Twenty-one activists - including the head of the state NAACP - entered guilty pleas Friday, then defended their actions and said they were proud to have been arrested at Wake County school board meetings.
In 2010, activists took over the seats of school board members, banged the walls and refused to give up the lectern to protest the board's elimination of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignment. After nearly two years of wrangling, the activists agreed to a plea deal which will allow them to perform community service that could result in the misdemeanor charges being dismissed.
"We are proud today to be found guilty of standing for righteousness," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "This kind of guilt is redemptive."
Barber said their civil disobedience brought attention to the concerns they had that the school board's actions would resegregate schools. Barber credited the protests with helping knock the Republican majority out of power in last fall's elections.
"Our moral outcry worked to sensitize the public's conscience," Barber said. "The public responded through their organizing and electoral power by removing the majority that was engaging in regressive public education policies."
Prosecutors, however, said the case involved treating the protesters like any other trespassing defendants. The protesters were offered a chance to enter a first-offender program allowing for deferred prosecution.
In addition to pleading guilty, the protesters will perform 40 hours of community service and pay $430 each to cover court costs and the fee for the community service program. If they complete the work in the next six months, the charges will be dismissed.
The deal was also approved by District Court Judge James Fullwood.
If the charges are dismissed, the protesters can also file to have them expunged.
"Their offense was against the community," said District Attorney Colon Willoughby. "They should serve the community."
Assistant District Attorney Steven Saad, who oversaw the cases, said the protesters could perform duties such as working in soup kitchens and food banks.
"I don't feel like it's a punishment," said Scott Bass of Raleigh, who pleaded guilty Friday. "Community service is a responsibility that everyone should do."
Thirty people were arrested in 2010. In addition to Barber, the 21 people who pleaded guilty Friday included the Rev. Nancy Petty, pastor of Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church; Tim Tyson, a Duke University historian and author; and the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, a leader in the state NAACP.
Saad said the remaining nine protesters will appear in court March 16.
The plea deals came after efforts by Willoughby to seek mediation fell through.
The school board had agreed to mediation. Saad said attorneys for the protesters told him they were interested in mediation in late October. That was after Democrats had swept four seats on the Oct. 11 ballot and were favored to win a Nov. 6 runoff election that would give them control of the board.
In their last meeting, the Republican-led board voted Dec. 1 to rescind the mediation offer. The new Democratic majority opted not to reverse the prior board's decision.
"I respect the decision of the DA and the decision of the judge, especially for the majority of people who were roped into it," said school board member John Tedesco. "But for leaders like Rev. Barber, who've been arrested multiple times, I'm concerned how he could get into a first offender program."