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Amid protests and pandemic, this South Carolina mayor sees ‘collective pain’ emerge

Columbia, South Carolina’s capital, is among the many U.S. cities seeing protests and curfews over the past week. Mayor Stephen Benjamin is the city’s first African American mayor, and he joins Judy Woodruff to discuss how he sees “collective pain” emerging during this tumultuous period, what his constituents are asking for and his fears about controlling the spread of COVID-19 amid protests.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    I spoke a short time ago with the mayor of one city that has seen protests and curfews in the past few days.

    Stephen Benjamin is Columbia, South Carolina's first African-American mayor, and has held the position since 2010.

    Mayor Benjamin, thank you very much for talking with us.

    As a black man who's been in public life going back to the 1990s, what has this past week been like for you?

  • Mayor Stephen Benjamin:

    I'm used to activism. That's where I got my start.

    But this year and, honestly, the last several years have been unlike anything I have seen before, obviously, the global pandemic, unlike anything we have seen in the last 100 years, in trying to deal with the intersectionality of so many issues that led to disparate — a disparate impact on communities of colors and addressing those.

    And in the midst of that, many people, obviously, with so many other major issues going on right now, forget that we are still very much in the pandemic. The collective pain that America has felt over the last week over the Floyd case, and — as a culmination of the pain regarding systemic racism, violence, police violence, and all these other issues, it has been downright overwhelming.

    And it requires, you know, real leadership willing to step up and address these issues. But it's going to take a lot of work, a lot of work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have had, of course, protests on several nights, protests over the weekend that turned violent.

    What would you say is the state of unrest right now in Columbia?

  • Mayor Stephen Benjamin:

    Well, just as you see across the country, indeed across the globe, there are several of our citizens and people who live here who may not be citizens who want to have their voices heard, who have felt for quite some time that they have been unheard.

    So, we aggressively — aggressively encourage people to participate in the right to petition your government for a redress of grievances.

    The Edwards vs. South Carolina case, U.S. Supreme Court case, that started here in Columbia back in the early '60s, is still case law taught in law schools, does secure people's right to petition, to assembly, and free speech. And it's something that we feel is at the center of who we are as a city and state.

    The challenge, of course, on Saturday is what happens when that — when those nonviolent protests become violent? And I fear that the great discussion that was emerging — we started hearing voices last week that never talked about social justice, never talked about racial inequity, never talked about systemic issues in policing last week actually start talking about them and speaking in words that reflect what my faith tradition teaches, love, grace and mercy.

    And I believe that the events over the weekend in several cities, including ours, kind of took us off track. And my goal has been to pull us back on track to make sure we continue having those important discussions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I read that you met with protesters on a couple of occasions.

    They are talking to you about wanting more transparency in the work that police do in your community. Is that — and the kinds of things they're asking for are not on the books right now. So they're asking you to change laws, change regulations?

  • Mayor Stephen Benjamin:

    Yes, it's actually a mixed bag.

    So, the list of concerns and demands, it's actually a mixed bag of things that require local action. Some require state action, some federal, and some actually just address cultural issues that have been part of our DNA since before the founding of the republic, go back well in advance of 1619, but still require us as leaders today to try and address them.

    Our conversations have lent itself to looking at these demands. Literally, we spent two hours yesterday going through all of them, then me sharing facts about things that the city is already doing.

    But there are also some significant issues on their list that we need to address, and we — but it starts with dialogue. The challenge we have right now, Judy, as you know, is that a lot of people, well-meaning people, are yelling at each other or are silent, and there's not much dialogue.

    So I promised to them that we're going to work through this, have real dialogue. The things we can agree on, we will move in advance and get better on. The things we disagree on, we will share those and share our reasons why.

    And if we have a fundamental disagreement on some of those issues down the road, then we will let democracy do its work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, just quickly here, finally, I want to bring this back to what you have mentioned at the outset. And that is the pandemic and COVID-19.

    South Carolina, I saw over the weekend had, what, its highest daily new count of COVID cases. How concerned are you, Mayor Benjamin, that these protests could lead to another outbreak of the virus, of COVID?

  • Mayor Stephen Benjamin:

    I am incredibly concerned, especially after what we saw on some of our beaches on Memorial Day weekend.

    We — most of the protesters are socially conscious enough to be wearing PPE, wearing masks. However, we do know that the greatest way to slow the spread of the virus or stop it is actually through physical distancing. And that's not happening.

    So, we have been — we have been talking about, even with some organizers, about offering COVID-19 testing at some of the next rallies and doing some things to try and curb the spread of the virus, because it's shown no sign of abating or decelerating.

    It gives me grave concerns.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mayor Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina, thank you so much for talking with us.

  • Mayor Stephen Benjamin:

    It's an honor, Judy. Thank you.

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