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Uprising

Thursday, Aug 1, 2013, 5:31 pm

North Carolina’s Moral Mondays Keep Up Morale for the Long Haul

By Kristin Rawls

On July 29, North Carolinians kicked off Raleigh’s last "Moral Monday" protest of 2013 before going on tour to organize other regions of the state. Raleigh police estimate more than 2,500 protesters showed up that day, while organizers estimate 10,000. Whatever the case, it was far more difficult to navigate traffic or find parking than on previous Moral Mondays, which had already topped 3,000 attendees. A traffic jam on Jones Street kept drivers stalled for upwards of 30 minutes and three blocks just before the rally got underway. 

Despite NPR (incorrectly) reporting that the movement had ended, organizers stressed the fight was far from over. Participants were promised that protests would resume in Raleigh as soon as the next legislative session starts. Until then, Moral Monday will be on tour, beginning with Mountain Moral Monday next week in Asheville. In the meantime, participants will help organize their own districts—and follow through on promises made by those arrested to help register at least 50 new voters each.

The day’s focus on education was fitting, as North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber first received statewide attention by organizing for equality and fairness in education policy. Thousands of educators wore red National Education Association-affiliated T-shirts ordered by the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), each reading “Education Activist” on the back. They brought signs boasting neat, classroom-worthy handwriting with lots of messages: “I’m a teacher, not a tester,” “I teach for America too (except I’m licensed and certified,” “I bring home $810 a month with a master’s degree and seven years of experience. Would you like to work for that?,” “Public school tax dollars for sale to highest bidder,” “NC Winning the Race to the Bottom,” “If you can read this, PAY a teacher,” “First in flight and last in education,” and many more.

Tea Party politics

A rousing send-off was crucial for the movement’s morale thanks to the prior week, which marked the end of an aggressive legislative session in North Carolina. By Thursday, July 25, the State General Assembly had passed a total of 380 new bills, most of them inspired by the Tea Party-dominated General Assembly. Never deterred by popular resistance or low popular approval (that bottomed out at around 20 percent), controversial Tea Party legislation was rammed through to the end. Last week also brought the second House and Senate votes and finalization of North Carolina’s controversial new voter suppression and abortion restriction bills. The days also saw new attacks on city power that will undermine the power of more liberal urban areas – like placing Charlotte’s airport under a regional transportation authority .The final measures served as a slap in the face to the NC-NAACP-led Moral Monday protests that had turned out tens of thousands between April and July.

Week after week, Moral Mondayers arrived to protest the legislature’s actions: refusal to accept federal Medicaid expansion and unemployment benefits, restrictions that end safe access to abortion, draconian cuts to education and all other public services, and most recently House Bill 589, an omnibus voter suppression bill considered the worst in the country. More than 50 pages in length, the bill includes dozens of new restrictions that extend far beyond the much reported requirement for state-issued photo ID. The photo ID requirement is bad in itself: In order to vote, the hundreds of thousands of registered North Carolina voters who do not have photo IDs must get one by paying $10 (aka a poll tax) before the election. The bill also bans same-day registration and reduces the state’s popular 18-day early voting window by a full week. It allows any lay citizen, not just election officials, to challenge any voter in their county—a measure that opens the door to voter intimidation at the polls. The measure could create voting dynamics reminiscent of the Jim Crow restrictions that prevented people of color from voting in the South into the 1960s.

But that’s not all: The bill allows elections officials to challenge for infractions as minor as walking into a precinct through the wrong door—one that isn’t designated the “appropriate entrance.” It imposes new regulations for every conceivable exception to usual procedure: people who move in-state, new state residents, homeless people, absentee voters, people with disabilities and countless others. This thicket of red tape will at the best cause immense headaches, and at worst disenfranchise many voters. Finally, it targets college students, as college IDs will not be accepted and several other restrictions will make it difficult for college students to vote. For example, students will be required to vote where their cars are registered – generally in their hometown precincts rather than in the jurisdictions where they attend school. Since same-day registration and early voting were also used by many students, the end of same-day registration and cuts in early voting will also affect students. In addition to this bill, the General Assembly passed a budget that includes massive cuts to education in order to, as state Sen. Josh Stein (D-Raleigh) explained, award a $500 million tax break to the wealthiest citizens. The cuts are so severe that State School Superintendent June Atkinson—widely respected across party lines for her three decades of service in North Carolina schools—told local news media she was “truly worried” for students for the first time in her career.

In fact, the changes in education policy are so severe that 10 House Republicans broke party lines to vote against them, citing disagreement with voucher provisions and the decision to phase out teacher tenure. Neither of these measures has much support statewide, even among the business community. The legislature also voted to allow guns on public school campuses and universities, which probably would’ve shocked everyone if we hadn’t already been reeling about the fact that guns are newly legal inside restaurants that serve alcohol—another gift to the people of North Carolina from the 2013 General Assembly.

Flavor of the week

The bills came as a major setback for the Forward Together movement—the 150-organization NC-NAACP-led coalition that includes such varied groups as NARAL Pro-Choice NC, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, El Pueblo Inc., Muhammad’s Mosque No. 79, Community United Church of Christ, AARP-NC, Common Cause NC and Southerners on New Ground—known for the Moral Monday and Witness Wednesday protests outside the Raleigh General Assembly building. Members of the coalition have labored since April to inform the public of bills and budget provisions that attack the interests of most North Carolinians. Monday, July 22, marked the 12th week of protests and brought the total number of protesters arrested in the course of civil disobedience to more than 900. The growing cross-cultural and cross-sector movement has seen media outlets from Reuters to The Nation declare that North Carolina is “the new Wisconsin,” referencing the backlash to Scott Walker's onslaught of right-wing legislation in 2011.

If anything, the omnibus abortion bill secretly introduced earlier in July proved to Moral Monday protestors that nothing could be taken for granted. Republicans held on to power in 2012 in the context of a state severely gerrymandered in their favor, and the fact that more votes were cast for Democrats has done nothing if not emboldened the Republicans’ charge ahead. The GOP has passed bill after bill that seem designed to punish any North Carolinian who does not support them. At times, the punitive agenda has been overt: Educators have not forgotten that in 2012, Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, himself an ALEC board member, described legislative attacks on the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) as “payback” for the group’s support in overturning Republican-backed school choice policies in Wake County, which the NCAE says encouraged racial and economic segregation in schools. The abortion bill and others were introduced in the course of late-night legislative sessions, evading public scrutiny.

In response to the onslaught of legislation, the Moral Monday protests focused each week with a different theme, such as economic justice or women’s rights. The July 22 gathering was namely covered with voting rights. A host of speakers kicked off the event, including NAACP veteran organizer Caroline DuBose, who pointed out that North Carolina is essentially voter-fraud free. According to the NC Democratic Party, the State has seen only 1,032 cases of voter fraud in the past 12 years, only one of which involved the kind of voter impersonation that the photo ID measure seeks to prevent. “North Carolina does not deserve this,” DuBose told the cheering crowd.

De facto movement leader Rev. William Barber of the NC-NAACP assured protesters that it might be a long haul, but that the fight for free and fair elections would prevail. “Our parents won this battle with less than we have today,” he said. “Moral Monday is more popular than the General Assembly! They might run us out of their building, but they can’t turn us around!” Other voting rights activists also addressed the crowd. “We must continue to vote without limitations,” said a staff member from the League of Women Voters. “We are the watchdogs of our government.”

Rodney Ellis, president of NEA-affiliated NCAE, departed from voting rights to address education. “The dismantling of public education in North Carolina has officially begun,” he said. “We can’t let them undo what we’ve taken so long to put together.” He suggested that lack of education would weaken political opposition to the extreme agenda propagated by the General Assembly, noting that “an uneducated population is a disorganized population.” Later that evening, he would commit civil disobedience by joining protesters in the General Assembly building—an action he said he undertook on behalf of the state’s 95,000 teachers and 1.5 million public school students. This marked a turning point for NCAE involvement in the protests, as educators would come out in great numbers the following week.

Kenny Morillo, a 19-year-old Wake Tech Community College student, discussed the difficulties of undocumented students, which legislators ignored all session. “I am undocumented, unafraid and unashamed,” he said. He went on to explain that his family had moved to North Carolina from Honduras when he was just 9 years old. Morillo graduated from high school near the top of his class, with a 4.5 GPA. He described his dream of becoming a surgeon and serving the people of North Carolina, but spoke of how difficult it was to afford his college tuition, as undocumented students must pay out-of-state tuition rates to attend public colleges or universities.

Then the civil disobedience got underway. Each week, those who had been arrested at previous Moral Monday protests were prohibited by law from entering the General Assembly building until after their first court date. As they prepared, Rev. William Turner, Jr. of Duke Divinity School offered a prayer, members of the crowd voiced their appreciation and a jazz saxophonist played a stirring rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Protesters then staged an impromptu sit-in in the Assembly building, and were promptly arrested and boarded on busses to jail for processing. As usual, the crowd cheered, clapped and waved at the arrestees as the buses passed by on Salisbury Street.

As protesters entered the building singing protest songs and non-violently disrupting the legislative session, members of the legislative Black Caucus took the stage to address those who remained. One representative said he had served for many years but had never seen an agenda as extreme as the current one, and Rep. Evelyn Terry (D-Forsyth County) expressed her gratitude to the audience: “Had it not been for you, I may not have been able to stay [in office].”

Then the Raging Grannies performed a song to the tune of “The Truth is Marching On” that demanded, “No more after-midnight sessions.” And Moral Monday’s NC Music Love Army-affiliated singer-songwriter Laura Lynn performed a song called “My Beloved Enemy” as protesters continued to wave signs with such slogans as “NC Voter ID = Another Form of Poll Tax” and “I didn’t go into teaching to make money, but I also didn’t go into teaching to be abused.”

Not one step back

The legislative session closed Thursday but the Moral Monday movement is not slowing down. After the August 5 protests in Asheville, organizers plan to hold at least two Moral Monday protests per month, though the locations have not been set. The movement’s goal now is to organize local communities. After Monday’s march to Fayetteville Street, money was collected in large trashcans to support the efforts of the coalition. Artists from the NC Music Love Army musical collective performed at Raleigh’s King’s Barcade, raising nearly $2,500 for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which has lawsuits underway challenging the voter suppression law and other bills.

In a way, the fight is just beginning. And it will take considerable effort not to lose momentum. In a fight this dire, it’s exhausting to face a government that refuses to listen to popular opinion day after day. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that the harder people fight, the more the General Assembly digs in its heels. The GOP didn’t like its poll numbers, so it put voting mechanisms in place to help steal the next election. Gerrymandering alone virtually guarantees a Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly for almost another decade. That’s why Barber insists that the fight will be long-term.

North Carolinians will need to steel themselves for a drawn-out battle. It’s widely speculated that voter-ID supporters understand that these restrictions will never hold up in court, but that Republicans have a longer endgame in mind. Why propose a bill with the supposed goal of “restoring integrity” to the voting process and reassuring the public, when the public was overwhelmingly happy with the previous election procedures? The longer term goal may be to spur legal challenges that poke holes in remaining U.S. voting rights provisions—and ultimately compel the Supreme Court to overturn them altogether.

Other omnibus bills, such as the one that includes new restrictions regarding abortion, may also have broader goals. Supporters insist that it’s about protecting women, but evidence suggests the new bill could actually be a safety risk because it will become more difficult to conduct abortion in life-of-the-mother cases. Like the voting suppression bill, this bill could open a path for legal challenges bent on overturning another Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade.

So the opposition must outmatch them. Keep showing up, fighting back and organizing.

The NC-NAACP, for its part, is just as committed—and Barber remains a powerful leader and speaker, delivering speeches so powerful it’s hard to avoid a comparison to Martin Luther King. On the final day of protests in Raleigh before the next legislative session, Barber emboldened the crowd, “We have mounted the most aggressive legal fight for civil rights you have seen in 50 years.” 

The protests will continue. At this writing, members of the Planned Parenthood Health Systems Action Fund of North Carolina are leading a two-day vigil outside the governor’s mansion to remind Gov. McCrory of his broken campaign promise not to sign new restrictions on abortion while in office.

And while protesters may be concerned about losing momentum during the legislature’s break, you wouldn’t know it from observing the crowd on July 25. “Forward together! Not one step back!” they chanted before disbanding for the night, the movement’s slogan. With so much goodwill in the air, it was hard to imagine that the people united could ever be defeated.

Kristin Rawls is a freelance journalist based near Raleigh. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, AlterNet, Salon, Religion Dispatches, GOOD magazine and many others. Follow her on Twitter @kristinrawls.

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