More than 150 arrested at NC legislature during Monday protests

jfrank@newsobserver.comJune 3, 2013 

— Jennifer Ferrell stopped so her husband could take her picture. Then she waved goodbye to her 3-year-old twins and marched into the Legislative Building to get handcuffed.

“I’m excited. I’m not nervous,” the 34-year-old Raleigh resident said as she walked in a line of demonstrators. “I’m passionate. I’m not crazy.”

For weeks now, Ferrell heard about protesters getting arrested at the statehouse to demonstrate against the Republican majority’s legislative agenda. And like many Monday, she felt compelled to add her voice to the chants and her wrists to the handcuffs. “I knew it was time to stop watching and do it myself,” she said.

Authorities arrested 151 people in the rotunda between the legislative chambers during the latest “Moral Monday” protest – the largest mass arrest since the N.C. NAACP began organizing the weekly civil disobedience events in late April.

The number is nearly the equivalent to the arrests at the four prior protests combined and brings the total above 300 this session.

The crowd of spectators also exploded, with hundreds rallying on the mall outside the legislative building, listening to speakers condemn Republican legislative leaders. “That’s extreme,” shouted the Rev. William Barber, the N.C. NAACP president, into a loud speaker as he listed legislation Republicans have approved this year. “That’s immoral, and we must stand up and wake up right here, right now.”

Police estimated the crowd at 1,000 – about five times more than the last protest – but organizers counted 1,600.

‘This ain’t Wisconsin’

The rallies are drawing comparisons to the recall fight in Wisconsin, though on a much smaller scale. Barber said the history of North Carolina and the civil rights battles of years past lend a historical depth to this movement. “This ain’t Wisconsin,” he told the crowd. “This is the South, where justice was hammered out.”

The growing momentum is reflective of the increased organizing muscle behind the rallies. The N.C. Democratic Party, outside political groups, student organizations and labor unions are openly promoting the protests.

Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Wagram and chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, spoke to the crowd inside the statehouse and encouraged them to let their voices be heard. A number of local officials, including Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, were among those arrested.

The protesters’ list of grievances was as diverse as the crowd: education spending, voter ID, women’s rights, the elimination of the estate tax, private school vouchers and more.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat who watched the protest from the sidelines, said each week Republicans seem to add more fuel with their actions. The next step, he said, is to take the energy to legislative districts and influence the 2014 election. “The key is if the legislature doesn’t listen ... then constituents need to start taking action to vote them out,” he said.

Republicans lawmakers are downplaying the protests, which a recent poll showed getting unfavorable ratings among the majority of voters. While respecting their right to demonstrate, they argue the arrests are not constructive dialogue.

Gov. Pat McCrory said he is fighting to change the status quo, while the protesters want to keep it.

“I think of it like Carolina playing at Duke,” said Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican. “I’m not going to let the Cameron Crazies throw me off my game.”

Joanne Harrell, a retired UNC-Chapel Hill professor who was arrested, is not deterred.

“I may not make a difference immediately,” she said. “But we’ll get people to start speaking up.”

Harrell, 75, and Ferrell locked arms as they marched two-by-two into the legislative building from the rally. They met in line.

“What they’ve done to the school system in reducing the amount of money for the kids is unbelievable,” Harrell said. “The kids are our future.”

“That’s right,” Ferrell added.

Harrell came to the event to show her support, but she didn’t plan to get arrested.

“I didn’t think I was going to do this,” she said, sweat dripping from under her straw hat. “It’s about time I did something to make a difference.”

‘I see it as my duty’

Inside, the protesters encircled the fountain on the second floor rotunda, the soothing sound of water cascading from the palm frond planters. Above, spectators stood two deep watching from the third floor balcony.

Harrell stood with her back to two sergeant at arms guarding the entrance to the House chamber, Ferrell in front of her holding a hand-written sign.

“We will not leave education behind,” an organizer chanted.

“That’s right,” Harrell and Ferrell responded in unison.

The arrests are only expected to continue in the final weeks of the legislative session.

“I’ll definitely be down there at some point,” said Wilson Hood, a college junior from Hickory, as he watched from the third floor balcony. “I was raised to act on what I believe in. I see it as my duty.”

Outside crowd fired up

As the protesters were led to a bus waiting to take them to jail, several hundred demonstrators stood on the sidewalks nearby to cheer them.

Margaret and Howard Arbuckle traveled from Greensboro. They were upset about the cuts to public education, the support of private school vouchers and what they described as an erosion of voting rights.

“There needs to be a developing sense of outrage,” said Howard Arbuckle, 70, who is retired from the insurance business.

“What they’re doing is hurtful to the future of North Carolina,” added Margaret Arbuckle, an advocate for children.

Doug Swaim, a Charlotte resident, came to Raleigh with a busload of fellow congregants from the Unitarian church in Mecklenburg County.

He worries that Republicans are working quickly to “lock in radically conservative policies.”

“They’re not stupid, they understand the demographics of North Carolina, they know they only have a short time to do this,” Swaim said. “I’m sure they believe in what they’re doing, but I like to call this the last gasp of the angry white man.”

Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this report.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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