Confusion settled on Raleigh fourth-grader Graylin Cuthbertson as she walked into the legislative building on Dec. 15.
It was day two of protests against moves by the Republican-led General Assembly in a hastily called special session convened by outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory for disaster relief. What followed was a series of measures that weaken Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper’s authority.
Protesters made it clear they thought lawmakers were overstepping their bounds. For 9-year-old Graylin, the experience on Jones Street was far from the rules outlined during a recent field trip with classmates from The Raleigh School. And none of it matched school lessons on voting rights, elections and how laws are made.
“Taking away the governor’s power, that’s just not fair at all,” said Graylin, who attended the protest with her parents and 7-year-old brother. “The vote is the vote. You just have to sit back, leave it. You shouldn’t do anything to change it. It’s unfair and, I would say, rude.”
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For the Cuthbertson family, the day turned into a civics lesson.
“What the legislature is doing is making it clear that they don’t want to listen to voters and they don’t want to surrender the power to voters, no matter what we say,” said Tom Cuthbertson, Graylin’s father and an instructor at Wake Tech Community College. “We want to call attention to what they’re doing and make sure people are aware this is not how government is supposed to work, not what representative government is.
“This is kind of a warning to other places,” he added. “This is something that can happen anywhere.”
Repeatedly hearing, “This is not what we learned in school,” Jennifer Cuthbertson tried to clarify things.
“You’re right,” she told her daughter. “Sometimes laws are not good laws, and there are times when you have to break procedure to make your voice heard.”
Demonstrators held signs: Disaster relief, not deception. No backdoor deals. Respect our vote.
They chanted, too: “All political power comes from the people.” “The people united will never be defeated.” “This is what democracy looks like.” “What do you do? Stand up, fight back!”
Amy Madison was there to show “people are paying attention” – and to stand in for friends across the state who couldn’t be there.
“There’s just this overwhelming sense of helplessness people have, and if you can do just one thing, it helps keep that at bay,” she said. “It really is a community effort. It was really important for the rest of the country to see a lot of North Carolinians are not happy about this.
“This country was formed on protests,” said Madison, a SAS executive. “It’s everybody’s duty, if they’re not happy, to do something. Otherwise, you’ve given up and that’s the worst thing you can do.”
Now is not the time to give up, agreed the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP who helped pioneer the Forward Together Moral Movement and its mantra heard throughout protests: “Forward together; not one step back!”
Barber said the moral center of protests is historically necessary for change.
“This is what Herods do when their power is threatened by love and justice,” he said. “The extremists in the new General Assembly are afraid. They see their power slipping away.
“A new demographic is rising in the South that believes in Medicaid expansion, living wages and public education,” he said. “North Carolina has given a lot of hope that we can bring people together and ... push back against this extremism that we’re seeing in the country.
“Black and white and brown people together can form a new majority in the South. If we change the South, we change the nation.”