A group of about 25 fast-food workers demanding a $15-an-hour wage sat in the middle of the street near a downtown McDonald's and blocked traffic on a major thoroughfare for more than an hour this afternoon. But before they earned the attention of the police and the ire of commuters on this sweltering late-summer afternoon, they gathered under the shade of a tree in Brittlebank Park at noon.
One of the workers was 17-year-old Marlena Hill, a short woman with red streaks in her hair and a pronounced Lowcountry drawl. She said she was scheduled to work this morning at the southernmost McDonald's on Rivers Avenue, but she skipped her shift to join the protests that began near a Taco Bell on Folly Road. She was willing to catch the heat from her manager for missing a day of work, but she said if the protest ended in arrests, she would step aside. "Me, I'm the one that's leaving. The rest of them, I don't know, but I've got to go," Hill said. Hill dropped out of high school in Colleton County and says she now has to provide for her younger brother and sister.
Other protesters made bolder vows, saying they would willingly go to jail for the cause. A cadre of labor organizers and activists joined the protesters as they prepared to march down the sidewalks from Brittlebank to the Spring Street McDonald's. "Here's the plan, here's the plan," one activist shouted into a bullhorn as the protesters piled out of 15-passenger vans and prepared for the march. "We're gonna stay legal until we get to McDonald's ... We're all going to go into the street, and then the folks who are doing the CD, stay in the street and sit down until the police come."
"CD," in this instance, meant civil disobedience. The activist, a bald-pated man, introduced himself only as Ben and said he was simply a Charleston resident who took an interest in the cause. He did not ultimately stay in the street and earn a disorderly conduct ticket from police alongside the fast food workers. Nor did the other organizers and supporters, who included representatives from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), S.C. Progressive Network, Raise Up For 15, and the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment.
Erica Cokley, an employee at a Taco Bell on Dorchester Road, held up one end of a banner as the group made its way to Spring Street in loose formation. She would become louder and bolder as the day wore on, shouting slogans into a bullhorn and yelling at workers from nearby fast-food restaurants to join the cause. "I'm gonna stay," Cokley said when I asked her what she'd do if the police started making arrests. "I'm standing up for what I believe in, baby. I'm willing to do whatever it takes, sweetheart."
I asked Cokley if she thought a few arrests would make a difference in the minimum wage debate, which has been raging nationwide, albeit more quietly in the Republican stronghold of South Carolina. "Eventually," she said. "Numbers count. They can't keep arresting everybody." Similar protests were taking place nationwide today, with 43 protesters reportedly arrested in Detroit, 19 in New York City, 23 in Chicago, and 10 in Little Rock, Ark.
By the time the Charleston-area protesters arrived in front of McDonald's, some were dripping sweat, and organizers passed them bottles of water from a cooler. They started by blockading Hagood Avenue, a relatively little-used artery off of Spring Street. A pair of officers arrived within five minutes from the Charleston Police Department, whose headquarters are just around the corner.
Then the crowd of about 25 moved out into the right section of Spring Street, at a point where the road splits to allow traffic to break off before crossing the Ashley River. Police began redirecting traffic, and after about 15 minutes, the protesters spread out to cover the entirety of Spring Street, blocking traffic altogether. Police began redirecting traffic a block ahead of the protest site, causing lengthy delays on the heavily used section of Highway 17 known as the Crosstown.
Police officers never raised their voices as they addressed the protesters in small groups and informed them that they'd need to vacate the street or face public disorderly conduct charges. But other tempers boiled over. One man walked out of his car to shout at the protesters, "Traffic is fucked up!" A woman who stopped her car within a few feet of the protest line got out and pleaded with the protesters. But they did not budge, and eventually they sat down on the asphalt.
Cherri Delesline, a mother of four and a worker at the McDonald's on West Montague Avenue in North Charleston, acted as a sort of cheerleader, revving the protesters up every time she grabbed the bullhorn. "All y'all live in poverty right now, so get with the program!" Delesline shouted to the crowd. At previous labor protests, Delesline has been the only local fast-food worker to speak. This time, dressed in a crisp white McDonald's uniform with a neckerchief, she electrified the workers.
In the end, the protesters blocked traffic on Spring Street for well over an hour before officers started writing tickets. One at a time, the protesters left the street to stand by police cars on Hagood Avenue and receive their $262 tickets. Dehydrated but exuberant, they walked back to the 15-passenger vans in Brittlebank Park, and traffic started flowing again. "We did this to y'all," one of the protesters shouted, pointing at a line of cars that had been diverted to Lockwood Drive. An attorney from the SEIU collected the tickets from the protesters who had received them. She said the protesters' court dates are coming up on Sept. 9 and 12.
It remains unclear what effect the protest will have. It was the largest civil disobedience event in Charleston since the November 2011 occupation of Marion Square, when 10 Occupy Charleston protesters were arrested. The protesters themselves weren't certain what would come of their actions. Virgil Delesline, a cousin of Cherri Delesline who works at the Taco Bell on Folly Road, said he skipped work today to join the protest. Asked what he thought would be the outcome, he said, "I'll know tomorrow when I'm supposed to work."
The protesters did win over one convert: Takeyia Hadley, a worker at a Burger King near the Crosstown, heard about the protests and joined in. Before she spoke to me, an employee from Raise Up For 15 intervened and asked Hadley, "Do you have any warrants?" After saying her record was clean, Hadley told me why she came out to the street.
"This is my outlook on it: These people here are doing something for a reason. $7.25 was OK back then in the day, 10, 20 years ago. Back then a $20 bill could get you a whole grocery cart full of food," Hadley said. "My neighbor told me that there was a protest going down here, I had it on my Facebook that it was going on, and I came down here just then because I believe in it."
There was another convert in the crowd: Marlena Hill, who initially said she would get out of the way as soon as police intervened, stayed in the street and received a ticket. Standing beside a police cruiser as an officer took down the information from her driver's license, Hill said she changed her mind as she watched the other protesters from the sidewalk earlier in the afternoon.
"I decided if I've got to go to jail, I'll go to jail, because I need my raise," Hill said. "I thought about it."