Protesters' arrests: What's next?

ablythe@newsobserver.comJanuary 8, 2012 

When Monserrat Alvarez went to the North Carolina Legislative Building in May to raise a ruckus about proposed cuts to education, the idealistic teenager had no intention of getting arrested.

So surprise welled in the college student when Capitol police slapped handcuffs around her small wrists after she and four friends interrupted the day's business by unfurling a painted sheet from the third-floor balcony of the House gallery and chanting "tax corporations, bail out the people."

From the state's halls of power to its main streets, a new wave of protesters has reinvigorated civil disobedience, a tactic of opposition as old and honored in America as Henry David Thoreau.

But that action on behalf of the masses can carry a lasting price for the individual: an arrest and its consequences. They are complications Alvarez hadn't thoroughly explored.

"I've definitely thought about it a lot," Alvarez said. "It does bring up a bit of doubt. I feel like I'll be asked to explain it a lot."

Alvarez, a Meredith College sophomore who dreams of becoming a teacher, recently had to undergo background checks before taking education classes that would include visits to Wake County schools.

Through a first-time offender program, she negotiated a deal with prosecutors that allows her to perform community service in exchange for dismissal of her disorderly conduct charge. Nevertheless, she had to craft a letter recently to explain her actions as she pursues her ambition of becoming an educator.

In the recent past, public protests were often the province of cranks, chronic hecklers or a smattering of diehards pursuing old causes. But slowly, a new movement has evolved.

Old and young, people established in life and those still planning their futures, are taking up placards, storming public venues and sometimes refusing to budge in the belief that leadership can swell from the ground up.

In June 2010, protesters interrupted Wake County school board meetings to fight the shift to neighborhood schools. They stood in the Legislative Building to draw attention to education cuts.

Giving a local voice to the Occupy Wall Street movement, protesters have refused to leave state Capitol grounds, shopping malls and other places to highlight growing disparities between the country's wealthiest and the other 99 percent.

They've protested the death penalty and out-of-state executions and held large tea party rallies protesting health care reform and fiscal policies. Though passions typically run high at all these events, some end without protesters ushered to a magistrate to face charges.

More and more, though, police have intervened, resulting in dozens of arrests.

This new generation of protesters faces issues uncommon to those of past decades.

'A chilling effect'

In the Internet age, word of an arrest can spread quickly and linger long. What was once a badge of honor can also be a red flag on job and school applications. A past arrest can have an impact on a parent's ability to volunteer in public school systems and for groups that run background checks.

Peter Gilbert, a lawyer and research fellow at the UNC-Chapel Hill Center for Civil Rights, knows firsthand about the repercussions of getting arrested for a cause.

In 2003, while a student at Yale University, Gilbert was arrested in Connecticut during an Iraq war protest and charged with disorderly conduct. In 2008, he was one of hundreds hit with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets before being arrested outside the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., during the Republican National Convention.

In each case, the charges were dismissed - in Connecticut after more than a half-dozen court appearances, and in Minnesota with no court time and little explanation from prosecutors.

But Gilbert had to explain himself not only on his application for law school at UNC-Chapel Hill but also to the state's Board of Law Examiners as he sought a license to practice as an attorney.

"I can tell you that even though it had no effect on me being in law school or sitting for the bar exam and becoming a lawyer, it did affect my willingness to participate in demonstrations," Gilbert said. "There is a chilling effect."

But it also can be exhilarating, some say.

"When you decide to engage in nonviolent direct action, you're saying I feel so strongly about this that I'm willing to accept whatever consequences to get the chance to start a civic conversation about a matter of conscience," said Tim Tyson, a 52-year-old author andhistorian.

Tyson was arrested June 15, 2010, on charges of second-degree trespassing after he and others took over the seats of several Wake County school board members. "It was a very spiritual event for me. It was a very powerful, emotional experience."

Tyson and three others - the Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, gospel singer Mary Williams and Pullen Memorial Baptist Church minister Nancy Petty - were led off the property in handcuffs and booked at the Wake County magistrate's office nearly 18 months ago. Their cases linger, unresolved.

Cluster of cases

Since the election of new school board members shifted the political majority, there has been talk of mediation and possible dismissal of the charges.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby has assigned the school board cases to Assistant District Attorney Steven Saad and the cases associated with the Occupy movement arrests to Assistant District Attorney Win Bassett.

"All of a sudden we've got a bunch of these different cases," said Willoughby, a Wake County prosecutor for more than 25 years. "We're trying to figure out how to deal with them in an appropriate way."

Jim Woodall, a prosecutor in Orange County for almost as long, could offer a few tips. His county includes Chapel Hill, a college town where people have protested war, apartheid, hydraulic "fracking" for natural gas, open-container laws and the source of tomatoes being used on hamburgers. Woodall said a year rarely passes when he does not have some kind of protest case before him.

Often, protesters are first-time offenders who can perform community service to have charges against them dropped. Other times, they're repeat offenders who want to make a statement through the courts.

Woodall said he takes many factors into account - a person's police record, the circumstances of the case, whether prosecutors have a strong case and whether it's worth the time in court to take it through the judicial process.

"I don't really get into the merits of the protest," Woodall said. "We just look at each case for what it is."

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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