COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — When Lonnie Randolph Jr. walked into the neighborhood dry cleaner to pick up his clothes, he felt a little lightheaded and queasy.
As he searched his pockets for his money, the South Carolina civil rights leader told the woman behind the counter that he was a diabetic and needed help. His blood sugar was low, and he was afraid he’d pass out.
Instead of phoning for an ambulance, the clerk called Columbia police, reporting that Randolph wouldn’t pay for his clothes or leave. That set off a chain of events leading to Randolph’s arrest.
During the incident outside Tripp’s Fine Cleaners in July, Randolph, 63, said officers slammed him to the ground so hard it knocked out several teeth. The president of the state chapter of the NAACP said police hit and kicked him.
“It was quite obvious that I needed medical assistance as opposed to law enforcement. But that didn’t happen,” Randolph told The Associated Press in his first interview about the incident. Owners and employees of Tripp’s declined to be interviewed.
Randolph is an optometrist who has led the state NAACP chapter for 10 years. He and his attorney, Joe McCulloch, said Randolph was having a diabetic episode, which causes confusion and disorientation. Randolph said he believes race played a role in his treatment.
The store is in the Five Points area of Columbia, which has become increasingly unstable, with more gang activity and sporadic violence. Randolph said that although he’s been dropping off clothes at the business for 20 years, he was treated like a “drunk, homeless man.”
The night of July 12, Randolph said he had hurried to get to Tripp’s before closing. He wore sweatpants, a jacket and a blue T-shirt with gold letters reading: “NAACP: Lift Every Voice and Vote.”
Randolph said he believes it was his wardrobe, coupled with his medical condition and the color of his skin, that led to his arrest on misdemeanor charges of trespassing, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. His trial is scheduled for Sept. 3.
“I don’t drink. Never done drugs. … I was having a diabetic attack. I was disoriented and needed help. But things are handled differently with persons of color than people who are white,” Randolph said.
Two officers — one in training — responded to the clerk’s call. Police said Randolph didn’t answer their initial questions and looked frantic as he rifled through his pockets. In a report, officers said they took Randolph outside and told him he’d face trespassing charges if he returned. Officers said they arrested Randolph after he yelled that he didn’t understand.
Randolph struggled, so the officers — one black and one white — said they forced him to the ground and struck him in the chest when he refused to get in the patrol car. In surveillance video from a camera outside the store, the police sedan rocks from side to side during the altercation.
At some point during the incident, police became aware that Randolph suffered from diabetic-related problems, according to affidavits filed in connection with the case. One of the responding officers sent a text message to Lt. Glenn Gates, the on-duty officer that night, to inform him the NAACP president had been arrested and was in the back of a police car. Gates called the police chief, who told him about Randolph’s condition.
“At that time, I was told that Dr. Randolph was a diabetic and that there had been prior incidents of him having episodes of confusion involving his diabetes in the past,” Lt. Glenn Gates said in the affidavit.
When Gates arrived at the scene, he recognized that Randolph’s blood sugar was low — in the affidavit, he explains that his mother is diabetic — and called an ambulance.
Police referred questions about Randolph’s treatment at the hospital or the specifics of his arrest to a city prosecutor, who did not return a message.
Police also didn’t respond to questions about any training officers receive on handling people with medical issues. In previous interviews, police Chief Ruben Santiago has said he expects a judge to drop the charges. He’s also said his officers acted properly because they didn’t know about Randolph’s illness or whether he might be a threat to himself or others.
Dr. Ali Rizvi, an endocrinologist who teaches at the University of South Carolina, said that for someone unfamiliar with diabetes, the symptoms of chronically low blood sugar — sweating, tremors or disorientation — can look as if a person has mental problems or is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
It can be scary, Rizvi said: “Those symptom manifestations can be mistaken for other things.”
Randolph said he didn’t recognize the woman at the cash register. When she asked him to pay, Randolph said he searched for his money but became disoriented.
“The statement that I refused to pay for the clothes, that is not true,” Randolph said. “There was never any hostility from me. I know that much. That’s just not in my nature.”
At the hospital, Randolph — still in handcuffs — said he improved after a snack. Then, he said, an officer told him to hurry and finish eating so they could take him to jail.
“I said, ‘Why are you rushing me? I don’t feel well,’” Randolph said. “I remember his response clearly: ‘You mean to tell me you never been in jail before?’”
It was Randolph’s first arrest, and he said believes the officer’s comment was racially charged.
“For me to sit here and say race is not a factor, I would be a liar because I know it is,” he said “It’s unfortunate.”
Once Gates arrived at the hospital, he ordered Randolph’s handcuffs removed, the civil rights leader said.
“They kept them on the whole time,” he said, pausing for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” Randolph said, wiping away tears. “This is painful.”
After he left the hospital, Randolph said he and family members then went back to the cleaner, where they found pieces of his bridge that had been knocked out of his mouth when his face hit the ground.
He said that if an incident like this could happen to him, it could happen to anybody.
“If there is any one thing that comes from this, I want to make sure that nobody else’s mother, father, sister, brother, aunt or uncle have to endure this type of inhumane treatment by anybody,” Randolph said.