Protests in North Carolina Challenge Conservative Shift in State Politics

Jun 11, 2013
In The News

RALEIGH, N.C. — By now, the sixth week that the police and protesters have faced off in a series of political rallies called Moral Mondays, everyone knew what to do.

The singing stopped. Hands went behind backs. While hundreds of people watched from the rotunda that separates the House from the Senate chambers here, officers slipped plastic cuffs onto Duke University professors, ministers, teachers and union members, who were charged with trespassing and other minor crimes. Even a Charlotte newspaper reporter was arrested as he took notes.

At the end, 89 people went to jail. They were out by morning.

Week by week, Monday by Monday, since April 29, a growing coalition assembled by the N.A.A.C.P. has challenged the newly conservative Republican leadership in North Carolina, raising its voice against the loss of the state’s centrist government and what they see as diminished recognition of the poor and minorities.

“These folks have lost their constitutional minds and their moral minds,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, the president of the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P. and the force behind the protests. “We can no longer allow the ultraconservatives to have the moral megaphone.”

N.A.A.C.P. leaders and an increasing number of labor, immigration and civil rights groups are bent on turning the protests in North Carolina into a national movement to stop a hard swing right that they say has sprung from the election of President Obama and the rise of Tea Party-style politics.

“If you are going to change the nation, you have to change the South,” Mr. Barber said. “And if you are going to change the South, you have to focus on these legislatures.”

As the protests have grown, so has the list of causes. At the center is a package of changes to voting rules and a tax reform plan working its way through the legislature that would reduce individual and corporate income taxes and expand the sales tax.

Protesters have also rallied against the expansion of school vouchers, cuts to unemployment benefits, the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, efforts to allow hydraulic fracturing and the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid benefits as part of President Obama’s health care plan.

But the protests are quickly turning into a platform for all kinds of causes. A woman holding a sign that read “Just Say No to GMOs” — genetically modified organisms — wandered through the crowd on Monday.

Many at the rallies are individuals who work with the poor.

Sylvia Ray, 72, works for a small social services agency in Fayetteville that helps people find jobs. A $50,000 program for displaced homemakers was recently cut.

“That’s just one small example of what’s happening everywhere,” she said. “This state is hurting the people who are struggling for every penny.”

Other states in the South have been advancing equally conservative social and fiscal agendas, but in North Carolina, long considered one of the least conservative Southern states, the shift right has seemed sudden, stark and well-executed.

“I want the American people to watch the conservative playbook unfold in North Carolina,” Representative G. K. Butterfield, a Democrat in Congress who represents one of the poorest districts in the country, said Monday to the crowd. “It’s meanspirited, and it’s wrong.”

The powerful Republican revolution in North Carolina began in earnest in 2010, when for the first time in more than 100 years Republicans took control of both the House and the Senate. Helped by a round of redistricting, the Republicans increased their majority in 2012 and put Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, in the governor’s office.

He began an agenda aimed at reducing spending and stimulating business that has been well received by many in the state.

Whether the protests are having much effect on the governor and legislators is difficult to discern. At first, they ignored Moral Mondays. But as the arrest totals crept over 300 and crowds topped a thousand, politicians began to respond.

Some pulled no punches. Thom Goolsby, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, renamed the protests “Moron Mondays” in an opinion column and called the protesters “mostly white, angry, aged former hippies.”

Governor McCrory, who declined a request for an interview, told reporters last week that outsiders were stirring things up and that he would not meet with Moral Monday leaders. He called for an end to what he said were illegal assemblies.

Thom Tillis, the speaker of the House and a board member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that proposes legislation based on limited government and individual liberty, was more measured.

Mr. Tillis, who is running for the United States Senate, suggested both sides find a way to talk.

“There are so many positive things we can do if we can lower the volume and sit down and talk and show some mutual respect,” he said.

But the protesters are realists.

“We don’t think this is going to change the legislature’s mind right now, but it highlights what’s at stake in the next election,” said Jedediah Purdy, 38, a law professor at Duke who was arrested Monday evening.

He said the battle mirrored the issues that divided the country in the 2012 presidential election. “The states are the new front line in politics,” he said.