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News & Observer - Moral Monday crowds swell in week 8; first protestors appear in court

June 24, 2013
In The News

By Anne Blythe, Annalise Frank and Julian Spector

RALEIGH — Lee Creighton's voice started to crack as he stood on a stage among the throngs gathered outside the Legislative Building for the eighth weekly protest of the legislature's agenda.

The Triangle resident has degrees in math, statistics and French literature but has been out of work or underemployed for the past four years. His LinkedIn profile describes him as a statistician, data analyst, technical writer, trainer, Ph.D., and mathematician who is "currently available."

In one week, Creighton will be among the 71,000 North Carolinians who will see their extended unemployment benefits end – the result of a new state law that goes into effect July 1. The law, among the first passed by the legislature this year, reduces the maximum state benefits a laid-off worker can receive by roughly one third.

Creighton was called to the stage on Monday among the largest crowd yet gathered for the weekly "Moral Monday" demonstrations at the Legislative Building. Though organizers estimated that more than 5,000 were in the crowd, police put the count at between 2,500 and 3,000.

The Rev. William Barber, chief architect of the protests that now bring national media crews to the capital, said much of the policies and laws from the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly and governor's office have been putting pen to paper, or "politics and signatures."

"Seven days from now," Barber said, "that's when the pain starts."

Creighton, who has depleted his savings account, turns to his parents for help with groceries and weekly supplies. He bristles when he hears the unemployed and under-employed described as lazy people who are taking government handouts and living it up as if they were on vacation.

"The unemployed people are not deadbeats," Creighton said, his voice cracking. "We're not losing our jobs because we don't want to work. ...If this is such a vacation, why is it that I cry to sleep every night."

Nearly 120 people were arrested and charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and failure to disperse on command. That brings the total number of arrests to almost 600 on the same day that the first wave of protesters made their first appearance in Wake County District Court.

Irving Joyner, the N.C. Central University law professor representing the protesters, said he entered not guilty pleas on behalf of the 17 arrested on April 29. He also asked that their cases be dismissed, challenging the arrests as unconstitutional.

Trials to be in late September

"The North Carolina Constitution says that every citizen has the right to go to the General Assembly and address their legislators and to issue any complaints that they have about the work that they're doing," Joyner told District Court Judge Dan Nagle, who was presiding over the hearing. The protesters, Joyner added, "were protesting against actions that we deem to be improper, untimely, spiteful and mean-spirited toward the poor."

Nagle scheduled the trials for late September.

As legal questions lingered, demonstrators were adamant about the messages they wanted to send later to the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory.

With labor issues, women's rights and economic justice as their themes for the week, the demonstrators hoped to halt what many described as "arrogant" and "vindictive" policies that favored the very wealthy and caused great harm to the state's poorest and weakest.

U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, was among the crowd outside the Legislative Building. "This is beyond politics as usual," Price said. "It's so extreme, so drastic and so threatening to so many people."

Price said what is happening in North Carolina is more extreme than when tea party politicians were swept into office at the federal level and pushed a similar agenda. "They created plenty of problems," Price said. "But in the U.S. Congress, they didn't have unchecked power."

Critics of the demonstrators have described them as bitter about Republican victories and unwilling to accept the new party in power.

They contend the weekly arrests are a drain on tax dollars, requiring the General Assembly police and other Wake County law enforcement agencies to spend more on personnel than they otherwise would.

The John W. Pope Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank that has been largely funded by the family foundation of Art Pope, the governor's budget director, posted an online database last week of the people arrested in the demonstrations. The database included the age, race, employment and hometown of 382 of the arrested protesters. The site also included a "Pick The Protester Game," which invited people to match descriptions of the protesters with their mugshots.

The posts brought quick criticism from groups on the other side of the political aisle – the Institute for Southern Studies compared the database to the actions of White Citizens' Councils, which published names of NAACP supporters in local newspapers in the civil rights era to encourage retaliation.

A statement on the Civitas site said the information was posted to let readers decide whether the "protesters disrupting the General Assembly at 'Moral Mondays' represent a cross-section of North Carolina citizens."

"We decided to investigate that claim," the Civitas site said. "Using arrest records and other public documents, we investigated who really is involved in these protests – the results may surprise you."

Twenty-three-year-old Ryan Thomson, a graduate student in sociology at N.C. State University, discovered that his face was in the first question in the Civitas Institute's "Pick The Protester" game. He said he was not troubled by the site. "They're starting to feel the pressure, and their only tactic other than throwing money around is mockery," Thomson said.

He added that, if the police had not arrested the first batch of peaceful protesters, the movement may never have grown as large as it did.

Charles Hancock, 27 and unemployed, stood on the outskirts of the demonstration, holding up a sign that said: "I'm an American Indian, who's the outsider?" Though he's from Virginia, Hancock has lived in Raleigh for more than two years.

"I'd like to see people chain themselves to the doors of that legislature," Hancock said. "Holding signs doesn't do much. But showing that you're gonna lay down your shows that you're putting yourself out there. So the arrests are worth something."