RALEIGH, N.C. -- Thousands staged a silent protest at the Capitol here yesterday to kick off the second year of "Moral Mondays," but vowed that they will never again be quieted.
They demonstrated in open defiance of rules Republicans enacted last week to restrict protests in the legislative building. Row after row of people, in protest against the new rules, marched with tape over their mouths into the legislative building. Republicans passed restrictive laws last week that forbid demonstrators, among other things, from speaking any louder than in conversational tone, holding signs that "disturb" legislators and staff, singing and even clapping.
The message of the defiant marchers yesterday was simple: Rules curbing democracy will not silence protests against the legislative actions of the right wing Republicans who have seized power in North Carolina.
Led by members of the North Carolina NAACP, the protesters demanded that lawmakers roll back many of the repressive laws they passed in the last session. Top on that list was what is generally considered the most repressive voter suppression law in the nation.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and architect of the Forward Together Moral Movment said, in a phone interview today, that "the legislators know why they did this, they know why they are trying to take away the right to vote in this state, it's all about demographics."
Barber explained that 25 percent of the voters in North Carolina are African-American and 3 percent are Latino. "That comes to 28 percent," he said. "If you get just 22 percent of the white voters to vote their futures rather than their fears you have the new electorate the reactionaries fear all over the South. These new demographics will change the center of political gravity in North Carolina and all over the South and this is what these legislators are trying to stop."
"They claim they want voter ID cards so there will be integrity in the process yet they don't want any integrity when it comes to the people keeping an eye on them. They pass tyrannical laws that try to crush the peoples rights."
The new voter repression law Barber is fighting not only requires ID that hundreds of thousands don't have but eliminates same day registration, slashed early voting days and ends pre-registration of young voters.
While the Moral Monday marchers were at the legislative building yesterday lawyers were entering the state courthouse filing a brief that would put most of the repressive measures in the new law on hold until courts can review a full challenge that is underway. If their plea is granted North Carolina will have to carry out the 2014 midterm elections under the same laws that applied before the passage of the repressive law during the last legislative session. If the plea filed yesterday is granted the election will have to be carried out under the same rules that were in place in 2012 and 2008.
"In the face of the overwhelming evidence that the purpose of the new law is to disenfranchise minorities this is the only way," said Denise Lieberman, senior attorney for the Advancement Project, which officially entered the plea.
Barber was asked whether there was still time for civil rights, pro-labor and progressive forces to actually make any headway in the current 2014 legislative elections by removing some of the extremists who backed the repressive legislation.
"We are going to see the most massive registration drives in history happen here this summer," he said "In this Freedom Summer there will be a massive effort in 50 counties across this state to increase and grow the number of people eligible to vote. We will not be deterred on this and one should never underestimate the power of the mass movement when it is driven by strong moral concerns - even on this latest tyrannical effort to crush demonstrations the movement compelled some Republicans to join in with Democrats against the measure. Even though it is harder to remove some of them because of the gerrymandering they did we must remember that when Lyndon Johnson was president the power of the civil rights movement compelled people who had not really been with us to vote for the civil rights law."
Barber explained that although the NAACP does not endorse or run candidates "we will shine a light on what the lawmakers do and don't do and in addition to voting rights we are shining a light on those who voted against Medicaid expansion and those who voted against health care."
Barber was asked whether yesterday's silent protest with a promise not to commit acts of civil disobedience was an appropriate response to the passage of the new law restricting demonstrations. "This is the first and last time that we will promise to avoid civil disobedience or put tape over our mouths and be silent," said Barber. "We went there to dramatize our opposition to tyranny, not our acceptance of it."
He also said that the demonstrations will return to the General Assembly next Tuesday (instead of next Monday, in observance of Memorial Day) for a People's Lobby Day, on which participants will lobby lawmakers to apply pressure directly. "We will give our adversaries a chance to reconsider their misdeeds," he said, "But we will return and we will step up our actions if they do not."
Among the thousands marching yesterday and the thousands expected to march in the coming week were some of the state's most vulnerable residents, including many who are ill or jobless.
Among the repressive laws passed last year, were ones that deny federal funds for Medicaid to 500,000 poor North Carolinians; cut unemployment benefits from 165,000 North Carolinians; taken millions of dollars from public education with a voucher plan to hand out public money to private schools; and raised taxes on 900,000 of North Carolina's working poor by ending the Earned Income Tax credit.
"We are in a state of emergency for the people of North Carolina, and we have to act now," said Dr. Charles van der Horst, a physician from UNC Hospital's Infectious Diseases Division, on the impact of not expanding Medicaid. "There have been now three published studies showing that an estimated one to two thousand North Carolinians will die each year because they lack health insurance. ... This refusal to expand Medicaid is also costing our hospitals and the rest of us millions because people still get sick."
Holly Jordan, a high school teacher from Durham Public Schools and a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators, spoke of Republican Gov. McCrory's plan to fund a teacher pay raise by plundering $49 million from the University of North Carolina system and $122 million from the Department of Health and Human Services. "This is an absolutely unacceptable solution," said Jordan. "You can't rob students and their families to pay teachers."
"The attacks on workers by the corporate-financed North Carolina legislature's agenda shows that the economic recovery sought by big business is one that keeps wages low and restructures work through privatization, sub-contracting, temporary workers and attacks on unions," said Saladin Mohamed, a member of UE 150 and Black Workers for Justice. "It's a recovery for the corporations and the rich - and not for the workers."
Bryan Perlmutter, who was arrested during the first Moral Monday last year as a senior at North Carolina State University, spoke about the work of youth organizers in the movement.
"One year later young people from across the state are still here and still organizing and still fighting back for a better future," said Perlmutter, who now leads a student-run initiative called N.C. Vote Defenders. "We are here because Art Pope, Thom Tillis and the Koch brothers are attempting to silence our voices through new building codes and voter suppression laws, and that is why we must organize. ... We are here to build our own power and to show solidarity across issues because there is only one way for North Carolina to go - and that is forward together."
Photo: Moral Monday March & Interfaith Social Justice Rally, July 29, 2013, T.W. Buckner, CC BY 2.0