By Anne Blythe, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
RALEIGH, N.C. — Demonstrators ratcheted up the volume at the North Carolina Legislative Building on Tuesday, singing, raising their voices and staging a sit-in at the office of House Speaker Thom Tillis.
Fifteen were supplied with sleeping bags and pizza, prepared to stay the night if allowed.
The protest came eight days after a mass demonstration on May 19, when protesters put tape over their mouths and walked quietly outside legislators’ offices to highlight their dissatisfaction with new building rules.
The building decorum rules, adopted behind closed doors two weeks ago by a legislative commission, give law enforcement officers the authority to arrest people inside who “act in a manner that will imminently disturb the General Assembly.”
Attorneys who have worked with the NAACP plan to challenge the new rules, but it was unclear Tuesday what legal avenue they would pursue.
The Tuesday sit-in was part of the so-called “Moral Monday movement” that resulted in 945 arrests outside legislative chambers last year and led to similar rallies and protests in other Southern states fighting Republican agendas.
The Rev. William Barber II, the head of the state NAACP and the architect of the demonstrations, said the protests are not about one political party or another. He and his followers decry what they describe as “extremist” policies that they say have an increasingly negative impact on the state’s poor and struggling residents.
The theme for the demonstrations this year is “The Case for Repealing and Reversing 2013’s Regressive Laws.”
The Republican leadership largely has cast aside the complaints of the protesters, arguing that lawmakers carried out the will of their voters with the 2013 agenda. The political program gained national attention for taking North Carolina on a sharp swing to the political right after a longstanding reputation as a moderate state.
On Tuesday, 15 demonstrators walked into Tillis’ front office holding placards against the large-scale cutback of unemployment benefits, the refusal to expand Medicaid, and new election laws that curb early voting days and require an ID at the polls, among other things.
It was about 3:30 p.m.
Tillis, the Republican nominee for a U.S. Senate seat from North Carolina this fall, was not in his front office when the protesters arrived.
Minutes later, he was on the House floor, where the topics of discussion were two gubernatorial appointments, a resolution honoring fallen soldiers and a measure to allow Clay County to drop an opossum on New Year’s Eve, a measure approved by voice vote.
Tillis banged the gavel to open the day’s business.
He did not engage with the protesters and left the building to chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Thom Tillis, where’d you go?”
Barber stayed in the legislative halls as fast-food workers and additional ministers prayed, sang and aired grievances in the speaker’s office. He called it a “travesty” that Tillis would not come speak with the people engaged in the sit-in.
It was unclear by 9 p.m. whether the General Assembly police planned to arrest anyone.
Jeff Weaver, chief of the force that made the 945 arrests last year, was in the hallways, talking with attorneys for the NAACP, but not providing details of the police strategy.
By 9:15 p.m., police asked everybody to leave the building.
The 15 protesters remained. William Morales, Tillis’ executive assistant, sat at the desk in the speaker’s front office, as the demonstrators spread out in sleeping bags on the floor around him.
The protesters appeared to be in for a long night.
Sleeping bags with tags still on were delivered to the group as were pizzas, with a special request for vegetarian pie.
The protest last week resulted in no arrests, and some critics of the “Moral Monday movement” have urged the lawmakers to ignore the demonstrators and any acts of civil disobedience with hopes of tamping down national attention.
The cases of the 945 protesters arrested last year are still going through the courts in protracted trials that keep the chief and his key staffers on the witness stand for several days every other week.
“Speaker Thom Tillis and his aides have refused to engage in a serious discussion over the deep and weighty issues, and now they are playing a waiting game in hopes that we will lose heart, pack up and go home,” Barber said in a statement several hours after the sit-in began. “But we are not here to play games. These are serious, life-and-death questions.
“Where can the unemployed go for help? Where can those hardworking North Carolinians without health care access? Where can those who have been disenfranchised? We shall not be moved. We are settling in for a long night at the General Assembly.”
Photo by Mr T in DC/Flickr