Peaceful protest-turned riot in Charleston, SC, highlights political violence risks for hotels and other hospitality venues

Jun Fri, 2020 Hotel Attacks

On 30 May 2020 in Charleston, SC, peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer were followed by politically violent riots that impacted scores of restaurants, bars, and several hotels.

Charleston’s The Post and Courier and local Live 5 News covered the violence via on-scene reporting, interviews with business owners, and transcripts of 911 calls.

This scenario in Charleston was carried out in scores of other cities to varying degrees of intensity in roughly the same timeframe – 30 May-early June. Some hotels around the US suffered graffiti, some had a few windows smashed, others had entire lobbies smashed out, and still, others suffered arson attacks.

The melee in Charleston unfolded as follows.

At 2:00 pm on 30 May in downtown Charleston, there was a peaceful protest over the death of George Floyd. As the day wore on, however, the police chief said there were a few incidents of vandalism and violence, specifically, rock-throwing at police. As night fell and protests in other cities around the US became violent, events in Charleston took a turn for the worse as well.

While Charleston’s town council was live online discussing an 11:00 pm-7:00 am curfew enacted to help prevent rioting, at about 11:23 pm, angry crowds suddenly surged into the town’s central business and tourist district, and violence resulted. Staffers at scores of hotels, restaurants, and other businesses were forced to “barricade themselves in hidden courtyards and walk-in coolers,” said The Post and Courier. Hotel guests and people having dinner in the downtown area were caught completely unaware of the violence.

At the 5-star, 179-room Hotel Bennett on Upper King Street (managed by the elite Salamander Hotels & Resorts company,) The Post and Courier reports the hotel’s general manager called 911 from the lobby, saying, “They’ve got bricks. They’ve got weapons. I need help! I need help!” The rioters began their assault by “breaking all the windows” at the hotel, said reporters.

There is a short video showing a limited amount of the rioters’ window-smashing actions here. In the video, they focused their anger on the lobby doors’ ornate windows.

The Post and Courier reports that another hotel employee called 911, exclaiming, “We just had a bunch of people enter through our garage…they just assaulted our general manager; they hit him in the face.” This attack would possibly be a case of assault and battery, a serious felony charge in the State of South Carolina.

As rioters penetrated the hotel, said The Courier and Post, key staffers took defensive action. They shepherded guests and other hotel employees to the sixth floor where they turned the concierge club into a makeshift safety room where they sat in “relative safety” but were “huddled together in unspeakable dread.”

The hotel’s website describes the sixth floor as having an exclusive Presidential Suite & Terrace that appears to be able to serve as a meeting and/or entertainment venue that can handle up to 60 people.

The hotel staff then gave more on-scene information to the police, saying, “We have people who entered the building and we don’t know where they are,” and that the interlopers “were armed with bricks.” A short sample of that call can be heard on twitter here.

Bill Walsh, a Live 5 News meteorologist and dinner guest at the Bennet Hotel at the time of the riot, called Live 5 News and provided on-scene commentary, saying that rioters had just thrown rocks into the lobby, that they were trying to get into the lobby, and that hotel guests had moved away from the windows. (See video of his reporting here, second video from the top, 27:09 mark.)

Video of the damage via twitter showed nearly all hotel lobby door windows smashed and/or perforated by hand-thrown missiles. Other videos showed tear gas swirling all around the hotel.

Walsh later witnessed people breaking into cars in the garage next to the Francis Marion Hotel. Morning revealed some graffiti damage to the Hotel Bennet’s outer walls.

After the riot, Travel Weekly interviewed Matt Owen, Vice President of Communications for Salamander Hotels & Resorts, who said all the Hotel Bennett’s guests were safe. Also, in the aftermath of the violence, he said, “On Sunday, hundreds of volunteers brought renewed hope and optimism and assisted with cleanup efforts. Hotel Bennett remains open and welcoming guests, and our resolute spirit of hospitality has never been greater.”

Neither the Courtyard by Marriott nor the Francis Marion Hotel, both of which had street riots unfold in front of them, appear to have suffered physical damage (see this video at the 22:12 mark, here, showing the Francis Marion Hotel.) Police deployed in the vicinity of these two hotels in force, however, and they applied tear gas against the hostile crowd, which drifted all around these hotels, said a reporter via video for local WCIV ABC News 4. A guest at the Marriott who goes by the twitter handle of “Inquisitive Investor @QuisitiveInvest,” said tear gas had seeped into his room. He posted a video of the police at the base of the Marriott and commented: “Turns out staying in downtown Charleston, SC was the wrong move tonight. Good news: Marriott has a global viral pandemic economic meltdown, your room has been tear-gassed, massive protests, police crackdown refund policy. So we’re okay.”

A throng of rioters did briefly attack a police officer in front of the Francis Marion Hotel at the height of the chaos, but he egressed from the mob that attacked him.

As an aside, video at the 23:09 mark here shows the beginning of a light street clearing operation in the hotel-restaurant-bar district against a sparse number of rioters as the majority of them had moved on at this point. The video provides a basic example of anti-riot police action at the street level in front of/near hotels. Additionally, at some point in the night, police also deployed pepper ball weaponry shown by ABC News 4 twitter video here. The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office deployed a helicopter with ISR technology (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) to record and monitor the riot from above and to coordinate police response. Some ISR footage using an infra-red display can be seen here. Tactics such as this have helped police arrest at least 16 rioters for charges ranging from arson, assault and battery, burglary, inciting a riot, participating in a riot, malicious injury to personal property, damage to personal property, reports Count on News 2.

Other anecdotes of hospitality violence in Charleston come from the restaurant-bar sector, which provides a fuller understanding of the shock and fear experienced by restaurant-bar staff. Some restaurateurs were begging for police support and making political threats to motivate law enforcement. The Post and Courier quoted one prominent restauranteur telling a 911 dispatcher from O-Ku sushi restaurant to “Get off your ass and get here,” and “You need to listen to me…I am going to be in Mayor (John) Tecklenburg’s office first thing Monday morning. There is not a cop on King Street. And I am a business owner on this street…My next call is to the media about the absolute falling-down of the Charleston Police Department tonight. Where are the police? Where are they?”

Staff at one restaurant did not call 911 because, while in hiding, they feared the rioters that had stormed their establishment would hear their pleas and attack them, so they texted a nearby night club manager for him to call the police.

Meanwhile, rioters stole money and alcohol from various restaurants and bars as the wave of violence rolled down the street. At one establishment, staff, fearing for their lives, said eyewitnesses, had barricaded the door because rioters were trying to ram their way in.

This story was repeated at other restaurants and bars throughout Charleston that night, with some staffers sobbing in 911 calls to the police, begging for help because the rioters were bursting into their establishments amidst what the victims said were gunshots. “Tell them to get us out safely. We’re scared. Please. I’m terrified for my life right now,” one restaurant employee told a dispatcher.

Rioters in Charleston attacked 54 hospitality/entertainment/shopping venues that night.

Across the US, other hotels experienced varying degrees of physical damage. A limited list of hotels attacked by rioters provided by Travel Weekly is as follows:

  1. The Hay-Adams, Washington, DC: Arson attack, physical damage to doors, and graffiti.
  2. The Sofitel Washington D.C.: Windows smashed.
  3. The Omni Atlanta: Extensive damage such as smashed windows, and a grand piano in the lobby was flipped over.
  4. The Hotel Bennett in Charleston, SC: Multiple windows smashed.
  5. Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel, CA: Pictures show what looks like a single window smashed.
  6. The Langham in Chicago, IL: Graffiti on the walls at the hotel’s entrance.

There are six takeaways here. First, hotel attacks during bouts of political violence are not a surprise. It is a regular occurrence in scores of countries around the world (such as Greece, Thailand, China, Ukraine, Chile, and India, just to name six) and in the US as well. Muir Analytics has over 100 cases of political violence impacting hotels in its SecureHotel Threat Portal database. For example, on 20-21 September in Charlotte, North Carolina, following a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, approximately 800 rioters damaged seven hotels in violence parallel to that experienced in Charleston. Muir Analytics covered that episode in an article here.

Second, the rioters – not the protesters – demonstrated an efficient level of organization that was duplicable. How so?

  1. They surged quickly as a single mass on a specific geographic target, which required coordination.
  2. They intentionally attacked economic, moneymaking targets – not city hall or police headquarters as some rioters in other US cities did – which took some level of planning.
  3. The rioters’ actions were similar across Charleston, which was physical destruction limited mostly to opportunistic vandalism, some arson, some looting, and scattered instances of assault and battery.
  4. The rioters’ tactics were effective. They caused substantial economic damage to Charleston’s tourist/hospitality sector, some of them secured consumer goods and cash, and they shocked South Carolinians with their message of politically motivated violence.

Third, while hotels, restaurants, and shops did not burn to the ground – the violence in Charleston was quite limited compared to riots in other, historical situations such as the 1992 LA riots – the rioters’ damage toll and shock effect traumatized hotel/restaurant guests and staff to a considerable degree. Typically, rioters, especially those incensed by a fervent political cause, take little or no responsibility for their acts of violence because they can be frenzied, group actions, and they are therefore less restrained, and things can quickly get out of hand. People in these circumstances can, and do, get beaten, sexually assaulted, and killed. Tear gas, pepper spray, and other riot control weapons and tactics can also impact hotels, their staff, and guests. Besieged hoteliers and restaurateurs, even if not physically injured, can sometimes be traumatized. Accordingly, employees might need hospitalization or even mental health care after such events, and their ability to continue work at an establishment that has been attacked might be impaired or ended. Emotional trauma and inability to work-related lawsuits revolving around security negligence and duty of care might occur as well.

Fourth, business interruption insurance that includes political violence perils (sometimes included under strikes, riots, civil commotion, malicious damage, and the like) come into play in cases like Charleston. If a hospitality venue faced with political violence has this kind of insurance, as long as their policy’s exclusions do not negate coverage, then they can expect a payout. If not, then the policyholder is out of luck. Only real-world data/intelligence on political violence and like perils can 100% educate the hospitality policyholder on whether they are covered for political violence or not.

Fifth, hoteliers and law enforcement need to understand the intelligence threat indications and warnings (I&W) associated with political riots and be ready for them when they occur. These threat I&Ws are, in part, based on past incidents of hotel violence – specifically, the reasons for that violence and also the tactics employed by the rioters – in the US and other areas of the world. The hospitality violence in Charleston was predictable (per the Charlotte case from 2016, and other, similar cases,) and, while not entirely preventable, the shock effect, panic, and some property damage could have been mitigated. Furthermore, police response could have been more organized and faster. Hotels could have been better prepared with more efficient defenses as well. Having said this, the staff at the Hotel Bennett should be commended for providing a safe room for their guests, and for calling 911 and providing good threat information to the police.

Sixth, hotels and other hospitality venues need to have in place political violence/riot crisis response plans they can activate in such scenarios. These plans need to be based on real-world political violence attacks at other hotels from all over the world, and they need to range from basic political violence such as window smashing to worst-case scenarios involving assault and battery, hotel penetration and destruction, and worse. These plans need to include an emergency response leadership chain of command, hotel security/action plans that include all hotel staff, coordination with first responders, inhouse first aid capabilities, and security architecture. Such planning can mitigate injury, loss of life, property damage, insurance disputes, and lawsuits.

The best way to plan for these events is to leverage hotel violence data/intelligence, which, a) explains Charleston-type riots, and, b) supports genuine mitigation strategies and tactics.

As of June 2020, because politically violent actors in the US have incredible momentum, and because domestic political leadership and law enforcement have so far been unable to halt their increased traction, US hoteliers should expect more political violence and intimidation tactics for the rest of 2020, which makes adopting intelligence-driven crisis plans a critical task for the remainder of the year.

Sources and further reading:

CPD: Riot related arrests continue,” Count on News 2, 10 June 2020.

Sheriff’s office helicopter captures aerial video of Charleston riot last month,” Live 5 News.com, 18 June 2020.

Restaurants and bars form 44 percent of businesses damaged in downtown Charleston looting,” The Post and Courier, 12 June 2020.

911 calls: Charleston restaurant workers hid in coolers, courtyards in horror amid riots,” The Post and Courier, 10 June 2020.

Brooke Schwieters @Reporter_Brooke, 10 June 2020, “Got a hold of dozens of 911 calls placed during a night of unrest in downtown, Charleston on May 30th. This one was from the GM of Hotel Bennett, alerting dispatchers he was under siege,” tweet.

Hotels across the US damaged in protests,” Travel Weekly, 1 June 2020.

Downtown Charleston restaurant owners claim city allowed Saturday night chaos to flourish,” The Post and Courier, 1 June 2020.

Caroline Balchunas @carolinebTV, 31 May 2020, “Here’s a look at damage to Hotel Bennett, some stores a block down already boarded broken windows,” tweet.

Looting, Destruction in Charleston, SC,” WCIV ABC News 4, recorded live on Facebook, 30 May 2020.

Overnight curfew ends in Charleston County following George Floyd protests,” Live 5 News.com, 30 May 2020.

Holy City Sinner @HolyCitySinner, 30 May 2020, “I was sent this video of a Charleston Police officer that was knocked to the ground and was being kicked and punched outside of the Francis Marion Hotel. It looks like he got out and ran to safety,” tweet.

John McDermott @DermDerm0, 30 May 2020, “Hotel Bennett getting destroyed by protesters in Downtown Charleston SC,” tweet.

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