Just ahead of the July 4 holiday, the far-right North Carolina Senate cleared sweeping anti-abortion measures. The measures were added late last night, without alerting the public, to the anti-Sharia House Bill 695–dubbed the Family, Faith and Freedom Protection Act—which prohibited ‘foreign laws’ from being implemented in North Carolina. The bill passed today by a vote of 27 to 12 along party lines, as hundreds of assembled protestors shouted, “Shame! Shame!”
Modeled after the Texas anti-abortion legislation that Wendy Davis famously filibustered last week, the bill will force all but one of North Carolina’s 36 abortion clinics to close. Though unlike the Texas law, there is no 20-week limit, the litany of restrictions included in the bill will effectively end access to abortion in North Carolina by imposing requirements so severe that most healthcare providers will be prevented from performing abortions.
No Democrats were able to filibuster the bill because, like most states, North Carolina has no legal filibuster. Even if it did, it’s not clear that it would have turned back this bill, since the current legislative session has been extended (at taxpayers’ expense) through the end of July.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory condemned the manner in which the bill was sneaked through before a holiday weekend. On the campaign trail, McCrory promised not to sign any new anti-abortion restrictions into law, but his party has enough votes to override a potential veto.
When the state chapters of Planned Parenthood and NARAL found out about the legislation late Tuesday night, the organizations launched a social media campaign asking people to show up outside the legislative building to protest at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, July 3. According to protestors, about 1,000 people came, in striking contrast to the handful of anti-choice demonstrators who arrived to support the bill.
Demonstrators were not permitted to carry signs into the Raleigh General Assembly building, but they filled the gallery inside to the point that there was no standing room and spilled over the foyer area. When the vote took place, protestors shouted, “Shame, shame!” Freelance journalist and protester Cathy von Hassel-Davies of Alamance County tells In These Times that the outcry was quickly silenced by police, who had been ordered to evacuate those who made noise. When protestors started clapping in the gallery, they were again threatened with removal — and threatened yet again when they raised their hands in silent sign language claps. Police even threatened to remove protestors for laughing.
In spite of what House Democratic Leader Larry Hall called a set of “amorphous rules,” only one protester was arrested — Katina Gad, 30, of Occupy Raleigh. She tells In These Times that she was charged with “violating legislative building rules.” She says she was exiting the gallery of her own volition when she yelled but was taken into custody anyway. She notes:
I yelled “shame on you” after the vote. Many in the [outside] rotunda were yelling it loudly, but no one inside the gallery was because they kept threatening us to keep us quiet. I wanted to make sure the hundreds outside were clearly heard by senators who had chosen the fate of thousands of women in under 24 hours without consulting anyone (including the healthcare practitioners they were putting out of business). I knew they were yelling because of Twitter, and when the upstairs doors opened and closed you could hear it in the gallery.
The crowd disbanded after senators left the building for lunch, but reconvened across the street at Bicentennial Plaza by 1:30 pm. The event was linked to the ongoing Witness Wednesday protests organized by the NC-NAACP in conjunction with the larger Moral Monday protests, which draw thousands of progressives unhappy with the state’s recent wave of conservative legislation. Today’s crowd was smaller — numbering about 200, typical of the Wednesday gatherings — but diverse. It included representatives from Planned Parenthood, NARAL-NC, Democracy North Carolina, the North Carolina Justice Center and other groups in the 150-organization coalition brought together by the NC-NAACP. Among the protestors who arrived from throughout the state were a retired doctor from High Point and a high school student from Elizabeth City. Attendees bore a variety of homemade signs, including many that condemned Republican attacks on women’s healthcare and one that read, “Married Christian Women for Choice.”
Outside, the NC-NAACP’s Rev. Dr. William Barber welcomed protestors and echoed the intersectional, multi-cause anti-extremism platform that has rallied tens of thousands to the state capitol in the past two months. He noted that the state Republican Party is “attacking women, attacking the poor… and attacking African Americans. These people are not pro-life. They are pro-disparity.” While the NAACP has no official position on abortion itself, he said, it uniformly opposes attacks on healthcare and civil rights — and he drew cheers from the crowd when he added, “So we’re gonna stand with y’all.”
At 2 pm, organizers, media and protestors crowded into a small press room inside the legislative building. State Rep. Larry Hall welcomed people inside and told the audience it was important to remain involved because, “Not only are they taking away your right to choice and to healthcare — they are taking away your right to vote.”
Rev. Barber spoke next, citing the legacy of the North Carolina state constitution, written by Black Republicans and white populists 145 years ago. As Rob Hall of Democracy North Carolina explained, that constitution provided naturalized male citizens at least 18 years old with the right to vote, regardless of race — and within a few years led to the highest voter turnout the state has ever seen, some 80 percent of the eligible electorate. But today, the state is still feeling the effects of Jim Crow, and voter participation is low.
After the press conference, protestors filed out of the legislative building and walked across the street to Governor McCrory’s office. Representatives of the NAACP led protest chants: “What do we want? Justice! What do we want? Women’s rights!” and “Forward together! Not one step back!” One man led the civil rights anthem, “Stayed on Freedom,” but added a new verse: “Tweeting and texting with my mind stayed on freedom.” After the crowd reassembled across the street, speakers gave brief testimonies about family members and others who died in the fight for voting rights across the South, and participants collected a stack of index cards that listed the names of heroes, including many who died fighting for Civil Rights.
The House of Representatives is expected to reconvene on Monday morning to pass its own version of the omnibus abortion bill. And a throng of protestors will likely be back. Moral Monday protests will continue as usual at 5 pm outside the legislative building on Jones St. There is a hard fight ahead, and North Carolina is one of the states most gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. And in the wake of last month’s Supreme Court ruling weakening the Voting Rights Act, the state GOP is advancing harsh voting restrictions that will disproportionately affect women and people of color. But protesters are optimistic that the extreme agenda will yield to the arc of history.