Though young people have been credited with helping to kick off the weekly protest at the legislature, most of the protesters arrested have been middle age or older.
Of the 382 protesters arrested through June 10, more than half were in the 55-64 or 65-74 age groups, according to data compiled by the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank.
For young people, getting arrested can carry too many repercussions, said 19-year-old Charles Gray of Winston-Salem, who chose to stay out of the area where arrests were happening on June 17.
“It has a really good chance of negatively affecting their futures,” Gray said. “It’s already hard enough to get a job.”
Leaders credit young people with sparking the movement they call “Moral Monday” which began in the spring in response to a series of bills proposed in the Republican-led General Assembly. A group of college students first protested proposed voter ID legislation in late April by arriving at the State House with their mouths covered with duct tape, said the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, a veteran leader in the North Carolina NAACP.
Since then, however, the people spearheading the civil disobedience in the State House have been older.
‘We’re one body’
The NAACP strongly recommends young people confer with their families and legal counselors if they are considering getting arrested, Gatewood said. The laws for detention might be different for young people than for adults.
“Some may see it as a badge of honor, others may see it as a hindrance,” Gatewood said. “It depends on what sacrifices an individual is willing to make.”
Several people interviewed worried that an arrest might bar them from getting into law school.
Law school admissions are handled on a case-by-case basis, said Michael States, assistant dean for admissions at UNC School of Law. An arrest is for a nonviolent protest should not worry applicants, he said, adding, “We’ve had faculty members down there (participating in the protests).”
The predominance of older protesters getting arrested this summer contrasts with the high point of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, said Tufts University history professor Peniel Joseph, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.
Young people drove the 1960 sit-in protests, and as the decade went on, they were at the leading edge of the anti-war movement and the black power movement, Joseph said.
Although young protesters can bring passionate and disruptive energy to their protests, Joseph said, protesters who are older and more established in the community can bring more credibility.
The ongoing protests have drawn criticism from some on the political right based on its perceived demographics. Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican, has called the crowd of protesters “mostly white, angry, aged former hippies” and described them as more interested in talking than doing.
Some of the legislation the protesters are targeting has more direct effects for youth, particularly funding cuts to education.
Ashley McLean, 20, who grew up in Wake County and now attends Howard University in Washington, D.C., said bills to cut financial aid and to offer vouchers for private school are of particular concern for her. But she said all age groups should be concerned.
“We’re not separate generations,” she said. “We’re one body that shares morals and values.”
Young still doing their part
When she got arrested in the third week of demonstrations, 23-year-old Laurel Ashton of Chapel Hill encountered a sense of camaraderie among the different generations of protesters, she said. The protesters in the women’s detention area, who ranged in age from their 20s to their 80s, shared life stories with each other. Ashton said she found the experience very welcoming.
Before getting arrested, Ashton wondered whether it would affect her future employment or applications for housing. She said she was encouraged when she saw the presence of accomplished members of her community, including doctors and lawyers, who had been arrested in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Much of the NAACP leadership comes from established leaders in the church and community, but Field Secretary Rob Stephens helps coordinate the weekly protests at the age of 26. He’s a ubiquitous presence behind the stage on protest days, and he picks up protesters from the Wake County Detention Center after their arrests.
Stephens said different groups, such as young people and pastors, have stepped up to leadership roles in the movement at different times. When students take the lead, he added, they bring a seriousness different from the energy of older groups.
“For young people, we’re not talking about a future we’re not going to be in,” Stephens said. “We’re fighting for a world we’re going to be a part of. It makes it a grounded experience for us and for the public.”