You may recall that at a white supremacist rally last week protesting the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House grounds, a black state trooper happened to see one of the protesters had been overcome by the heat. He helped the stricken man get inside the air-conditioned State House–a moment that went severely viral after being captured on Twitter. Last night, the trooper, who happened to be the director of the state Department of Public Safety, gave his first national interview about the moment to The New York Times. As he saw it, it was an act of love.
Leroy Smith has been the director of the Department of Public Safety since 2011–the first black to hold the post. He came to South Carolina after spending 22 years with the Florida Highway Patrol. He has been known to exchange his business suit for a trooper’s uniform to let his fellow troopers know that he has their back. One of those times was last Saturday, when he helped provide security for two rallies at the State House. There was a black-empowerment rally on the north side, while the south side played host to a rally sponsored by a Ku Klux Klan group.
Speaking from his office in Blythewood, a suburb of Columbia, Smith said that one of the white supremacist demonstrators told him that one of the other white supremacist demonstrators had been overwhelmed by the sweltering temperatures; it was well above 90 degrees that day. The man was dressed in all black, and his shirt had a swastika on it. It was later revealed that the man was a member of the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group that believes only those of “pure White blood” should have full citizenship rights, and that blacks, Jews, and gays should be reckoned as “guests” and “aliens.”
Despite this, Smith knew immediately that “there was something very wrong with him,” and his only thought was that he needed help–fast. Smith asked Columbia fire chief Aubrey Jenkins, who is also black, to help him get the man to safety. Smith then wrapped his arms around the man and walked him up the 40 steps to the State House, all the while telling him, “We’re going to make it. Just keep on going.” Just as they got to the top step, Governor Nikki Haley’s deputy chief of staff, Rob Godfrey, snapped a picture of Smith helping the man on his iPhone and later uploaded it to Twitter. Smith then helped the man to a couch and got him some water to help cool him off.
Smith didn’t know about the picture until a few days later. In an official statement released the following Monday, he said that that as he saw it, he was “like any other officer” who was on hand that day, and the picture “just happened to be of me.” He went further in talking with The Times’ Dan Barry, saying that the picture resonated with so many people because it represented “the greatest thing in the world–love.”
It looks like said love rubbed off on at least one supremacist. As Smith was helping the man up the steps, a black-shirted woman followed them, asking them if her colleague was going to be okay. Remember, this is a woman who believed that blacks should be reckoned as “guests” of the state, not full citizens. But it didn’t appear to matter to this woman whether her friend was being helped by someone who was black, white, or polka-dotted.
No doubt Smith spoke for any black police officer or state trooper who knows he or she has to work a racist rally. Smith didn’t see a racist knuckledragger. He saw just another citizen overcome by a typical sweltering South Carolina summer day.