The room was packed. There were more cameras lined up than maybe ever. The Charlotte stations were in town, in Raleigh, where their story became our story, all of us.
It was the city’s fault, the legislators sponsoring the Public Facilities Privacy and Securities Act would say. It was the city’s fault for amending their non-discrimination ordinance in a way they found disgusting. And after months to practice, by the time the legislature convened they were really good at sounding disgusted.
Most of the state, everyone who had not been planning this for months, got its first look at the bill a little after 10 a.m. Wednesday, after Speaker Tim Moore gaveled in the special session and everyone had prayed and said the pledge of allegiance.
Several minutes later, the bill was sent to a House judiciary committee for review, which took about an hour. Its approval was never in question. The only unknowns were how open the sponsors would be to amendments and whether there would be much time, if any, for public comment.
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One Democrat asked the judiciary chairman for at least five or 10 minutes so that everyone could read the bill. She got five. Easily gleaned in that five minutes was that that bill reached far beyond Charlotte and the gender freakout among conservatives.
It was clearly another move by the legislature to bring local governments to heel. The act includes extensive sections clarifying that cities and counties have no authority to impose anti-discrimination and living wage rules on contractors beyond what the state and federal laws require. It wipes away local anti-discrimination ordinances, preempting it with a statewide law that does not include sexual orientation and gender identity among its protected classes. It also does not include veteran status, which some local governments and employers have adopted to protect people being discriminated against because of their service.
Also included was a shift in how employee lawsuits are handled, a change that was quickly read as a gift to business interests in exchange for silence.
Had the bill been put out earlier we might have seen more pushback on the prospect of joining Mississippi as the only states without a state law protecting employees in the private sector from discrimination.
In the little time allotted for public comment before both House and Senate committees what we did hear interspersed with the fearful stories of proponents, were actual experiences of hurt and harm and the outrage of many who know that what the legislature did on Wednesday will cause more of it.
There were truth to power moments. A 15-year-old from Greenville described what it’s been like to grow up being bullied in school, then in a cool, clear tone told legislators “I feel bullied by you guys.”
When the packed room unpacked and the crowd headed for the elevator some people hugged, others took out their phones.
What was striking was how many teens had shown up.
Most of the time seeing a lot of young people in the halls of our legislature is uplifting, but not if you met the eyes of those kids on Wednesday. There was determination, some anger, and a lot of frustration, but there was not much hope in their eyes.
The next generation of North Carolinians may grow up in a state that is far more inclusive, but those coming of age today are caught like the rest of us in limbo while the politics of division drives the policies of our democracy.
The world will turn. But not today and not tomorrow.
It took less than a day to turn Charlotte’s attempt to be fair into a statewide right to discriminate. It will take years to undo the law and far longer to undo the damage.
Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org