in my memory, teachers were standing up together and calling out their enemies in the state legislature. They were un-ignorable.
The teachers won some small concessions on pay that year, but more importantly they found new ways to organize and agitate, inspired by the red-state teacher revolts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona.
They planned a second show of force at the Statehouse for May 1, 2020, but canceled the march due to Covid safety concerns. In the time since then, teachers have found other ways to make their voices heard. They have been teaming up with retirees to watch legislative committees like a hawk; openly confronting legislators and school board members who denigrate the profession; mobilizing parents to petition their elected representatives; and pushing their own agenda to counter the Republican majority’s longtime campaign of defunding and privatization.
The group behind all this work is SC for Ed, a teacher-led volunteer organization. The group came to the Statehouse this year with an aggressive agenda that included pay increases, a bill protecting teachers from retaliation, a reduction in state-mandated standardized testing, the abolition of the redundant Education Oversight Committee, and the re-institution of classroom size limits that the legislature has been ignoring since the Great Recession.
I talked it over last week with Saani Perry, a 9th-grade algebra teacher at South Point High in Rock Hill who serves on the SC for Ed board.
Looking back, Perry said the teachers probably won the first battle over pay, pending some final budget talks.
The other agenda points? Not so much.
“What has happened every year is we come up with a legislative agenda and we push for it, but there are so many outrageous bills that get filed on behalf of education that we want to push our legislative agenda, but we have to stop some of these from passing. While we may not meet all of our legislative agenda goals, the fact that we stopped some terrible legislation from happening is a win in our eyes,” Perry said.
The outrages piled up this year. Gov. McMaster and the Republican state superintendent kept schools in limbo about reopening until the final week of summer 2020, then sowed more chaos by pushing local school districts to return to in-person teaching almost immediately. The governor then attempted to divert emergency Covid relief funds from public schools to private schools, until the state Supreme Court stopped him.
Even as a handful of teachers died of Covid and others quit by the thousands, the legislature remained laser-focused on the various moral panics their constituents heard about on cable TV. The legislature introduced bills that would keep transgender and gender-nonconforming kids from playing high school sports; another bill would have required teachers to out a student to their parents if their “perception of [their] gender or sex is inconsistent with the minor's sex.” Deep within a budget provision, someone slipped in a prohibition on classroom discussions of “fault, blame, or bias” in relation to race.
At the end of a bruising year, mere days after teacher contract renewals were due, the governor threw every school district in the state into turmoil by trying to end classroom mask mandates via a May 11 executive order. Most school districts adhered to the CDC’s guidance and ignored him, but the chaos had begun. Suddenly teachers were bombarded with messages from anti-mask and anti-vax parents who believed they were being persecuted by basic public health measures.
SC for Ed planned mass protests across the state on May 17, issuing a statement that teachers were at a breaking point. But they called off the protests on May 15 after saying they had received “harassing and threatening messages.” Meanwhile the SC Education Association warned teachers that the right-wing agitprop group Project Veritas was enlisting children to surveil their teachers and record anything they said about Covid protocols.
When I spoke to Perry on the phone, he sounded bone-tired. He was glad that teachers spoke out and defeated the anti-trans legislation, but the hits never stopped coming after that.
It’s only his fifth year in the profession. He already has his eyes on the exit door.
“I don’t know if I can do another year,” Perry said. “I’m worried about the summer, just seeing how many people decide, ‘I can’t do it.’ ”
It’s easy to lose hope. I lose it often. I’ve known many teachers who quit the profession and moved away from South Carolina in disgust well before 2020. Their parting words still damn our state:
I never blamed a single one for leaving.
How does anybody stay in the fight? I went looking for people who endured despite constant grinding defeat. There are plenty of examples in our state’s history: We have Robert Smalls, who liberated his family from slavery and returned to fight the white supremacists who had resolved to burn his home state to the ground rather than let a single Black person govern it. We have Septima Poinsette Clark, who lost her teaching job for joining the NAACP and went on to teach a generation of civil rights icons to fight the power.
I’m also amazed by the longsuffering endurance of LGBTQ people who fight for their basic rights year after year. I called up Melissa Moore, a stalwart of the movement who helped organize a mass resistance at the Statehouse this year.
“This year has been a big year to pick on people who can get pregnant, to pick on queer and trans kids, to pick on people who are already marginalized,” said Moore, the Lowcountry manager for the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN).
This year, in addition to the barrage of anti-trans bills that chewed up days of debate in the legislative chambers, Republicans finally won their big prize: They passed Senate Bill 1, banning all abortions after six weeks. A federal judge quickly issued an injunction against the law, calling the state’s arguments for its constitutionality “fanciful, misbegotten, and misguided.” The state attorney general is positioned to ram the law through the courts in an attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade at the U.S. Supreme Court and make safe abortions illegal across the country.
This winter and spring, Moore went to the capital again and again with a growing army of students, doctors, and advocates who joined forces under the banner of South Carolina United for Justice & Equality.
“I saw a lot of new faces, faces I’d never seen in activism before,” Moore said.
Moore is old enough to remember the trans bathroom panic of 2017, the unanimous vote on the same-sex marriage ban of 1996, and every fit of reactionary hysteria in between. They’ve won a number of victories, but not without suffering some losses. I asked what it takes to keep going.
“Thriving in the world as your beautiful queer self is the biggest middle finger you can give to hateful legislators who think you don’t deserve to live or exist,” they said. “Our message is, be the best you you can be, and that in itself — your survival is your resistance.”
To that end, Moore and other organizers have focused on building a strong community outside the Statehouse this year. On May 16, after a grinding day of difficult testimonies that brought up traumatic memories for some of the speakers, they organized a Trans & Queer Field Day at nearby MLK Park in Columbia.
“You hear a lot about self-care, and that’s important — it’s important to understand how to self-soothe and take care of yourself — but it’s also important to work in community and take care of each other,” Moore said. “So we’re winning when we take breaks and we rest and we take the time that we need to center our own healing and the healing of our community.”
It takes a deep reserve of inner strength to keep doing “the best and only thing,” as Marsha DeRosier in Newberry put it. It also takes a resilient community.
Personally, I’ve found strength in my family, my church, and my DSA chapter this year. We all need sanctuary.
The struggle never ends. South Carolina is poised to start executing people again this year after making a grand bargain with a prominent South Carolina Democrat to allow the electric chair or a firing squad. The governor just announced the state would end federal pandemic unemployment benefits in order to stimulate L̶o̶r̶d̶ ̶M̶a̶m̶m̶o̶n̶ the economy. Next year the legislature is poised to remove anti-pollution requirements for plastic recyclers.
I’ll leave you with a few lines from a speech by the Brazilian Workers’ Party leader Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, who one of the speakers quoted during testimony about the attempted trans athlete ban at the South Carolina Statehouse:
“Let them do as they wish. Whatever they want. I'm going to quote what a little 10-year-old girl once said to me in Catanduva, a quote that has no author. She said: 'The powers that be might kill one, two, or three roses, but they will never be able to stop the spring from coming.' And our struggle is a quest for the spring.”
Our struggle is the same struggle. Spring is on the way.
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Technically, the “Second Amendment sanctuary” clause empowers the South Carolina attorney general to evaluate whether any new federal gun regulation violates the Second Amendment. As luck would have it, current attorney general Alan Wilson is a conservative whose brother owns a gun manufacturer and chain of gun stores across the state. Given that the AG’s office recently found the capital city’s ban on guns near schools unconstitutional, I don’t foresee him allowing even a modest gun safety measure into our “sanctuary.”