In states where Republicans hold commanding majorities, Democrats have turned to popular protests to score symbolic, if fleeting, victories.
Activists swarmed the Wisconsin State Capitol two years ago to demonstrate against collective bargaining legislation they viewed as anti-union. In Texas last month, a state senator’s 11-hour filibuster galvanized abortion rights supporters, who stopped new restrictions on abortion clinics by shouting from the Senate gallery until the voting deadline had passed.
But in both Wisconsin and Texas, liberal euphoria evaporated when conservatives regrouped. Wisconsin’s collective bargaining law took effect. In Austin, Republican Gov. Rick Perry has called Texas lawmakers back into session to take up the abortion legislation, and this time the measure probably will pass.
Liberals looking to challenge Republican rule in a more sustained way may want to turn their eyes to North Carolina and the “Moral Monday” protests led by the Rev. William Barber II, who heads the state branch of the NAACP.
On 10 Mondays since late April, up to 3,000 people have gathered outside the Legislative Building in Raleigh to protest actions by the GOP-dominated General Assembly. When the demonstrators move inside and block the atrium between the House and Senate chambers, police arrest them. So far, at least 700 have been taken into custody.
The liberals’ list of grievances is long. In the last year, Republicans have eliminated the “racial justice” appeal to the death penalty, cut unemployment benefits, opted out of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, repealed the state’s earned income tax credit and put a same-sex marriage ban on the state ballot. Just last week, abortion restrictions were added to the litany, when the Senate unexpectedly passed new rules for abortion clinics. The GOP also has pushed to expand charter schools and taken steps to allow hydraulic fracturing.
The mass arrests in North Carolina, and the size and persistence of the protests, distinguish them from what has happened in other states — at least so far. But Barber says liberals in other states can use the same approach.
“We see what we are doing here in North Carolina as a model for other Southern states,” Barber said. “History tells us you only win, particularly in the South, when you find a way to bring people together around common constitutional values and common moral values.”
Critics say Barber is sowing political discord by portraying complicated policy choices as battles between good and evil. They also note that the Moral Monday protests have not stopped Republican initiatives from advancing in North Carolina. Nevertheless, supporters praise the weekly rallies for shedding light on issues that might otherwise be ignored.
“The supermajority in this Legislature right now is not going to be able to pass these laws in the dark,” said Caitlin Swain, an attorney with the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group that is helping in the Moral Monday effort. “What Rev. Barber and the North Carolina NAACP are doing right now is holding them accountable.”
Barber, 49, is the son of a minister who moved his family from Indianapolis to North Carolina during the civil rights movement so he could fight for integrated schools by enrolling his son in a segregated school. By the time he was in high school, the younger Barber was already active in the NAACP.
As an adult, he has bounced back and forth between public life — he was once executive director of the North Carolina Human Relations Commission — and the pulpit. He is now the head pastor of a Goldsboro church founded by freed slaves after the Civil War.
Barber has been an increasingly visible force in North Carolina politics since he became head of the NAACP in 2005.
In 2006 and 2007, he frequently weighed in on the case of the Duke lacrosse players accused of raping a black woman they had hired as an exotic dancer for a house party (the charges eventually were dropped). In 2009, Barber championed the Racial Justice Act, which allowed death row inmates in North Carolina to argue, using statistical evidence, that race was a “significant factor” in prosecutors’ decisions to seek the death penalty. Republicans repealed the law earlier this year.
Last year, Barber urged voters to defeat Amendment 1, a state constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage. Voters overwhelmingly supported it, but after the election, Barber helped convince the national NAACP to support gay marriage.
The marriage fight, he said, helped him and other clergy frame this year’s Moral Monday campaign. During the marriage debate, he said, he could not turn on the TV or radio without hearing a minister talk about the morality of the issue. But he heard nothing this year from pastors talking about the morality of the legislature’s decision to reject Medicaid expansion or curb unemployment insurance benefits.
“We’re not going allow this hijacking of the faith and the use of faith in the service of hating people and maligning people,” he said in his church office, “and then abandoning the faith when it comes to the everyday life issues that are the centerpiece of Scripture.”
Confrontation and Escalation
But North Carolina Republicans, in control of the legislature and the governor’s office for the first time since 1870, have shown no signs of curbing their ambitious legislative agenda. They also have little tolerance for the protesters’ interruptions.
Barber found that out two years ago, when he was arrested for interrupting House proceedings by objecting, loudly, to cuts in education funding. This year, he was arrested again for blocking the ceremonial doors to the Senate chamber.
“Barber’s mode of operation is inclined toward the dramatic gesture,” said Ferrell Guillory, a professor who studies Southern politics at the University of North Carolina. But the Republican legislative leaders have also taken a hard stance toward the protesters, he added, making for a standoff unlike anything North Carolina has seen in at least 40 years.
“Both sides are playing out their roles here in a way that hasn’t been played out before,” Guillory said.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory at first dismissed the protesters. “The Senate and the House won’t back down,” the governor said at the state’s Republican convention last month, according to The Associated Press. “We want to change the status quo in state government and change this economy. That’s what we’re going to do.”
“Outsiders are coming in, and they’re going to try to do to us what they did to Scott Walker in Wisconsin,” he added, referring to the unsuccessful recall effort against Wisconsin’s governor.
But Raleigh TV station WRAL looked at arrest records and determined 98 percent of the protesters arrested during the Moral Mondays came from North Carolina.
A spokesman for the Civitas Institute, a leading critic of the Moral Monday protests, said Barber and his liberal allies must do more than decry budget cuts — they should specify where they would find the money to avoid them.
“Instead (to protesters), it’s simply that cutting unemployment benefits is immoral. It’s even evil. In the political process, that’s hardly any way to make any progress,” said James Tynen. “It’s a battle of priorities. It’s not about good and evil.”
A Long View
Barber says he views the current standoff as part of a “third Reconstruction,” likening it to the period following the Civil War and the years of the civil rights movement. In those eras, he said, broad coalitions came together to expand voting rights, improve public education, reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system, strengthen labor protections and lower taxes on the poor and middle class.
He is not fazed by setbacks. “We’ve always known… that the fight would be long and that there are no shortcuts,” he told gay rights supporters after the same-sex marriage ban passed last year. “We must reduce fear through public education, through the streets, through the courts and through the electoral campaigns. We must dare to struggle and dare to win.”