RALEIGH — Retired Methodist minister Vernon Tyson of Raleigh was among the 200 demonstrators at the Legislative Building last week for the weekly Moral Monday demonstration, protesting new initiatives from the GOP-led General Assembly.
Many of the demonstrators went into the Legislative Building clapping, singing, chanting, hoisting placards and raising their voices with expectations of arrest. But Tyson, 83, said he entered quietly and reflectively to show support and witness the effort to change political course.
Tyson sat on the same bench he had the week before. When that was moved, he stood against the wall, watching and listening. Then General Assembly law enforcement officers asked him to move or risk arrest.
I said Why?, Tyson told filmmaker Eric Preston hours later on a video posted to YouTube. They said, Well, youre trespassing, and I said, Well, Im a tax-paying citizen and this is the peoples house and I dont see how I can trespass in a house that I helped to build and Im not blocking anybody and Im not demonstrating. Im not singing. Im not clapping my hands. Im not making any noise. The only people I talk to are you.
The officers came back minutes later and again urged Tyson to move, then issued one more warning before arresting him along with 48 others.
As protesters gear up to assemble again Monday to highlight concerns about welfare cuts, health care funding, voting rights, racial justice, tax reform, environmental deregulation, workers rights and more, legal analysts are raising questions about whether the General Assembly police are within their power to arrest the nonviolent demonstrators.
Irv Joyner, a law professor at N.C. Central University who has observed the demonstrations, said legal challenges of the arrests are being drafted.
We think we have clear-cut First Amendment issues, Joyner said.
When the founding fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution, they enshrined the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government. But those tasked with ensuring public safety contend the First Amendment is not absolute, that government can make reasonable stipulations about where, when and how a peaceful demonstration can occur.
Jeff Weaver, chief of the General Assembly police, cited such issues when describing how his department was handling the swell of protesters inside the Legislative Building.
The demonstrators face three charges: violating building rules that prohibit disruptions or disorderly conduct; failure to disperse under a state criminal statute; and trespassing for not leaving when instructed.
They know the facility, they know the rules, Weaver said. I think they are just doing this to establish their agendas or whatever. They are doing it to make a point, and they are making their point.
As protesters enter the building, a law enforcement officer calls out on a bullhorn that anybody going inside will be arrested.
Our concern is safety
Then as the demonstrators gather inside, officers typically give the crowd five minutes to disperse or risk arrest. As the crowd grows from Monday to Monday, Weaver said he has changed tactics somewhat.
We react to what is presented from the group as far as the number of participants, their intentions and so forth, Weaver said. Our concern is the safety of the members and staff and the citizens as well as the participants in the activity.
To date, nearly 100 demonstrators have been arrested.
Even if attorneys are unsuccessful with the legal challenges of the grounds for arrest, many of the demonstrators say they are willing to continue the demonstrations to raise awareness of concerns that some in opposing political camps cast off as little more than political bitterness. The Republicans, they remind the protesters, were swept into office through the voting process.
Things going backwards
But demonstrators argue the elected officials are going beyond the will of the people. Vicki Ryder, a 71-year-old Durham resident who was arrested on May 6, said: Things are going so far backwards. As a grandmother Im old enough to remember how we fought this fight many, many years ago, and now it seems that were fighting it again. I just felt that enough is enough.
Though the protests have had little impact on altering legislation, policies and budgets coming out of the Republican-led General Assembly and governors office, they are gaining the attention of voters across the state, according to demonstration organizers.
June Durham, a former Raleigh resident who now lives in the coastal community of Oriental and works at the Bean coffee shop there, says she is most upset about the decision to reject the optional expansion of the Medicaid program, an action that leaves some 500,000 low-income residents without health care coverage. Durham says shes considering coming to Raleigh to stand with the protesters and perhaps go to jail with them if she could be processed and released in time for her 6 a.m. shift the next day.
An 83-year-old spectator was recently arrested at the NC General Assembly.