By Barney Blakeney
The July 2 arrest of a 16-year-old youth brought to the forefront the issue of youths selling palmetto roses that some view as independent entrepreneurial spirit and others see as a nuisance.
A Charleston police officer assigned to the Market area of the historic district tried to arrest the youth for illegally selling the popular palmetto roses handcrafted from the fronds of palmetto trees. The practice has been controversial for decades because some youths are disrespectful when potential customers refuse to buy the product. Some merchants say those youths are bad for business because they intimidate tourists. And some residents complain children and others vandalize palmetto trees on their properties to get the material for the roses.
The city responded by creating a program that permits youths ages 9-16 to sell the roses either at the Charleston Aquarium, Waterfront Park or at the U.S. Customs House. Participants in the program wear a special shirt and carry a visible permit card. The July 2 incident brought to a crescendo growing concern about the activity.
According to police reports, the officer spotted two teens he previously had seen illegally selling the roses. Officers are instructed to take violators to their parents or guardians and issue summons to appear in court. When the violator was approached July 2, he tried to run and the officer tried to stop him. The two got into a scuffle ending with the teen on top of the officer, prompting citizens to intervene. Though a social media feeding frenzy portrayed the incident as another struggle between Blacks and whites, others see it as a teachable moment.
South Carolina National Action Network President Elder James Johnson said the ordinance that regulates to activity is flawed, and that the incident could have ended in the teen being shot by the officer. But it offers the opportunity to create a better, less confusing ordinance, he said.
Charleston Branch NAACP President Dot Scott agreed the incident could have ended worse. “This could have gone the other way and those who now are protesting could have been wearing their t-shirts at a funeral. We never want to tell our children that laws don’t apply to them or that they should fight with the police. But at the same time the law should equally apply to kids downtown who sell roses as well as those who set up lemonade stands,” Scott said.
Former Charleston City Councilman Kwadjo Campbell, who annually conducts a conference to facilitate minority participation in the community’s $9 billion tourism economy, said now that the inadequacies in regulating the palmetto rose activities have been made more obvious, citizens and city officials should seize the opportunity.
In Charleston County, where about 85 percent of African American youths 16-19 are unemployed, this represents an opportunity to train younger Black youths to become businesspeople and entrepreneurs, Campbell said. In Charleston County, about twice as many Black females are employed as Black males.
“The challenges here can be resolved, but first we must get to the bottom of why this problem arose. Once we are truthful we can understand what must come next, and the solutions to this problem,” Campbell said.