Volunteers ensure 'Moral Monday' protesters are well-fed

aweigl@newsobserver.comJune 30, 2013 

For the ninth Monday since late April, dozens of protesters will file into the state Legislative Building Monday in Raleigh to express their discontent with Republican lawmakers’ agenda and be arrested.

Behind the scenes, volunteers make sure those protesters are well-fed and cared for before their arrests at about 6 p.m. and several hours’ detention. And those volunteers make sure a hot meal is waiting once the protesters are released, sometimes after midnight.

The effort to support the demonstrators, many in their 60s or older, shows the considerable organizational muscle behind the protests. Backed by the NAACP and fueled in large part by the faith community, the events use approaches that date to the 1960s civil rights movement as they take on a GOP establishment that earned control of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office in 2012.

“It’s such a Southern thing,” former state employee Diane Castellow, 65, of Raleigh, said after she was arrested June 24. “We nourish each other. We take care of each other through food.”

Tom High, 60, of Carrboro, like many of the volunteers, was previously arrested during a “Moral Monday” protest, as it is being called by the state NAACP. High said he was blown away by the event’s community spirit and the thoughtfulness of having food available once he was released in the early morning hours of May 21.

Last week he made pound cake and jambalaya.

“The next week, I tried to pay-it-forward,” said High, who has cooked for those arrested since.

The protests began April 29 with 17 people arrested for disrupting the legislative session. The protesters oppose the Republican-majority’s agenda, including a voter ID law, cuts to unemployment benefits and refusal to accept a Medicaid expansion under federal health care reform.

Republicans say they were elected last fall by voters who want to see a legislative agenda focused on job creation, tax reform, safeguarding elections and balancing the state budget.

The number of people arrested since then totals more than 600. Organizers expect a record-breaking number of arrests Monday since the decrease in unemployment benefits takes effect this week.

Republican lawmakers have been dismissive of the protests and arrests. Gov. Pat McCrory labeled the protesters as “outsiders,” a characterization later contested by a survey conducted by UNC researchers, and called the demonstrations “unlawful.” Other critics of the demonstrations argue that taxpayers are bearing the burden, with law enforcement costs mounting and the potential for 600-plus trials pending in the court system.

Those involved in the protests see themselves continuing a tradition of civil disobedience started during the civil rights era. And food and feeding activists has always been a part of that movement. The late Georgia Gilmore of Montgomery, Ala., used to cook for organizers of the Montgomery bus boycott, including Martin Luther King Jr., who gathered with others in her home for strategy sessions.

The most tangible symbol of Raleigh’s civil rights history is a kitchen table – the table that organizers gathered around at the home of June and Ralph Campbell Sr. The Campbells’ daughter, Mildred Christmas, recalls that her mother fed the men who became known as the Oval Table Gang. Among the dishes that June Campbell served were shrimp gumbo, deviled crabs and barbecue chicken.

Nurturing body and spirit

This tradition continued in the wee hours of the morning on May 1 at the Wake County detention facility on Hammond Road.

Author Tim Tyson was among that first group of 17 people arrested for trespassing for disrupting lawmakers’ work.

“When we got out, Rob Stephens, field secretary of the NAACP, handed me apples, nabs, a box of crème-filled oatmeal cookies, chips and a drink,” Tyson wrote in an email.

For the next several weeks, Tyson and his family prepared food for the protesters, including smoked chicken and his mother’s pimiento cheese. As the number of arrestees has grown, others have helped with the effort.

Last Monday afternoon, those who planned to be arrested gathered at Raleigh’s Pullen Baptist Church for a training session and a series of rousing speeches. Outside the sanctuary, OLinda Gillis, a Moore County NAACP official, High and others set up a table full of drinks and snacks for protesters to grab on their way out of the church before heading over to a rally on Halifax Mall outside the legislative building. Irving Joyner, a law professor at N.C. Central University, advised the crowd: “We ask if you have not eaten already to have some refreshments. It’s to hold you over.”

A few minutes later, Mary Alice and Jim Jost, both 67, of Pinehurst, walked into the church carrying bags of bananas and baby carrots for the refreshment table. The couple, who had previously been arrested, appreciated being fed after being released from jail at 3:30 a.m.

“We had not had anything to eat since lunch,” Mary Ann Jost said. “Every time we come back for a rally, we bring something.”

At 4:40 p.m., dozens of people streamed out of the sanctuary. Gillis and her crew handed out bottled water, trail mix, nuts, granola bars, apples and bananas. Within 10 minutes, the sanctuary was empty. High and others took the remaining food downstairs to set up for the evening meal.

‘A Southern thing’

By 9 p.m., the buffet was ready. High’s jambalaya, pound cake and brownies were on the table. Wanda Hunter and her husband, Tye, set out her homemade pimiento cheese, hummus, chicken salad, sliced bread and fruit. A row of coolers held soft drinks and water.

A few minutes later, the first foursome of arrestees returned from the jail. Linda Willey, 62, of Manteo, and Deborah Hooker, 62, of Clayton, tucked into full plates. Wiley explained that she had been so excited about getting arrested that she hadn’t eaten that afternoon. Hooker added: “It’s been great sitting down together before we all head in different directions.”

The next few hours took on a rhythm. Applause erupted as those arrested entered the church basement. The arrestees were easy to spot: Their arms sported purple wristbands and they held a manila envelope containing their personal effects. They queued up at the buffet, which volunteers replenished, twice running to the grocery store for more food and drinks.

Before heading home, many of the protesters stopped to praise High’s cooking. And they made sure to thank the volunteers.

Among them was Catherine Chandler, 68, of Durham who called out as she left: “Thank you. See you next week.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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