Saturday's big protest in Raleigh reflects mainstream, not fringe

February 8, 2014 

The protesters came to Raleigh on Saturday by bus and car and on foot. They came from various parts of North Carolina and from nearby states. They came from many places on behalf of varied causes, but they were driven by a single imperative – to stand up.

There was confusion about what to call the mass gathering of indignation that flowed down Fayetteville Street and stopped at the State Capitol like a river dammed. It was the eighth version of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Assembly (or “HKonJ”). But this year its ranks were swelled by Moral Monday protesters who brought their presence and their voices to a gathering called the Moral March.

There were the usual protesters – labor and civil rights supporters – and some unlikely ones, school teachers. Teachers’ jobs often involve keeping order among the unruly, but they’ve learned there is no virtue in keeping quiet about pay that’s near the lowest in the nation. They object to a legislative agenda that includes taking away their job protections and undermining public school funding through an expansion of charter schools and vouchers for private schools.

A broad group

To see the long ranks of protesters was to wonder how much longer North Carolina’s Republican leaders can dismiss them as a rabble, as outsiders, as “takers,” as agitators, and not see them for who they are: The People. Their issues include labor conditions, pay for public employees, environmental protections, voting rights, fair taxation, help for the unemployed, gay rights, abortion rights and civil rights.

But another of their issues is one they hold in common: They feel they are not being heard. And the deafness of the state’s political powers is deliberate. Legislative leaders and the governor can’t hear above the sound of the corporate money that steers their agenda. And even if they could, they wouldn’t listen. The people in the streets holding signs and chanting are not people they consider “the mainstream” or “real Americans.”

That indifference was on display Saturday through the absence of state leaders. House Speaker Thom Tillis is running to become a U.S. senator representing the whole state, but he had nothing to say to this gathering. Neither did Senate leader Phil Berger. Gov. Pat McCrory, a leader who has a constituent in every resident of the state, did not address the aggrieved thousands who gathered just blocks from his residence.

‘We shall be heard’

The Rev. William J. Barber, the state NAACP chairman whose powerful speeches have galvanized many concerns into one cause, spoke to the crowd Saturday, his amplified voice echoing along the towers of Fayetteville Street. Barber said, “Now is the time, here is the place, here are the people and we shall be heard.”

And so Saturday there was a collision between involvement and indifference, between the chants and speeches of those who care and the silence of those who couldn’t care less about what that rabble cares about.

It’s a gulf that reflects a polarized politics based on rifts between races and gaps between the wealthy and the rest. So far that gulf has led to gridlock in Congress and stunning movement on a right-wing agenda in North Carolina.

But on Saturday there was evidence that many grievances are becoming one. The neglected and the denied are standing up. And if their anger boils all the way to the polls, they will, at last, be heard.

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