By Phoebe Zerwick
Winston-Salem, North Carolina— By 12:30 Monday afternoon the vans parked outside Emmanuel Baptist Church were loaded up with bottled water, bag lunches and rain ponchos for a long day of protest against the Republican-dominated state legislature. Emmanuel Baptist, an African-American church known around town for its social activism, provided three vans. The Rev. Nathan Parrish, of Peace Haven Baptist Church, drove the fourth. Some members of his more conservative congregation may not agree with him, he said, but he wanted to make sure that lawmakers in Raleigh know that many people from across the state oppose their policies. As Parrish pulled out of the lot, Mary Dickinson, a retired Spanish teacher, made an announcement: “This is what troublemakers look like.”
Monday’s protest was the fifth of what NAACP organizers are calling Moral Mondays, which take aim at the state’s assault on voting rights, healthcare, unemployment insurance, public schools and so much more.
In 2010, Republicans took control of the state house and senate for the first time since Reconstruction. With their firm majority, the GOP redrew district lines for state senate and house seats, securing an even more solid majority in the 2012 election. Voters also elected a Republican governor, the former mayor of Charlotte, Pat McCrory. Many assumed that his big-city background would make him a moderate, but McCrory quickly appointed Art Pope, the money behind many of the state’s Tea Party candidates, as budget director, and the legislature went to work.
Protesters came to Raleigh on Monday with a long list of grievances, beginning with measures the legislature passed early in the session to restrict early voting and registration. Protesters worry about cuts in unemployment insurance, the refusal to expand Medicaid to half a million through the federal Affordable Care Act, cuts in public school spending and a recent tax proposal that favors the wealthy.
So far, Moral Mondays have attracted a diverse coalition of protesters. In one van this Monday there were two ministers, one black one white, in the front seat; behind them a retired hotel chef and a former public-health researcher; in the next row, retired school teacher Dickinson and a retiree from Volvo trucks; and taking up the rear a 20-something former campaign worker for Obama, a friend, new to politics, and a local Hispanic rights activist.
“I have fretted, griped and worried that the Republican legislature is taking us back,” said Dehlia Carver, the former Volvo worker who lives in Kernersville, a small town just east of Winston-Salem. “I said, ‘It’s time to put my feet where my mouth is.’”
The first stop, two hours later, was the Martin Street Baptist Church, the staging ground for the weekly protests. The sanctuary was already full with the sounds of spirituals and preaching by the time the contingent from Winston-Salem arrived.
“Neighbor, if they think they had a fight four weeks ago, they ain’t seen nothing yet,” the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, was saying in a rallying call that took the audience all the way back to the book of Isaiah, through the South’s reconstruction and on to the politics of today.
Barber, a North Carolina native, spent the last week of May touring the state to build support for the rallies, which began April 29, when seventeen protesters were arrested in the rotunda of the Legislative Building, charged with second-degree trespassing, failure to disperse and violation of building rules.
Observers across the state say that it’s hard to say what kind of impact the protests will have. District lines aren’t set to be redrawn again for another ten years. Gary Pearce, a one time political aide to former Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat who was elected to four terms, said that in 2010, protesters from the Tea Party drove the election. “Now the energy is on the other side. That’s where the protesters are,” he said. “Do these Moral Mondays reflect an energy that may drive the next election? I don’t know, but I’m an optimistic guy.”
Inside Martin Street Baptist, the preaching shifted to hard-nosed organizing. Altogether, 158 had already been arrested, and about 150 sat in pews ready for instruction in civil disobedience. Lawyers for the NAACP had them fill out orange forms with their names, address and the phone number of someone who could post bond; they promised to be waiting for them at the Raleigh jail.
Donna Shelton, a physician’s assistant who works with psychiatric patients in towns along the coast, had never been arrested before, but she said she was ready. “Our health care system has just deteriorated faster than I can stand it,” she said. “I’m here for my patients.”
Protesters caravanned from the church to Halifax Plaza, behind the Legislative Building. The rain held off and the sun broke through dark clouds. At least 1,000 filled the plaza. Barber’s voice came booming from the podium: “This is old South politics. This is extreme politics. This is regressive politics.”
Protesters ready for arrest lined up two-by-two to march into the Legislative Building. “Okay, let’s do it,” Barber said, leading the way to the rotunda outside senate and house chambers, where they stood in a circle around the fountain, singing and preaching, with observers watching from the balcony above.
Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican from Wilmington elected in 2010, watched from the sidelines, one of the few legislators who made an appearance. “We ran on promises to the people who put us here,” Goolsby said. “I didn’t see any of these people here when the Democrats nearly bankrupted our state.”
Raleigh police gave a final five-minute warning to disperse and began arresting protesters a little after 6:30. They bound their wrists with plastic cuffs, took them to the basement cafeteria and then loaded them onto buses to the Raleigh jail. Some were released as early as 8:30 that evening but others were in custody until 5 AM the next morning.
Shelton, the physician’s assistant, was one of the first to be arrested and released. Tuesday morning she was on her way back to the coast for her first morning appointment. “My hope is that we’re putting the right wing on notice,” she said. “We’re not going to lay down and take their Neanderthal ways.”
Five ministers and a university professor from Winston-Salem were arrested. The rest of the Winston-Salem contingent headed home. Back on the van, Carver thought about the contrast between the crowd outside the Legislative Building and her neighbor who stopped speaking to her last year after she pasted an Obama bumper sticker on her car.
“It was a wonderful day because of the camaraderie. Everyone who was there felt the way I feel and that doesn’t happen to me often,” she said. “Maybe there is hope that we can overcome.”