A planned series of events that took place at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina this weekend has led to political fallout as the school co-hosted the Second Step Presidential Justice Forum and welcomed the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center as well as city Mayor Stephen Benjamin.
Controversy initially ensued when President Donald Trump came to speak during a visit to the historically black college where he gave a keynote speech before accepting a Bipartisan Justice Award for his work on criminal justice forum.
Campus was on lockdown for his appearance; protocol directed by secret service and White House, according to Benedict administrative officials. Students were required to remain where they were once the president arrived on campus, and just a small select handful of honor students were permitted inside the forum. Everybody else had to remain in their dorm rooms or watch the forum remotely.
“I’m not upset about [Trump] coming on campus, I’m upset about not being able to come and attend the event,” said Luis de La Mora, a 19-year-old sophomore at Benedict. He told ABC News that he was disappointed that weren’t more accommodations made for the students.
“Only the most exclusive kind of people are allowed to go in,” de la Mora said. “For me it feels a little exploitative to say this is such a progressive move, since this is the first time Trump would be visiting an HBCU, at least our little HBCU. It’s supposed to be a shining moment when the world is paying attention to our little institution, but our students don’t really get to do anything about it.”
In a press conference on Friday, Mayor Benjamin told reporters he was concerned about the low amount of students who were able to attend the forum.
“ I think every time you have the opportunity to expose more young people to public service, to politics, to new ideas, I think we need to avail ourselves to them,” Benjamin said.” I wish more had the opportunity to participate today.”
Meg Kinnard/AP Images
A supporter of President Donald Trump, right, clashes with an anti-Trump protester, left, outside the president’s appearance at a criminal justice forum on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, in Columbia, S.C.
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On Saturday, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA, announced that she would no longer be attending the forum. She withdrew late Friday citing a lack of access for students and voiced frustration that the Bipartisan Justice Center would celebrate the president, who has recently doubled down on his long-time comments calling for the execution of black teenagers known as the Central Park 5. Moreover, the award to Trump was the same award given to Harris in 2016.
As friction grew over Trump’s honor as well as his presence on campus, it was announced that the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice group would step aside from their sponsorship of the forum.
In a statement to ABC News, Columbia’s mayor, Steve Benjamin, said that Benedict College had taken “full operational control” of the candidate forum.
“We’ve been trying to work earnestly and in the long term interests of Benedict College,” Benjamin said.
Then — amid the ongoing forum — Harris, an HBCU graduate herself, announced that she would now be re-attending the event due to the fact that the sponsor was “removed.”
After she agreed to rejoin, she thanked Mayor Benjamin in her speech for his leadership and his rebranding of the forum.
“Let’s just deal with the elephant in the room which is the events of the last 24-48 hours,” Harris said. “Mayor Benjamin called me and told me that it was shifting and it was going to change … that it was only right and a reflection of this most honorable institution that it would be opened to students, this event, that it would not be a paid event and that everyone would be able to participate,” Harris said.
But the Bipartisan Justice group’s representatives — and their social media presence worldwide — were still saying they were sponsoring the forum which fueled much confusion and speculation that 20/20 had not dropped out completely.
Per Mayor Benjamin’s aides, this was “because of contracts, [and] some infrastructure had to stay in place. However … Benedict college are now running the event. The candidate forum portion of event is rebranded, 20/20 is not hosting that. They are still leading a few panels and working to accommodate the folks that bought passes from them.”
Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP
Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris speaks during a rally at Aiken High School in Aiken, S.C. Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
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Members of the Bipartisan Justice Center’s board of directors also echoed this saying the organization is still co-hosting the event. On its face, sources tell ABC News that Benedict College will not be taking the lead on the candidate forums. This means, the events are open to students and members of the community and that forums will be taking questions at the discretion of the campaigns.
Other candidates at the forum weighed on Harris’ moving position.
“Kamala is more than a colleague, she’s a sister to me, and I’ll let her speak for herself about her decision she made,” Sen. Cory Booker, addressing reporters. “[Trump’s] remarks were then offensive. Talking about being the best president ever for black people, which is just not only an offensive lie, because he’s actually doing things to hurt the African American community. So, I just felt that it was very important for me to be here to support a great institution.”