July 29 marked the 13th Moral Monday protest at the North Carolina General Assembly. Launched by the North Carolina chapter of the N.A.A.C.P, the Forward Together Movement has united progressives, liberals, moderates, even registered Republicans into a large, diverse coalition in opposition to possibly the nation’s most regressive, ultra-conservative state legislative session this year.
The 2012 election resulted in a Republican supermajority in the North Carolina state legislature paired with a G.O.P governor for the first time in over a century. Teachers, clergy, doctors, professors, seniors, students, women’s health experts, labor leaders, disabled citizens, and various elected officials have been arrested while participating in civil disobedience, demanding a meeting with the governor and leaders of the House and Senate. In front of the doors to the legislature, they have sung, chanted, and spoke about why they were protesting. Over 930 people have been led from the General Assembly in plastic handcuffs during weekly demonstrations since late April.
The conservative majority has passed a tax plan that shifts the burden to low-income and middle class residents while lowering taxes for the rich and big corporations; repealed the Racial Justice Act, which allowed death row inmates to appeal their sentences based on racial discrimination in their conviction; denied the federal expansion of Medicaid; cut state unemployment benefits and rejected federal emergency unemployment compensation, the only state to do so; rolled back environmental regulations; and passed major education cuts.
Governor Pat McCrory recently infuriated residents when he broke a campaign promise by signing highly restrictive anti-abortion legislation, which was tacked on to a motorcycle safety bill. He also angered many by supporting a law that allows concealed weapons in bars and schools (the Colbert Report had fun with that one). The General Assembly has passed what many call the harshest voter suppression laws in the country in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act. The governor pledged to sign that measure while admitting he had not read the entire bill.
This regressive legislation came while conservatives dismissed the growing protests. Gov. McCrory and state G.O.P chairman, Claude Pope, called protestors “outsiders,” evoking the segregationist rhetoric used against civil rights activists in the 1950s and ‘60s. Senator Thom Goolsby, chief sponsor of the Racial Justice Act repeal, called protestors “morons” and “aged former hippies.”
At Monday’s rally, police estimated a crowd of 4,000 to 5,000, while organizers guessed that it was about double that size. Regardless, everyone said it was the largest yet. Educators were out in full force, wearing “red for public ed.” Teachers are furious with the education cuts contained within the recently signed budget, which offers no salary raises, ends teacher tenure, ends bonuses for teachers with advanced degrees, expands class sizes, lowers equipment budgets, and takes $20 million from education funds to finance private school vouchers. In contrast, large tax breaks went to wealthy individuals and large corporations, and the governor gave his own cabinet substantial raises. One tattered cardboard sign read, “Can't afford poster board (I'm a teacher).”
For the first time, no one was arrested, as the House and Senate had wrapped up their sessions last week, and the General Assembly building was closed. After a rally at Halifax Mall, protestors marched to the State Capitol to demand a meeting with Gov. McCrory.
Earlier on Monday, a group of voting rights advocates, led by 92-year-old civil rights veteran Rosa Nell Eaton, brought a blown-up copy of the elections bill to the Capitol, hoping the governor might read the whole thing this time. Connecting these voting restrictions and other laws to policies pushed by segregationists, Reverend Dr. William Barber II, state N.A.A.C.P President and leader of the Forward Together Movement, said, “Governor McCrory has a chance to either be seen as a governor who believes in all the people, or to go down in history on the side of the losers like George Wallace and Lester Maddox.”
Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates held a 12 hour vigil outside the governor's mansion on Monday, and another the next day. Gov. McCrory refused to meet with protestors but baffled them by appearing Tuesday afternoon with a plate of cookies. Not pleased, protestors returned them with a note saying, “Will take women’s health over cookies!”
The newly formed NC Music Love Army, composed of musicians from across the state, held a benefit concert in Raleigh on Monday, raising $2,220 for the N.A.A.C.P’s legal defense fund. “If you think that you can silence us, you’ll need a bigger jail/Cause we are not for sale,” goes Django Haskins’s original song.
Next week will be the first event staged outside Raleigh, with Asheville hosting “Mountain Moral Monday.” With news Wednesday that the state had suspended the license of Asheville’s Femcare abortion clinic, there is sure to be a big turnout; the Facebook event already had over 1,700 R.S.V.Ps by Thursday morning. Demonstrations will happen each month outside of Raleigh, and simultaneous rallies will occur in each of the state’s 13 congressional districts on August 28, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
And the Moral Monday campaign will consist of more than just weekly protests. The N.A.A.C.P plans to take many new laws to court and stage massive voter registration and education drives this year and next. As Rev. Dr. Barber often says, “It is a movement, not a moment.”
North Carolina native ALEX KOTCH is a Ph.D. candidate in music composition at Duke University, where he is writing about the intersection of classical and electronic dance music. He is the founder of Progresivo, a progressive news and opinion blog currently focused on North Carolina politics and protest.