RALEIGH — The crowd inside the state North Carolina Legislative Building has grown larger each Monday as has the number of demonstrators arrested by General Assembly police.
The Rev. William Barber, the head of the state NAACP and chief architect of the weekly Moral Monday demonstrations in the capital city, watched from behind the police line on Monday evening as demonstrators united in message to the GOP-led General Assembly waited to be walked out by the approaching officers.
The chanting, songs and political speeches that had rumbled through the second-floor rotunda were muted by the repeated zip, zip, zip of General Assembly police pulling out plastic ties to bind the wrists of the protesters.
Rep. John Blust, a Republican from Guilford County, peeked in on the demonstration and had words for the organizers within earshot.
People have the right to voice their opinions, but they dont have the right to force them on others, Blust said before walking away.
After Blust had gone down an office corridor that law enforcement officers said was off limits to the public, Barber responded to a small group nearby watching the arrests.
The reality is you shouldnt be arrested for praying in the General Assembly, Barber said noting the many clergy in the crowd. He described the growing demonstrations as a movement that had national implications.
The demonstrators offered wide-ranging and sweeping complaints from the decision to overturn the Racial Justice Act to the changes, to the public education systems that direct more public money to private schools, to the refusal to expand the federal Medicaid program and more.
If you change the South, you change the nation, Barber said.
Since April 29, nearly 160 people have been arrested while protesting at the Legislative Building. The first Moral Monday demonstration brought 17 arrests, the next brought 30, then 49. This week, General Assembly police took nearly 60 protesters to the Wake County Detention Center, where they will be jailed briefly and given a date to appear in court. The official number of arrests Monday was not available at press time.
The first wave of protesters are scheduled to appear in Wake County court on June 24, but lawyers representing some of them plan to challenge the authority of the General Assembly police to charge the demonstrators with trespassing, disorderly conduct and failure to disperse during a peaceful demonstration.
The courts will be asked to weigh whether the demonstrators First Amendment rights to assemble peaceably and petition their lawmakers were violated by a General Assembly police force citing building rules not encoded in state statute as their basis for arrest.
Jeff Weaver, chief of the General Assembly law enforcement agency, said his aim is public safety. He gives the demonstrators a brief time inside the building to voice their concerns, then calls out that they have five minutes to disperse or risk arrest.
Sara Loeppert, a Raleigh resident, watched from a third-floor balcony as officers walked the arrested demonstrators toward an elevator below. She, like many in the crowd, had come not only to voice her opposition to the new direction the Republicans are taking the state, but to support those who were arrested.
Its a moral obligation as a Christian to defend people who are poor, to defend people from these callous laws theyve passed, Loeppert said. I think more ministers need to be promoting this from the pulpit.