151 people were arrested at the General Assembly Monday night. It was the fifth “Moral Monday” demonstration at the legislature, and it was the largest yet.
Police estimate that at least a thousand people crowded the mall behind the building to protest Republican policies on everything from education to tax cuts. They started gathering on the Halifax Mall late yesterday afternoon.
By the time NAACP state president Reverend William Barber started speaking, the crowd was enormous. As Barber stood on a makeshift stage, surrounded by faith leaders, community organizers and professors, he said they’re not planning to scale back their efforts any time soon.
"Don’t ask us when we’ll stop. Ask Tillis and Berger and the man in the Governor’s mansion- when will they stop. When will they stop hurting children? When will they stop hurting the sick? When will they stop hurting our public schools? When will they stop hurting our economics? Because if they stop, we’ll stop. But we can’t stop as long as people are being hurt," said Barber.
Barber and other organizers want Republican Speaker of the House Thom Tillis and Senate President Phil Berger to stop their chambers from passing bills they say would restrict voting rights, shorten unemployment benefits and cut funding for education, among others.
Barber told the crowd he’s especially opposed to Republican plans to revamp the tax code by lowering personal and corporate income taxes and broadening the sales tax base.
"When you cut taxes on corporations, and personal income tax, and then raise sales tax, and make people pay for hairdos, and haircuts, and food, and prescription drugs, there’s something wrong with that, it’s deeply disturbing!"
Many of the people who attended the rally yesterday say they’ve been motivated to become more politically involved. Jacquelyn Hall is a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who was arrested a few weeks ago at another Monday protest. She says she wasn’t compelled by one issue in particular.
It was the accumulation and the relentlessness and the extremity of these bills, and the sense of an echo chamber, of people who are supposed to be governing the state of North Carolina and all the people in it, but who are just listening to themselves," said Hall.
Inside the legislature, a long line of protesters who’d agreed to be arrested ushered themselves up to the second floor of the building, where they stood between the huge gold doors that serve as entrances to the House and Senate chambers.
The police snapped white plastic restraints around their wrists and led them to buses sent by the Department of Prisons. As he looked on, Democratic Rep. Garland Pierce said he approves of the protesters.
"It’s a multicultural crowd, it’s a multiracial crowd," said Pierce. "If it was only one group of people, only black they’d say it’s just blacks screamin and hollerin about stuff but what do you say about doctors, lawyers, nurses, and people here who are professionals who are speaking out, how do you silence them?"
And media outlets from across the country are listening. Just a few steps away, Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC was arguing with Republican Senator Thom Goolsby.
"So for you this is fundamentally about deficit and budget," Harris-Perry said.
Goolsby replied: "this is about keeping our ship of state afloat. This is about being responsible legislators."
When asked what the buzz was among Republican legislators about Moral Mondays, Goolsby shot down the question.
There’s none. We’re up here keeping up our promises to the voters, and that’s what we’re doing. I appreciate anybody coming out and speaking to us. I like to have people, this is the people’s house. Everybody has the right to come here," said Goolsby.
It’s hard to say how much attention Republican leaders are paying to the protests. So far the events don’t seem to have changed their policies. But organizers say they’re energized by growing support for the protests- and they plan to keep having them until lawmakers finish up this year’s legislative session.