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Greensboro helps lead massive Moral Monday action in Raleigh

by Eric Ginsburg

 eric@yesweekly.com

The strength of the demonstrators’ roar in the packed hall could make any college football team proud: “Forward together! Not one step back!” thundered off the General Assembly’s walls in Raleigh on Monday. In the fourth round of weekly protests at the state legislature, with an ever-growing number of people being arrested as an act of civil disobedience, the crowd swelled to well over 1,000 and organizers said over 100 people planned to be arrested.

The list of reasons for the demonstrations is extensive — cuts to unemployment benefits, a shifting tax burden that will hurt the poor and enrich the wealthy, a rejection of federal Medicare funding, voter ID, changing charter school laws — but many participants said it boiled down to objecting austerity measures and policies that will only serve the interests of the rich or an extreme right-wing agenda.

State NAACP President William Barber, who will be speaking in Greensboro on Thursday, has been at the epicenter of the “Moral Monday” demonstrations that began May 6 and fired up the crowd at a rally outside the legislature before protesters filed in two abreast.

“According to the [state] constitution, they ought to arrest themselves and leave us the hell alone,” Barber said from the podium at the rally. “Some of the folks in there are high on Koch. K-O-C-H!” Barber said the majority Republican NC House and Senate had “picked up the mantle of George Wallace” and were perpetuating a legacy of racism, classism and extremism.

The protests have drawn such large crowds that the General Assembly’s building in Raleigh has reached capacity. Previous arrestees who were banned from the building and others waited outside to greet buses taking a fresh round of protesters to jail.

Different organizations and groups have focused their turnout efforts on a specific week, with many others coming for support.

Monday, it was Greensboro’s turn.

With two planning meetings and a carpooling ring, Greensboro residents mobilized to carry the bulk of the weight this week. At the planning meeting last week, only a few people raised their hands to indicate their intention to get arrested, but there were so many people pouring into Monday’s action it was difficult to count.

Grade-school kids sat on the floor inside the building, alternating between doing their homework and peering down to the lower level at those being slowly arrested, one at a time. Among those they saw being arrested: Frank Dew, the pastor of New Creation Community Church in Greensboro. It was not immediately clear if anyone else from Greensboro participated in civil disobedience this week, though several people held signs reading “Greensboro supports Moral Monday.”

Other kids held signs outside, reading “Whatever happened to equality” and “The poor are people too!!!” Rep. Pricey Harrison, a progressive Democrat from Greensboro, stopped as she walked by the protests to wave and take pictures before crossing the street to talk to participants.

NC A&T State University political science professor Derick Smith, who was there this week, said the Moral Monday actions were predated by a Greensboro protest in April led by four students who wanted to march against a voter ID law. The protest was small, Smith said, but it drew Barber to town and has morphed into the weekly protests at the state legislature.

“I teach state and local government and we had been discussing on a daily basis what had been going on in the General Assembly,” Smith said. “A lot of conservatives and independents didn’t sign on for what’s going on.”

The four students, three from A&T and one from Bennett College, inspired Smith by organizing the protest and later demonstrating at the state legislature with tape over their mouths. When one of them, his student Tyler Swanson, said he planned to commit civil disobedience at a Moral Monday action, Smith said he would go with him. After posting grades for the semester, that is.

“After a while, you know, you get tired,” he said. “Every day they pound us with this oppressive, retrogressive in many ways, legislation.

It’s time for civil disobedience. A lot of people aren’t aware of what’s going on. Educating people about what’s actually happening is going to be the big change agent here.”

The Rev. Nelson Johnson, the director of the Beloved Community Center, helped mobilize people in Greensboro. He was arrested on the first day of civil disobedience and said it was a festive atmosphere.

“Actually, for me it was rather enjoyable,” he said at a planning meeting, describing his arrest. “When you’re in the right spirit you can turn anything into a pretty good time.”

Other previous arrestees seemed to agree. Karen Slone, who lives in Greensboro, felt compelled to get arrested on May 20 because of attacks on workers’ rights, women’s rights, the lifted cap on charter schools, voter suppression and particularly voter ID.

“It was an extraordinary experience,” she said. “I met amazing people with amazing stories. The number of initiatives from this legislature and the nature of them is very disturbing to me. I really felt compelled to do more than the standard things like calling [my representatives or] signing petitions.”

Echoing the sentiment expressed in a planning meeting she attended, Slone said voter ID was a “solution in search of a problem” that was designed to disenfranchise poor people and people of color that Republicans thought were likely to vote for Democrats.

Marina Skinner, who works at a university in Winston-Salem, takes personally cuts to unemployment benefits set to begin this summer. After spending three years looking for work before finding a job, Skinner said reductions to the already inadequate unemployment benefits would be detrimental for many North Carolinians.

There are other issues too, like the “serious conflict of interest” of Gov. Pat McCrory appointing donors like Art Pope to positions of power and the rising disparities that will be created by “the crazy budget.” Monday was the first time Skinner participated and she helped mobilize other people in Winston-Salem on behalf of the Ministers’ Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity. Her job, plus her teenage kids, held her back from joining the civil disobedience.

“Undisclosed hidden agendas are driving a lot of decision-making,” she said. “[They are] making decisions that serve the 1 percent. The state has so much power over what affects you directly.”

A few days before the demonstrations began on May 6, five members of the NC Student Power Union were arrested at a May Day march in Raleigh in an act of civil disobedience against policies that would harm students and other residents throughout the state, they said.

Tristan Munchel, a Beloved Community Center intern and a UNCG student who was among those arrested, said he hopes the demonstrations politicize people to take action against a broken political system where legislators create new problems instead of solving existing ones.

Munchel said many legislators serve outside interests like the widely criticized American Legislative Exchange Council.

At a May 23 planning meeting, Johnson said the demonstrations were “turning North Carolina into a classroom” that was “gradually becoming the epicenter for the nation” pushing back against widespread regressive legislation that further disenfranchised and oppressed poor and working class people.

With growing attention on the protests, which themselves are expanding, organizers have repeatedly stated that their acts of resistance won’t cease any time soon.

“If they stop, we’ll stop, but we can’t stop as long as people are being hurt,” Barber said at the rally on Monday.

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