Charleston, South Carolina – Richard Ray has been the subject of police scrutiny since he and a friend showed up with several guns to a protest in downtown Charleston Saturday night. But Ray insists it was a misunderstanding, and that he and his buddy had no intention of hurting anyone.
“I’m sorry it went down,” Ray, 59, said in an interview Tuesday. “I don’t want people to be scared.”
Police took Ray and Matthew Constantine, 46, into custody after demonstrators surrounded the truck they were sitting in across from Marion Square, a sprawling park in the heart of downtown that is a frequent site of protests. Police later found an AR-15, three loaded pistols, pepper spray, ammunition, a tactical vest and a stun gun in the truck, according to an incident report. The men did not have a permit to carry a concealed weapon and each was arrested on suspicion of unlawful carrying of a handgun, a misdemeanor offense.
“We were not down there to harm anyone,” Ray said.
That encounter did not turn violent, but the arrest of the two men comes amid heightened tensions in downtown Charleston and across the country, where protests for racial justice and police accountability have led to clashes.
A week earlier, a Lexington man was charged with brandishing a rifle he brought to a protest at The Battery. Fatal shootings have occurred at demonstrations in Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis. And downtown Charleston was the scene of destruction in May when rioters damaged more than 150 businesses.
“We have to pay very close attention to any and all threats in our community and there’s a lot of different entities that are very unhappy right now,” Luther Reynolds, Charleston’s police chief, said.
Reynolds said the investigation into what happened Saturday is ongoing. “We’re going to follow the facts in this case,” he said.
Ray, who is free on bail, said he and Constantine headed downtown around 8:30 p.m. Saturday amid concerns that a planned protest that night might draw a large and unruly crowd. They rode in Constantine’s truck. He said they had the AR-15 close by because they were target shooting earlier in the day.
Ray said he belongs to an unnamed citizens group, which includes people with law enforcement backgrounds, who have concerns about violence growing in the downtown area in recent months.
On this night, Ray said, he and his friend decided to check on business interests downtown to make sure they were not damaged. He declined to specify what those interests were.
When the men got there, it looked like a normal evening as they drove on King Street, to The Battery and on Broad Street, Ray said. The two saw a helicopter hovering over Meeting Street, he said, and they headed in that direction, assuming that’s where the protests were.
A few dozen demonstrators had gathered downtown in response to the recent decision not to charge police officers for the killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, in Louisville, Ky. Police officers from local and state agencies kept protesters close to Marion Square, and away from other tourist-friendly parts of downtown.
Instead of leaving downtown, Ray said he and Constantine watched and recorded protesters on Meeting Street before they made what Ray said was a mistake: pulling into a bank parking lot across from the square.
With their headlights off and windows up, Ray said, they continued to watch and record the protesters that went by.
That’s when a group of demonstrators surrounded the truck, pulling on the doors and getting on the vehicle’s hood, Ray said.
Ray said he was scared but at no point did he or Constantine “reach for any weapon in the car.” Ray said he clutched a container of pepper spray and was planning to use it if anyone broke a window.
“I’m not pulling a gun on a bunch of kids,” he said. “I’m not going to do anything to hurt kids protesting when the cops are right there.”
Ray said one of the demonstrators yelled about a gun, which prompted nearby officers to come over. One shined a light in the back and saw the AR-15, Ray said, before asking the men if there were more guns in the car. Constantine had a handgun in his waistband and Ray said he had a handgun stowed in a bag.
Charleston police, in a news release, said the situation “could have turned out much different.” It said that protesters should never approach vehicles or individuals outside of the protesting group.
Ray said he respects the rights of protesters to peacefully gather but feels that he and Constantine were mobbed and are being portrayed as bad people.
Constantine, who is an artist and also posted bond, did not respond to a voicemail and emails seeking comment. The Wells Gallery on Kiawah Island said in a Facebook post on Monday that it was no longer representing an artist who was arrested for unlawfully carrying a handgun during a recent protest.
Ray confirmed that was Constantine.
Reynolds, the police chief, said that just because the men were concerned about business interests downtown doesn’t “give them permission to go out and break the law.”
Police confiscated the guns in the truck and took the men to the Charleston County jail.
Ray, for his part, said he feels the search was illegal and that he may sue.
In the meantime, both men are scheduled to appear in court in December for Saturday’s arrest.