RALEIGH — The Rev. William Barber II, the architect of the Monday demonstrations that helped cast a national spotlight on North Carolina politics last year, plans to use a similar strategy during the coming General Assembly session.
Legislators return to Raleigh on May 14 to open a short session to tackle budgetary decisions for the coming year and other issues lingering from last year.
On May 19, the first Monday in the session, Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP chapter, plans to lead protesters of the N.C. Republican agenda back to the Legislative Building.
“We will be back just as we were last year,” Barber told a group of reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “Whether or not we will be arrested for civil disobedience does not depend on us.”
April 29 marked the anniversary of the first 17 arrests in a series of weekly demonstrations that became known as the “Moral Monday movement.”
Barber and 16 others, mostly fellow clergy, were arrested outside General Assembly chambers and accused of trespassing and failure to disperse.
The act of civil disobedience was the first in a series of rallies that drew thousands to the state capital for weekly demonstrations that resulted in 945 arrests.
Advocates of the Republican agenda have called the protests and arrests of protesters for civil disobedience costly to taxpayers. They point out that elections put the legislators in office and contend that they were carrying out the will of the people who put them in office.
The demonstrators contend they should not have been arrested for trying to address their legislators.
Trials of those arrested began in Wake County District Court in October, and since then a variety of verdicts and legal decisions have been handed down from the bench.
As of late March, more than 600 cases remained in the trial queue. Of the 137 cases that had gone to trial by then, 24 defendants were found not guilty and 53 were convicted of at least one charge. All charges were dropped against 57 of the demonstrators arrested May 20, and three others arrested on other days.
Some 190 people have had their cases dismissed after taking plea deals that required them to perform community service and, in some cases, pay court costs.
The trials, which sometimes take more than a day for a full bench trial, have drawn at least 120 defense attorneys who have volunteered their time.
The lawyers who tallied the case results did not include trials from April.
As the lawyers honed their arguments, the presiding judges offered observations on the complexities and vagueness of some of the Legislative Building rules that led to the 2013 arrests.
Judge Joy Hamilton told the attorneys the rule governing the size of placards inside the building was too vague. After that, prosecutors began to drop those charges against defendants going to trial.
Barber said Wednesday that rulings from the trials might result in slight changes to their demonstration strategies in the coming weeks.
He wondered whether the General Assembly police strategies might change, too.
Efforts on Wednesday to reach Jeff Weaver, the General Assembly police chief, were unsuccessful. He was in court, according to a member of his staff.
The opening of the General Assembly session could pose a challenge for the scheduling of trials for demonstrators whose cases have not been heard.
Weaver will have duties at the Legislative Building, and the trials have required him to be in the courtroom for most of the day.
Since the end of the 2013 legislative session, Barber has helped other Southern states launch similar movements. In Georgia, protesters of the Republican agenda have developed their own “Moral Monday” demonstrations. In South Carolina, “Truthful Tuesdays” have taken off, and in Alabama and other states, Barber has served as a consultant for similar efforts.
In North Carolina, Barber said the state NAACP will launch a “Moral Freedom Summer Project,” which will place paid organizers in different communities across the state to build what has been described as a “movement, not a moment.”
Barber said those affiliated with the movement will conduct voter registration drives through the summer and hold a lobby day. Policies adopted by the Republican-led General Assembly last year are now in play, Barber noted, and the demonstrators plan to return with more stories about how the failure to expand Medicaid and the limits put on unemployment benefits affect North Carolinians.
“Last year, it was just paper and debate,” Barber said during the Wednesday conference call. “This year, it is about people – we can actually put a face to it.”
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1