I am here as a student to stand by the liberal arts education that made me who I am today. As a woman, I am here to declare that this body is mine. As an immigrant, I am here to remind everybody that at some point our families were from somewhere else. And as a human being, I am here because I know that the attacks on my gay friends, on the people that I love in immigrant detention centers, on the housekeepers on UNC’s campus are all interconnected.
These powerful words came from 22-year-old Ivanna Gonzalez before the doors to the North Carolina Senate chamber, inside the General Assembly rotunda. That day, May 20, was the fourth “Moral Monday” demonstration, when 57 people were arrested for failure to disperse while protesting the ultra-conservative policies of the GOP-controlled state government. Republicans rule the State House, Senate, and Governor’s Office for the first time since Reconstruction, and their flurry of laws threatening the poor, the working class, women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, and students has sparked the biggest protest movement the state has seen in decades.
The North Carolina NAACP initiated the Forward Together Movement on April 29 with 17 arrests and a modest crowd of supporters. Since then, 17 additional Moral Mondays have occurred; nearly 1,000 protestors have been arrested in civil disobedience, and some have estimated crowds at multiple events topping 10,000. Launched in Raleigh, the movement has branched out, with a giant demonstration in the mountain city of Asheville and protests in Charlotte, Burnsville, Manteo, and Rockingham County. August 28, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, saw 13 simultaneous protests across the state.
Reverend Dr. William Barber II, president of the state NAACP, has fused progressive, liberal, and moderate groups into a diverse coalition against the regressive politics of North Carolina’s conservatives. Forward Together questions the morality of politicians who have slashed unemployment compensation for 170,000 people, raised taxes on the poor and middle class while cutting them for the wealthy and for large corporations, rejected the federal Medicaid expansion for half a million residents, passed harsh anti-abortion legislation, severely cut education funds, and passed what many call the nation’s strictest voter suppression law.
GOP State Senator Thom Goolsby, a prime architect of the Republican assault, has called Moral Monday protesters “morons” and “white, aged former hippies.” Governor McCrory and state GOP Chairman Claude Pope erroneously claimed demonstrators were “outside agitators,” evoking segregationist rhetoric used against civil rights advocates in the 1950s and ’60s. A candid look at two arrestees shows the diversity and passion of this intergenerational movement.
Ivanna Gonzalez had not planned to get arrested when she walked into a pre-demonstration meeting. Like many recent college graduates, Gonzalez was concerned about job prospects being weakened with a criminal record. But the leader’s impassioned speech helped make up her mind. “Reverend Barber is a very, very powerful, motivating man,” she told the Rail.
Gonzalez was born in Caracas, Venezuela and moved to Miami when she was three. She has an impressive resume for a 22-year-old. Interested in journalism, she applied to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was awarded a Robertson Scholarship, a joint program between UNC and Duke University. Her social justice work began in her first year, when she helped relocate a Chapel Hill homeless shelter. Through this effort, she learned how difficult social change is, as the much-needed relocation to donated land was met with strong opposition.
Living at Duke for one semester, Gonzalez “didn’t understand how people could be so disrespectful of the staff who had to clean [up their mess from the night before].” She took a course on the history of poverty in the U.S. and was struck by the fact that most of the nation’s poor have jobs yet still cannot make ends meet. After joining UNC’s Student Action with Workers, an organization that mobilizes support for labor solidarity campaigns of school employees, she helped stop a bill that would have stripped workers of their only state-level protections.
During summers, Gonzalez volunteered at a homeless shelter in the Mississippi Delta, aided a village in Sierra Leone, and interned with the National Domestic Workers Alliance in Oakland. In her senior year, she helped found the website, Who Needs Feminism?, which to date has received upwards of 5,000 photo submissions and has over 34,000 “likes” on Facebook. This past spring, Gonzalez graduated with a degree in political science and public policy. She is now the Autry Fellow at Durham’s MDC, an organization that fights economic inequality.
Gonzalez got involved in Moral Mondays for a number of specific, personal reasons. McCrory started off his term as governor by criticizing an “educational elite” and opposing funding for liberal arts disciplines like gender studies, which he claims do not lead directly to jobs. A like-minded Board of Governors’ five-year strategy passed the following week may hinder faculty members’ ability to determine curricula. By studying humanities, Gonzalez became “a really critical thinker. I took classes about poverty and women’s studies that gave me a lens through which to understand the world.”
Through the eyes of UNC housekeepers, many of whom she has befriended, Gonzalez has learned “what it means to work in a space where you have absolutely no power, where you’re disposable, where dignity is not something that matters to your bosses.” Gonzalez wants to see real labor protections enacted, as opposed to what the General Assembly has done recently, including an attempt to weaken workers’ grievance procedures and the removal of automatic payroll deductions to a teacher’s union. North Carolina is a so-called “right-to-work” state, in which public sector workers are banned from collective bargaining.
After her May arrest, Gonzalez, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was taken to the Wake County Detention Center, where she was asked for her passport by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Luckily, she had it with her. But the officer still demanded her fingerprints for the immigration system, even though she had already been fingerprinted at the jail. The interaction was deeply personal for Gonzalez. Her cousin came to the country undocumented at age 18. He was held in an immigrant detention center for 10 months, and was still detained at the time of Gonzalez’s arrest. She told her parents on the phone, “I am an American citizen, I can pass for white, and this is how I was treated. Can you only imagine what they’re doing to [her cousin] in there right now?”
Gonzalez is inspired by Forward Together, but skeptical that everything will change if and when “the Democrats are in power again.”
The movement has also drawn community elders who have been part of some of the country’s most significant civil rights victories. Another arrestee on May 20 was Frederick Battle, with whom Gonzalez had the opportunity to speak in the detention center. Battle, 70, a former Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board member, Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP president, and Hargraves Community Center director, participated in the historic Woolworth’s sit-ins and took part in other protests while a student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. He also helped desegregate a number of establishments in Chapel Hill and Durham. Interviewed recently on WRAL-TV, Battle said, “What scares me about today is that I see similarities that we are going back to those days, back to the ’60s.”
Battle said something illuminating in a 2001 interview with UNC’s Southern Oral History Program. Talking about the aftermath of major advances in the ’60s, he said that “the more integrated the society, the more radical the segregationists.” Battle told the Rail that since Obama has been president, he finds more of “the Jesse Helms mentality.” Helms was a long-time U.S. senator from North Carolina known for his fierce support for segregation and opposition to civil rights, gay rights, affirmative action, and abortion. “Now, with the North Carolina Senate and the House, more people are not afraid to come out and attack programs that have supported Afro-Americans for a long time. In the past, they would have been afraid that it would reflect upon them as being a racist, but now, it’s a star on your crown.”
Rev. Dr. Barber explains how these backlashes are part of a recurring phenomenon in U.S. history. First, it was a reaction against black political gains during Reconstruction. A second backlash followed civil rights protections of the 1960s (“the Second Reconstruction”). And now, after a multicultural coalition elected America’s first black president, the Tea Party formed, and state legislatures, especially in former Confederate states, passed regressive laws that have targeted people of color. Rev. Dr. Barber says North Carolina conservatives view the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act as an invitation to enact laws in the tradition of Jim Crow.
North Carolina, Battle explains, has historically been a moderate state in a highly conservative region. “You always had [George] Wallace and people like that from Alabama, but North Carolina has been somewhat liberal. We had our problems, just like anybody. But it wasn’t as blatant as some other states.” But now, he says, we are moving backwards.
After founding the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, Battle was president for 15 years. He was part of a group of leaders who traveled to Goldsboro, Rev. Dr. Barber’s home, to urge him to run for state NAACP president in 2005. When conservatives started rolling out their regressive legislation this year, Battle knew “sometime, if this continued, that I would be joining the force in terms of getting arrested.”
But this year’s arrest was quite different from his first time in jail. “Fifty years ago I stayed in jail for a week.” After mass civil rights protests in 1963, led in part by fellow North Carolina A&T student Jesse Jackson, Battle was arrested alongside hundreds of peers. Law enforcement had to convert rest homes into temporary prisons because of the numbers, and so many students were arrested that classes at A&T were canceled that week.
Among his proudest accomplishments, Battle lists helping change the name of a major Chapel Hill road to Martin Luther King Boulevard, mentoring local youth, and trying to make sure that each student, regardless of race, has access to equal education. In a quick and musical voice, he recites a verse from a song written by Alma Bazel Androzzo that Dr. King quoted in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon in 1968: “If I can help somebody as I pass along / If I can cheer somebody with a word or song / If I can show somebody he is traveling wrong / Then my living will not be in vain.”
On September 16, young activists led the 18th Moral Monday. The movement has united young and old, inducting the youth and reinvigorating the elders. Battle’s experiences with youth participation illustrate the reason behind attempts by those in power to restrict the college vote in a recent, sweeping elections bill. “Any time you get the college students involved, in the past, it has been a successful victory for us.”
Battle thinks that Moral Mondays are having a greater effect than some might realize. And though some predicted the movement would end after the General Assembly adjourned for the year, “under Barber’s leadership, we never did stop.” And, to be sure, the fight will continue.
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.