Activists demand answers on social media monitoring from sheriff’s office

The president of the activist group Stand As One said he wants answers from Charleston County’s...
The president of the activist group Stand As One said he wants answers from Charleston County’s sheriff on the monitoring of social media.(Live 5 News)
Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 4:45 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 28, 2021 at 7:20 PM EDT
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Activist Justin Hunt made claims during a public press conference about James Bessenger that Live 5 News has not been able to confirm. The Facebook Live video containing those unverified allegations has therefore been removed from Live 5 News’ page.

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The president of the activist group Stand As One said he wants answers from Charleston County’s sheriff on the monitoring of social media.

Stand As One President Justin Hunt criticized Sheriff Kristin Graziano amid reports that social media accounts of activists were being monitored ahead of the release of video of the death of Jamal Sutherland at the Al Cannon Detention Center on Jan. 5.

Hunt said he and his team went out to campaign for Graziano, a Democrat, who successfully defeated longtime Republican Sheriff Al Cannon last November. He also recalled working side by side with Graziano at community events.

“When I first became aware of this situation, I was shocked for myself, for I personally was a strong advocate for Sheriff Graziano during her campaign,” Hunt said. “Sheriff Graziano has my personal cell phone number, so communication should have never been an issue. I’m literally one call away.”

Hunt spoke outside the jail where Sutherland, 31, died after detention deputies attempted to forcibly remove him from his jail cell that he could attend a bond hearing on an assault charge. Emails released last week showed the sheriff’s office was monitoring social media posts of activists and at least one state lawmaker a day before the release of video showing Sutherland’s encounter with detention deputies.

Activists criticized what they called Graziano’s silence on the monitoring of social media posts.

He also questioned why, when the sheriff’s office decided to surveil him, Graziano didn’t call him to request a meeting.

“I never got a call during the Jamal Sutherland case: ‘Hey, we feel like something’s going to happen.’ I never got a call: ‘Hey, we feel like violence is going to happen,’” Hunt said. “But what I did do is I peacefully protested. What I did do is I got every permit passed with the city of Charleston Police Department.”

Sheriff’s office email revealed surveillance before video’s release

“The Security Threat Analysis Unit is actively monitoring Social Media and News Outlets regarding any information related to the death of Jamal Sutherland,” sheriff’s office employee Willis Walker wrote in a May 12 email to command staff at the sheriff’s office.

Walker’s email, which was released by Charleston County in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, includes multiple screenshots of social media posts from State Representative Wendell Gilliard and community activists such as Kwadjo Campbell and Justin Hunt, the president of Stand as One.

Jamal Sutherland, 31, died on Jan. 5 while in custody at the Charleston County jail.
Jamal Sutherland, 31, died on Jan. 5 while in custody at the Charleston County jail.

The social media posts by all of those included asked for the body camera footage showing Sutherland inside the jail to be released.

“It feels like I’ve been invaded somewhat,” Gilliard said on Thursday, adding that Sheriff Kristin Graziano “has some explaining to do.”

“We don’t want to be labeled a security threat to our community because we speak out and defend people that have been victims of violence from law enforcement,” Campbell said.

The sheriff’s office declined a request for an interview last week, referring questions to the SEAHAWK Interagency Operations Center, which has not yet responded. SEAHAWK is run by the Coast Guard, according to a Joint Base Charleston representative.

“Our analyst assigned to the Seahawk Operations Center is responsible for informing us of any intelligence or information that may forecast a potential public safety concern in our community, regardless of whether we are the agency that is directly involved,” Charleston County Sheriff’s Capt. Roger Antonio said. “That has always been their role.”

SPECIAL SECTION: Jamal Sutherland Death

The South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus called for an investigation last week after learning about the email.

“I am outraged and deeply troubled by the report that the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office labeled peaceful, law-abiding leaders of our state as security threats,” SCLBC Chair Rep. Patricia Henegan said. “At best—the actions of the Sheriff’s office reveal a prejudice against these community leaders because of their willingness to advocate for fairness and justice for Black South Carolinians and, therefore, for all South Carolinians. At their worst— the actions of the Sheriff’s Office are a dangerous and unwarranted assault upon the rights of those whom they should be protecting.”

Sutherland was hit several times with a Taser, pepper-sprayed, and handcuffed. Body camera video also showed that a detention deputy placed a knee on Sutherland’s back. He eventually became unresponsive and died a short time later.

Ahead of the release of video capturing the incident in the jail, Sutherland’s mother, Amy, urged calm saying she did not want violence in her city because of the video.

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