Politics & Government

Protesters cited for blocking traffic in Raleigh as part of a national Poor People's Campaign

Raleigh police remove dozens from Poor People’s Campaign protest

Protesters blocked traffic in front of the North Carolina Legislative Building on May 14, 2018 as part of a national Poor People's Campaign to draw attention to poverty at statehouses across the country.
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Protesters blocked traffic in front of the North Carolina Legislative Building on May 14, 2018 as part of a national Poor People's Campaign to draw attention to poverty at statehouses across the country.

Protesters blocked traffic in front of the North Carolina Legislative Building on Monday as part of a national campaign to draw attention in statehouses across the country to poverty.

Raleigh police cited 49 people with impeding the flow of traffic on Jones Street, which passes by the front door of the halls of power in North Carolina's capital where the Republican-led General Assembly has spent much of the past decade charting a new political course for this state.

At the afternoon protest, they hoisted signs that said "Systemic Racism Is Immoral," "Invest in People Not Prisons," "Fight Poverty, Not the Poor," "Got Money For War, But Can't Feed the Poor."

It was one of many days of protest and direct action scheduled during the next 40 days, culminating in a rally in Washington, D.C.

The goal of the Poor People's Campaign, which was co-launched by the Rev. William J. Barber II, the former head of the state NAACP and the architect of the Moral Monday protest movement, is to push the plight of poor people to the top of the agenda in statehouses and U.S. Congress.

Barber was in Washington, D.C., on Monday leading the action in the nation's capital.

The Rev. Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, led the rally in Raleigh that drew several hundred people to Bicentennial Plaza just south of Jones Street.

"Somebody's hurting our people," Petty told the crowd gathered in the 90-plus degree heat. "Today we're focused on children, women, people with disabilities and the LGBT community. "

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. outlined a multi-faith, multicultural plan in the late 1960s to draw attention to income inequality, working conditions and economic injustices that he thought the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 failed to address.

Though King was assassinated in April 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Council forged ahead with the slain civil rights' leader's plans, bringing a crowd to Washington in May 1968.

Fifty years have passed since then, but Barber and others who organized the modern campaign say many of the needs and demands outlined a half century ago remain unmet.

According to the U.S. Census, nearly 41 million people live in poverty.

The speakers at the Raleigh rally urged those around them to lift their voices to speak out "and bring into the public discourse how the poorest among us are being treated" — among other causes. Women's pay still lags behind men, many states don't have protections for the LGBT community, and some lawmakers are shifting funds for public education elsewhere, they said.

"We believe in the transformation of the war economy into the peace economy," 27-year-old Winston-Salem resident Love' Lemon said, her voice rising and falling in a fiery sing-song preaching voice similar to King's and Barber's. "These are devastating times and I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired, but I'm not going to be devastated."

Shortly after the rally, several dozen people wearing brown arm bands stepped off the sidewalk into Jones Street.

As they linked arms and sang protest songs such as "This Little Light of Mine," Raleigh police blocked vehicular traffic in front of the state Legislative Building.

Within a half hour, after wrapping yellow crime scene tape around the area, police began approaching the protesters and asked them to leave.

Unlike the methods used by General Assembly police inside the Legislative Building during Moral Monday protests since 2013, Raleigh police did not cuff the protesters' wrists with zip ties nor did they arrest them.

Protesters join hands to block Jones Street at the N.C. Legislature. Colin Campbell ccampbell@newsobserver.com

The police, who encouraged the protesters to move their act of civil disobedience to a shadier part of the street, issued citations, accusing the men and women of impeding the flow of traffic.

The officers gave protesters an opportunity to walk away, and several who had planned to risk arrest chose to leave the area instead of face the fiscal and personal costs of a citation.

Sam Singer was one of the protesters who locked arms in the street on Monday. She came to the capital city from Asheville, troubled by the direction of North Carolina lawmakers.

She came with Carolina Jews For Justice and walked away from the police vans with a citation accusing her of impeding the flow of traffic on Jones Street.

"It's really critical to make sure our legislators understand the severity of what's going on," she said.

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An earlier version of this report inaccurately reported the church where the Rev. Nancy Petty is pastor. She leads Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh.