NC protesters risk arrest to highlight concerns about GOP

ablythe@newsobserver.comMay 10, 2013 

— The historians, doctors, preachers, lawyers, raging grannies, students and others gathered around the second-floor fountain inside the Legislative Building and belted out “This Little Light of Mine” and other songs.

They were diverse in age and backgrounds but united in voice as part of a protest movement gaining numbers in recent weeks.

In the four months since North Carolina Republicans took control of both General Assembly chambers and the governor’s mansion, the lawmakers have proposed rapid and sweeping change to the state’s electoral processes, health care policies, welfare management and publicly-funded education systems.

The Republicans, some who emerged from a protest movement of their own – the tea party dissatisfied with the cost and influence of government – contend they’re doing the business of the people who voted them into office. They say their critics are simply bitter that their party no longer is in power.

So, as the new-to-power legislators roll out bill after bill, a new wave of protesters is heading for Raleigh. The protesters say they are not radicals but everyday North Carolinians worried that the leadership of the General Assembly is reversing the state’s progress in ensuring equality, tolerance and respect for human dignity.

The dissenters plan to gather weekly at the state legislature for “Moral Mondays” – a series of demonstrations that have resulted in 50 arrests so far. They acknowledge that their concerns might be tuned out by the supermajority against them. But the protesters hope to persuade others to rise up with them and raise their voices to a future that might bring a political shift in 2014.

Thirty demonstrators were taken to the Wake County jail on Monday after capital police cited them for trespassing and disorderly conduct. A week before that, 17 people were arrested at the demonstration organized by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. Though their strategies are modeled on civil rights-era protests, the trailblazers from earlier decades faced longer stints in jail, beatings and job loss.

Dr. Charles van der Horst, an internationally known AIDS researcher from UNC-Chapel Hill, was among those arrested Monday.

Though the 61-year-old from Chapel Hill is known among family, friends and colleagues as an opinionated man who isn’t shy about speaking his mind, van der Horst had never before risked arrest to make a point.

“I was scared,” he said hours after being released from jail. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m violating a state law.’ ”

But van der Horst, a physician who has traveled the world to advocate for preventive health care policies, had become alarmed by the GOP leadership’s refusal to accept a Medicaid expansion under federal health care reform that would limit health care access for nearly half a million people. He also was disturbed by legislation that requires voters to show identification at the polls but also decreases the number of days ballots can be cast before Election Day.

He complained about legislators who advocate for restrictions on abortion and contend they are “pro-life” but then support bills to cut early childhood education programs and access to Medicare.

“You realize these people aren’t pro-life, pro-North Carolinians,” van der Horst said. “They’re for themselves.”

Van der Horst said his experience in jail was deeply moving, and he quickly posted to Facebook with hopes of attracting others to follow suit.

A reunion behind bars

While in jail for hours, the protesters sang songs and bonded with others of similar political leanings. Van der Horst reminisced about a civil rights demonstration in Olean, N.Y., that he attended as a teen with his father.

He thought about Henry David Thoreau and the philosopher’s civil disobedience essays, and he found himself incarcerated with a history professor who taught him as an undergraduate years ago at Duke University.

That professor, William Chafe, a former dean of arts and sciences at Duke, said he and other North Carolina historians resorted to civil disobedience because they worry that the new legislative direction “threatened to destroy” the “very history” they’ve spent their lives studying and celebrating.

“We thought it was important to stand up and be heard,” Chafe said earlier this week after spending his first night in jail. “We hope that as respected historians, who some would call eminent, we can reach out to others and stir them to speak out.”

It is uncertain whether the demonstrators will have any sway on a party flexing its political muscle at full strength for the first time in more than a century.

“Folks are obviously free to exercise their First Amendment rights, and we understand that in a democracy, disagreement is part of the process,” said Jordan Shaw, communications director for Thom Tillis, the Mecklenburg County Republican who is speaker of the House. “But the process functions most effectively through productive dialogue, which is what we are focused on.”

Efforts to reach Phil Berger, the Rockingham County Republican who is president pro tempore of the Senate, were unsuccessful.

Dallas Woodhouse, North Carolina director for Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy organization inspired by the tea party movement and founded by billionaires, said, “I think mass arrest and claims of tyranny tend to get tuned out.”

Woodhouse, too, acknowledged a right to free speech but contended the demonstrators were “blocking the rights of others.” “It is one thing to advance your free-speech rights,” Woodhouse said. “It is another to try to block the business of the General Assembly.”

Court fights also planned

The Rev. William Barber, head of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the architect of the recent civil disobedience, said his organization was taking a multipronged approach in its fight against the Republican supermajority.

When the NAACP advocates can, they will take their fight to the courts with legal challenges. The NAACP also plans to branch out across the state to inform the public of the impact of bills. Separately, others participating in the protests plan to start recruiting and raising money for candidates in 2014.

“It takes time for people to understand what’s really happening to them and what the issues are,” Barber said. “We call this the avalanche effect, what’s going on there, and we don’t want people to experience this avalanche without knowing what’s coming. What they’re doing is regressive, extreme and race-based.”

Barber said his organization did not lightly advocate for civil disobedience. He contends that he and others tried to engage in respectful debate with legislators and the governor. “They’ve turned a deaf ear to that,” Barber said. “We want them to look the people in the eye – the people who won’t get Medicaid, the children who won’t get early childhood education – and tell them what they’re doing.

“We say, ‘If your policy is so good, then look those people in the eye and tell them why you’re doing what you’re doing.’ ”

Though some describe Barber and the demonstrations organized by the NAACP as attention-grabbing moves that are less about policy and more about publicity, others in Wake County who remember similar comments made during the school redistricting fight, offer a different perspective.

When the Wake County schools were under the control of a Republican-majority school board, the GOP leaders attempted to change the school assignment policy, which had supported diverse schools, to one based on neighborhoods.

Effect of ‘enhanced attention’

Barber, who does not live in Wake County, thrust himself into the debate, saying he feared a step away from the system’s diversity policy would be a giant leap back toward the days of separate and unequal education in North Carolina’s largest school system. More than once, Barber was hauled away from board meetings in handcuffs, arrested for disrupting business and refusing to leave school property.

Yevonne Brannon, a critic of the neighborhood-based plan that ultimately failed, said Barber’s involvement, and his multipronged strategy that also included legal challenges with the civil disobedience, brought heightened publicity and more speakers to an issue that was going somewhat undetected.

After the protests, Democrats gained control of the board in 2011, and that board is in the process of crafting a new assignment plan that they say will support diversity.

“I think the enhanced attention was very beneficial,” Brannon said.

Brannon, who keeps abreast of state politics but has yet to participate in a protest, said she worries about the state legislative policies that would make major revisions to public education in North Carolina and other bills that have received national attention, some from late-night comedians.

“I do feel deep remorse that our state has gotten to the point where once again we’re getting this negative national attention,” Brannon said. “I am sad that people feel like they have to use civil disobedience to get their elected officials’ attention. I think if the elected officials paid more attention, we wouldn’t have to be like this.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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