RALEIGH — Armando Cruz, 17, came to downtown Raleigh seeking the unity his family lost. His father's deportation in 2010, he says, reshaped his life and drove him to the political rally whose drum beats and chants echoed between skyscrapers on Saturday morning.
He and several thousand others joined forces for the sixth annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street rally, where a broad alliance cheered for a long list of causes, including more lenient immigration laws, increased education spending, protection of unions, reduction of the wealth gap, and resistance to the state's proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
"There is a voice, and we are that voice," Cruz said as he marched toward the state's legislative center.
The overriding message of the rally, organized by state and national NAACP leaders, was that North Carolina's Republican-led legislature has infringed on the rights of underrepresented groups, from gay people to victims of racially tainted convictions.
From booming loudspeakers in front of the state's Legislative Building, speechmakers said that the obstacles to justice and equality are entrenched politicians, especially Republicans. The day's tenor was in some ways combative, and the rallying cry often was the word "struggle."
The tea party, according to the Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, had "attacked public education," while the state legislature has tried to "sell off the environment." The anti-gay marriage amendment was an attempt to "codify discrimination" and divide the electorate, Barber said. Other speakers argued that the legislature's redistricting plan had diluted minority voting power.
"Everything we hold dear is on the line," Barber said from a stage in front of the Legislative Building. "This house is out of order and constitutionally unstable."
Ben Jealous, national president of the NAACP, portrayed conservative-driven laws requiring more voter identification as an attempt at disenfranchisement.
"Our democracy's looking more and more and more like this crowd: multi-faith, multiracial, multi-everything," he said, "and the way to kind of hold on to the past is to try to ward off the future by keeping the younger generations from voting, by keeping the increasing numbers of people of color from voting, by keeping the poor people of all color from voting."
Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House of Representatives was a frequent target, often accused of trying to "divide and conquer" the people represented at the rally.
Reached afterward by phone, Dallas Woodhouse, state director of a national conservative group, offered a counter-point to the rally. State Republicans' actions in recent years, he argued, have been driven by a desire to help the state's residents through more-efficient economic policy.
"We are pleased that there have been significant free-market and job-creating reforms by this legislature," said Woodhouse, of Americans for Prosperity. "We think those reforms help all North Carolinians."
He questioned the NAACP's motives, characterizing the rally's message as Democratic backlash to the Republican takeover in 2010 of the legislature. He argued, for example, that redistricting would in fact put more black representatives in place, and said it was a message on Saturday only because of its effect on Democratic elected officials.
At the rally, State Sen. Floyd McKissick argued the opposite. "They're trying to re-segregate North Carolina with the districts they created," said the chairman of the N.C. Black Legislative Caucus. With new voting regulations, he said, "they're trying to make sure you don't get out there and you don't vote."
Among the crowd, some said that further political skirmishes and polarization could be inevitable as they sought to change laws. Many believed that the structure of the country's political systems encouraged polarization.
"We have enough division among each other without having division by the government," said Pat Turley of Fayetteville. And while she acknowledged that many would hold diametric views to those expressed Saturday, "well, the majority rules."
The rally adopted strains of the national Occupy movement too, with occasional chants of "We are the 99 percent" emerging. Beth Henry, a former corporate lawyer, agreed that the influence of wealth guarantees loud and vocal resistance to the Saturday rally's goals.
"I do think the root of problem is the growing gap between the rich and the poor," she said. "If we really start getting to the root of the problem, the people with entrenched interests get more defensive, and polarization gets worse."
Laurel Ashton, arguing against raises on student tuition, said the unification of broad social concerns was the key to change.
"We're fed up," she told the crowd. She continued, quoting the writer and activist Audre Lord: "There is no such thing as a single-issue movement, because we don't live single-issue lives."