NC Legislature protests spur debate about tactics
RALEIGH (AP) — About 60 people were arrested inside the North Carolina legislature Monday night, bringing the total number of protesters taken to jail in recent weeks to well over 700.
Nearly all of those taken into custody while opposing polices advanced by the legislature’s Republican majority have been charged with disorderly conduct, trespassing and violating building rules. But what behavior constitutes a violation under those broad statutes is largely at the discretion of the legislature’s in-house police force.
Observers say some of those handcuffed and charged with the misdemeanors in recent weeks were exercising their First Amendment rights, behaving no differently than protesters from past years who were not arrested. That has raised concerns about whether Republican leaders who took control of North Carolina’s General Assembly in 2010 are directing more aggressive enforcement against citizens who disagree with their conservative agenda.
House Democratic Leader Larry Hall said last week that many were handcuffed for “petty citations” and shouldn’t have been sent to jail.
“I believe we have a great police force here,” said Hall, a lawyer from Durham. “Now, who do they work for? They work for whoever is in the majority in the House and the Senate, who are responsible for the messages sent to them from the top.”
General Assembly police Chief Jeff Weaver said he was offended by suggestions that his officers’ actions are influenced by partisanship.
“We have never had the disruptions at this facility that we have had this year, and the amount of people in these disruptions,” said Weaver, who has policed the legislature the past dozen years. “The building rules clearly indicate about disturbances. When you’re blocking ingress and egress, clapping and singing, that’s disruptive.”
Often referred to as “The People’s House,” the legislative building has always been open and accommodating to the public. On an average day during the session, schoolchildren and Boy Scouts freely roam the halls alongside legislators, staffers and lobbyists.
The bulk of this year’s arrests have occurred during “Moral Monday” demonstrations called by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP to spotlight GOP-backed legislation rejecting the expansion of Medicaid to the working poor, slashing benefits to the unemployed, eliminating jobs in public education, and placing restrictions on voting.
Among the first arrested in March was the group’s president, the Rev. William J. Barber. Before each Monday protest, Barber leads planning meetings at a church where participants essentially volunteer to be arrested.
After a large outdoor rally, dozens stream inside to stand before the doors of the House and Senate as the session is scheduled to begin. Each week, Weaver uses a bullhorn to give protesters five minutes to disperse or face arrest for what he declares is an unlawful assembly. Those who choose not to leave typically sing hymns or chant as they wait to be arrested.
Nonviolent confrontation was a major component of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and Barber makes no apologies for a strategy that has made what’s happening inside the North Carolina legislature national news.
What started as small protests three months ago has grown into a spectacle involving thousands. Other groups — including teachers, doctors, clergy and members of the Occupy movement — have joined.
In recent statements, Republican officials have typically been dismissive of the protests. State Sen. Thom Goolsby last month derided the protests as “Moron Monday” and said participants are “clowns” and “mostly white, angry, aged former hippies.” Gov. Pat McCrory has called the protesters “outsiders,” though records show nearly all come from North Carolina.
Speaking to reporters Monday shortly before more than 2,000 people gathered outside the legislative building for the weekly rally, McCrory took issue with the term “Moral Monday.”
“To say one’s moral — which gives the reference that (another’s) immoral — on a political dispute or a political resolve or difference, I think is quite misleading,” McCrory said “I respectfully disagree with some of those who are protesting against me but from that disagreement I’m not judging them on their personal characteristics or values.”
McCrory also said he didn’t think the national and international coverage would harm efforts at North Carolina recruiting companies and jobs to the state. He said Wisconsin, the site of massive protests in 2011, has a lower unemployment rate than North Carolina does.
“I think the major issue that businesses have is, ‘Is your state stable financially and do you have a quality workforce?”’ he said. “I think these peripheral issues, which I think are still important, aren’t as important to employers.”
More than 500 people, mostly women, showed up Wednesday after the Senate voted along party lines to move ahead with restrictions on abortion with no advance public notice or hearings. They filled the gallery overlooking the Senate chamber, and 100 more packed the atrium outside.
Among them was Jennifer Hesse of Cary, who held up a plastic clothes hanger — a symbol, she said, of the back-alley abortions that she says would result from the restrictions. As she spoke with a reporter, two General Assembly police officers approached, one snatching the hanger from her hand.
“Ma’am, you can’t have that here,” Officer Frank Flores said.
Pressed on what law Hesse violated, Flores said it was “building rules” — an amorphous statute that includes prohibitions against littering, damaging decorative plants, possessing weapons, or carrying signs and placards of more than 25 square inches.
Moments later, officers approached 30-year-old Katina Gad of Raleigh, who had been ejected from the Senate gallery after yelling “Shame on you!” as Republicans voted to send the anti-abortion bill to the House. As photographers and cameramen tried to capture images of Gad being handcuffed on a disorderly conduct charge, officers swarmed around.
When a cameraman tried to angle his shot around the blockade, an officer shoved him and knocked him back several steps. A member of the sergeant-at-arms’ staff assisting police drew back an aluminum cane over his head, threatening to whack those observing.
Last month, officers arrested a Charlotte Observer reporter who was interviewing those being arrested.
Protests are nothing new at the legislative building. Before the GOP takeover two years ago, conservative activists held mass rallies. In July 2001, about 700 showed up at the “Tar Heel Tea Party” to protest a proposed tax increase. According to an Associated Press account, protesters in the House gallery chanted “No new taxes!” and threw tea bags onto the chamber floor. One protester was escorted from the gallery. None were arrested.
Officials in Wake County and Raleigh say the hundreds of arrests this year are straining local resources, from the jail to the city officers working overtime to help the legislature’s police. District Attorney Colon Willoughby, a Democrat, suggested he may not have enough prosecutors to take all the cases to court.
Regardless of the strain on limited state resources, McCrory said Monday that the arrests are appropriate.
“If you don’t arrest them, you can’t get the work of government done,” McCrory said. “I believe if people broke the law, they should be arrested.”