James Bessenger, 28, who was holding a plastic pole bearing the Confederate flag, described what happened next.
“I straightened the flag out and held it back up,” Bessenger told The Washington Post. The activist who went after the flag, Bessenger said, “accomplished absolutely nothing, except spending the night in jail, and now he’s going to have to buy me a new pole. Well done.”
“I didn’t really see any crime committed,” said Mary Smith, who watched the scene unfold and is friends with the man. “I saw a heroic event, in my opinion.”
The Post and Courier reported that a judge on Thursday approved the release of d’Baha, a Black Lives Matter activist in Charleston. D’Baha faces a disorderly conduct charge, according to Charleston police. A bond court judge said he was also charged with damage to personal property, according to the Post and Courier, although that was not included in the police department’s tweet on the matter.
The encounter unfolded Wednesday outside an event at the College of Charleston, where activist Bree Newsome was making an appearance. Newsome herself made headlines in 2015, when she scaled a flagpole to remove the Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina statehouse.
Bessenger, the chairman of the South Carolina Secessionist Party, said he took issue with the college giving Newsome a platform — or, as he put it, “kind of glorifying what she did.”
“We just really wanted to assure her that she was going to be safe in coming, that people that want to come and hear her speak will be able to come and hear her speak,” he said.
D’Baha said he was chatting with “elders” on Wednesday when he noticed Secessionists and the flag.
“And I looked at our elders and I saw, like, fear in their eyes,” he said. “And I saw them back up, almost. That was the moment for me. We’re not going to pass this on another generation. Not another generation of people are going to be intimidated by this flag.”
He said that he tried to wrestle the flag away from Bessenger to “help them understand what it is to meet a real resistance, to meet people that aren’t scared.”
Smith, a good friend of d’Baha’s, described him as passionate and bright. She said she “basically had a front-row seat” to Wednesday’s incident; she initially heard others react, then saw d’Baha dart across the road. The flag came down — and next thing she knew, Smith said, d’Baha was on the ground with police.
“There’s Muhiyidin, pulling a Bree Newsome at a Bree Newsome event,” she said. “Taking that flag down.”
Bessenger said the flag was on a 20-foot pole for about five minutes before the encounter occurred.
“I saw him charge at me, and I reached down, because usually I’m able to protect myself, usually I have the means with me to protect myself,” Bessenger said. “And I didn’t this time. So I went to protect myself, realized I didn’t have what I would need to do that, and just faced him. But he didn’t grab me. He grabbed the pole.”
Bessenger said that he typically carries a weapon such as a firearm or a knife. He was not armed Wednesday, he said.
“I didn’t have time to get to a weapon, so no, I wouldn’t have been able to use one, even if I had one,” Bessenger said, when asked whether he would have used a weapon if he had one. “He got the jump on me, I can admit that. I wasn’t completely facing him when it happened, that’s why you can see in the video, I reach down toward my ankle, but I don’t even get all the way there before I stood back up. I didn’t have time.”
Bessenger said that he sees the Stars and Bars not as a symbol of racism, but as a military flag that honors Confederate soldiers.
Many others, however, see it as a symbol of slavery, oppression and white supremacy.
Opposition to the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy intensified in 2015 after Dylann Roof, a self-described white supremacist, fatally shot nine black parishioners at a historic church in Charleston.
Newsome, the activist who was speaking Wednesday night, previously said that she saw the Charleston church shooting as a turning point.
“A white man had just entered a black church and massacred people as they prayed. He had assassinated a civil rights leader. This was not a page in a textbook I was reading nor an inscription on a monument I was visiting,” Newsome wrote in a 2015 statement that was posted on Blue Nation Review. “This was now. This was real. This was — this is — still happening.”
Bessenger said that in the aftermath of Wednesday’s confrontation, the South Carolina Secessionist Party’s website “exploded” with new applications. The group raised about $4,000, Bessenger said, and attracted some new members.
“So I guess I owe him a thank you,” Bessenger said.
But d’Baha had supporters, too.
Smith is a member of the group Showing Up for Racial Justice, which set up a fund to help raise money for d’Baha’s bail. Speaking to The Washington Post by telephone Thursday evening, she said that the last time she had checked the fundraising effort, it had received more than $10,000.
“Our community really came together to back this man up,” Smith said. “We don’t play.”