White-supremacist groups and African-American demonstrators clashed in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday, resulting in at least five arrests and seven people taken to hospitals as tensions — and temperatures — flared following the recent decision to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds.
But it was the powerful image of a black police officer assisting a man wearing a black T-shirt bearing a swastika and struggling in the heat that resonated online.
In the photo, the officer, Leroy Smith, is seen holding the arm of the unidentified protester as he helped him up the stairs and out of the sun. According to the National Weather Service, temperatures in Columbia hit a high of 98 degrees Saturday.
The image was uploaded to Twitter by Rob Godfrey, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s deputy chief of staff. And it quickly went viral.
“Not an uncommon example of humanity in SC,” Godfrey wrote. “Leroy Smith helps white supremacist to shelter & water as heat bears down.”
The photo has been retweeted nearly 3,000 times.
The man in the photo was wearing a shirt promoting the National Socialist Movement Party, a Detroit-based neo-Nazi group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Smith, director of the S.C. Department of Public Safety since 2011 and a 25-year law enforcement veteran, was praised for his professionalism.
Before the rally, a North Carolina-based chapter of the Ku Klux Klan announced that it would demonstrate outside the Capitol, and state police separated the protesters from a large group of counter-demonstrators, stepping in to break up several scuffles that broke out during the day.
According to Sherri Iacobelli, a public safety spokeswoman, there was one arrest for disorderly conduct, two for simple assault and two for breach of peace. Of the 23 total people needing medical attention, most were suffering from heat-related emergencies. No police officers were injured during the protests, she said.
“We want to thank the multiple law enforcement agencies involved today for an excellent response,” Smith said in a statement, “and for assistance in keeping protesters and those on the grounds safe during the rallies.”
The demonstrations came a week after the Confederate flag was taken down in the wake of last month’s mass shooting in Charleston, S.C. — where nine black people were killed inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a white gunman.
Police say the suspected shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, was driving a car that had an image of the Confederate flag emblazoned on its license plate. And photos of Roof waving the flag surfaced following his arrest.