Patrick Gannon: People are key to NAACP’s leader’s mission

Published 7:31 pm Monday, November 2, 2015

RALEIGH – Seven people played dead on the steps to the side entrance of the State Capitol building on a rainy day last week.

They held cardboard “tombstones” bearing such phrases such as, “I died from a heart attack because I couldn’t afford cholesterol medication” and “I died from breast cancer because I couldn’t afford a mammogram.”

The “die-in” event – attended by several dozen people – was aimed at urging Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-led General Assembly to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to allow more low-income North Carolinians to get health insurance. State leaders have resisted calls to expand the government insurance program here, and they’re unlikely to budge on that issue anytime soon.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate say costs of Medicaid already are increasing and that expansion would exacerbate that.

“Nothing has changed to address the multitude of concerns with Medicaid expansion,” Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said last week. “North Carolina taxpayers can’t afford current Medicaid costs, much less those of an expanded program.”

The die-in was one of many examples of such events staged in recent years by the North Carolina NAACP under the leadership of the Rev. William Barber. Barber calls the events “civil disobedience.” Republicans who don’t share Barber’s views about the direction the state is headed consider them “political stunts.”

However you view them, Barber is routinely at the forefront, using biting language to get his points across.

“We are here today because of the current leadership, the extremist governor and legislators to say three things: People are dying. Number two, people are dying. Number three, people are dying,” Barber said at the die-in.

Citing a study, Barber and other speakers said seven people on average die every day in North Carolina because politicians haven’t expanded Medicaid.

“If any one of us would go out here and kill seven people, we would be called a serial murderer. …These policies are causing serial death,” he said.

He spoke to the others who assembled to support the cause and to TV cameras and reporters. I didn’t see a single legislator – Democrat, Republican or unaffiliated – at the die-in.

Barber’s tactics have brought together people from across the state who share his ideas about topics such as Medicaid expansion, education funding, voting rights and raising the minimum wage. But they have done very little to change the mindsets of Republicans in charge on Jones Street.

Former state Sen. Thom Goolsby of Wilmington once referred to the “Moral Monday” protests orchestrated by Barber, which led to hundreds of arrests, as “Moron Mondays.” Republicans have repeatedly become annoyed when protesters show up outside the House and Senate chambers and disrupt daily sessions with singing, chanting and other noise-making. At least one Republican, state Sen. Andy Wells, poked fun at Barber’s rhetoric in a campaign ad.

But Barber is doubling down. At the die-in, he told the crowd that he and other preachers plan to urge families of people who die because they don’t have access to health care to have open-casket funerals for them and allow the media in to document them.

“We’re not going to have a joyous funeral talking about God called them home, when they’re going home as a result of governmental actions,” Barber said. “And we’re going to say, ‘Look, look. This is what happens when people can’t get past their political talking points and their partisan restrictions and extremism and do what is right.’”

Will that get the attention of those in control in Raleigh? It might, but it probably won’t change their minds about Medicaid expansion.

If Barber wants change, he should hope he’s getting the attention of voters.

Gannon writes columns for Capitol Press Association.