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More join opposition to policies, risk arrest at legislature
Following websites, email lists and Facebook posts, Angela McGregor said she watched as “Moral Monday” protests have grown over the past weeks. A Bryson City resident, she said she kept wondering about getting involved in the actions as a way to respond to the legislature’s direction.
“Then I saw them cuffing someone in a wheelchair. I said, ‘No, that’s it.’ That was my moment,” she recalled.
So on the last Monday in June, the eighth wave of the protests, McGregor was among those leading the weekly Moral Monday procession into the North Carolina State Legislative Building, in Raleigh. Wearing a green armband signifying she would be arrested, she carried a sign that said “Inside Agitator from Bryson City.”
Later, after leaving a Wake County detention center that night, McGregor said a few of her friends had tried to talk her out of taking part, but she was glad they didn’t succeed. After sitting chained and zip-tied with more than a hundred others, she said she had a fresh sense of mission.
“I feel stoked,” she said, sitting down to a meal after being released. “We did a lot of singing. It was galvanizing.”
The protests, which started in late April and are scheduled to return this afternoon, have been growing as groups from outside the Triangle organize carpools and buses bringing people here from across the state — including Western North Carolina.
On the day McGregor was arrested, Moral Monday attendance was the highest ever. Some counts puts an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people in attendance that day, the eighth protest in a series. One scan of the crowd and it was evident that part of what contributed to the turnout was a surge of visitors from the state’s westernmost counties.
Previously, several WNC residents had formed a handful of carpools and made the five-hour-plus trek from the region to Raleigh. But that day, two buses carried more than 100 people from Asheville. Carpools and caravans also headed down the mountain from Henderson, Jackson, Swain and Watagua counties. More mountain-area protesters are scheduled to join in today.
They held signs declaring “Hands Off Our Water” and “what happened to Asheville might not stay in Asheville,” joining those condemning the legislature’s moves in education, health care and environmental deregulation.
The protests have grown, in part, because the concerns have, too. What started as a NAACP-led reaction to the legislature’s actions on voting rights and policies effecting the state’s least fortunate has become a way for a growing coalition of groups to voice outrage.
Some said the only place to do that was in Raleigh.
“They don’t listen to us when we’re at home,” Sam Speciale, of Asheville, said. A retired educator, Speciale said he mainly wanted to protest the Republican leadership’s cuts to education funding. But he also said he’s concerned at the way his representative, Asheville Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt, has treated the city.
“We have an over-zealous representative,” he said, adding that he’d tried to talk to Moffitt earlier, but was rebuffed.
Linda Smathers, of Asheville, held a handmade sign identifying her as sixth-generation North Carolinian. She called a newly approved voucher program that would send state money to private schools “nonsense.”
“I’m concerned about education,” she said. “North Carolina has always been a leader in education.”
Bill Punshon, a retired teacher, agreed. He wouldn’t name names, but said he’s disappointed that a legislator who was one of his math students signed on to such a such a harsh agenda. Punshton said he was proud his daughter decided to become a teacher, but worries about the way the state is treating the profession.
“She’s been a teacher for eight years and had her pay frozen for seven of them,” he said.
Katie Hicks, of Clean Water for North Carolina, said while those who made the trip have wide-ranging concerns, similarities exist. Her organization and the local chapter of the NAACP organized the bus ride from WNC that Monday.
“Overwhelmingly, what I have heard from folks is a lot of excitement that a movement is happening in such a unified way,” Hicks said. “We’re often so cut off from what’s happening in Raleigh.”
Hicks said a common complaint is that legislators are tuning people out. “The underlying issue is the way the legislature is making law this session,” she said.
That Monday, protesters began their day in church, at Pullen Memorial on Hillsborough Street, a mile or so from the legislature and one of dozens of churches aiding Moral Monday organizers.
There, potential arrestees, supporters and organizers huddled to learn what to expect: What to do with phones, wallets, walkers. How long the wait would be. What might happen in court.
There was a service of sorts, a mix of prayers and testimony and spirituals. State NAACP president Rev. William Barber, who has led each Moral Monday, delivered another criticism of the GOP leadership and its agenda. And he took Gov. Pat McCrory to task for recent comments that the protesters are “outsiders.”
“We are drawn together,” Barber said, “not because someone from the outside told us we were hurting but because, on our inside, we care for all North Carolinians.”
At the end of June, a breakdown of those arrested showed that 98 percent were from North Carolina. That day, several WNC residents were among those who decided to be arrested.
Overall, the process is fairly orderly. Those willing to be arrested walk two by two into the Legislative Building. Other attendees follow. They assemble around the rotunda near the large polished doors of the Senate and House chambers, while dozens gather on the balcony above to watch. Prayers and singing and statements follow.
Then, the chief of the N.C. State Capitol Police makes his way through the rotunda area ordering the protesters to disperse or face arrest. The police caution the crowd above against cheering or singing while the arrests take place. One by one, the protesters are led to the elevator, their hands bound behind their backs with white zip-ties.
Despite the size of the crowd watching, it is often so quiet you can hear the ties being cinched.
The 120 people arrested that day and the nearly 90 more arrested the first Monday in July has brought the total number of arrests to nearly 650 people. All have been charged with failure to disperse from an unlawful assembly.
That night, Pullen Memorial’s fellowship hall and kitchen had become the NAACP’s reception room for arrestees. Friends and family members waited as carloads of people shuttled back from the jail.
Every now and again, all conversation would stop. A round of applause would build in its place, signifying that newly released protesters had arrived from the Wake County Detention Center.
Awaiting them was plenty of cold water and soft drinks, a spread of sandwiches, fruits and vegetables and a big pot of homemade jambalaya. The gathering for the new “jailbirds” has become a ritual, a way to grab a meal in relative quiet and reflect on the day.
Alice Weldon, a Spanish language professor at UNC Asheville, said she was thinking of coming on the bus to be supportive. But she and her brother Bill decided to join those being arrested, in part to honor their sister, Nanci, who was arrested in civil rights protests in the 60s.
The two said they felt they needed to stand up for those struggling against the legislature’s policies, partially because they have good jobs and health care. “So many people don’t have access (to good health care), or they’re worried about being deported,” she said. “I can’t not raise a voice.”
Susan Bogardus, of Bryson City, spent the day at the protest and had come to the church basement to wait for her friends to be released.
Bogardus, who worked in the Jackson County school system and volunteers for a free clinic in Sylva, said the decision to cut elementary school teaching assistants had troubled her. “They needed those people there,” she said.
Bogardus said her volunteer work at the clinic brought home the impact of the state’s decision not to expand Medicaid.
“We were excited about (the expansion),” she said. “We were looking forward to it putting us out of business.”
Instead, she said, the clinic will see even greater demand while cuts to health programs cuts will make matters worse.
The debate, protests continue
Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, stopped by after some of the rallies to talk with attendees. Listening to his constituents describe their experiences that night, Queen said he’s been struck by how the protests have distilled the debate. “This isn’t radical stuff,” he said. “They’re standing up for essential services and jobs instead of millionaire tax cuts.”
Asheville Republican Rep. Nathan Ramsey said he has disagreements with the protesters over policy, but not over their right to do what they’re doing.
“They’re doing what the Constitution and the First Amendment allows them to do,” he said in a recent interview. Ramsey said he had met with some of the protesters and tries to take into account what they have to say. At the end of the day, he said, both sides want the state to prosper and do well for all of its citizens.
As the night wound down at Pullen Memorial, the WNC contingent got ready up for the trip home. Loading his American flag and a backpack filled with water bottles, Bob Feldmann, of Asheville, had had a long day. He started out in the early morning with a group led by Leslie Boyd, an Asheville health-care activist who was arrested at one of the first Moral Mondays and has been a guide for WNC protesters since.
Feldmann and his flag led the procession of those willing to be arrested into the Legislative Building. After being arrested, he sat for three hours with his hands bound behind his back. He didn’t mince words in describing is feelings toward the General Assembly, saying he was “mad as hell” at what they were doing to the state. Asked what got him got him to make the trip and to get arrested, he pointed to the Veterans for Peace Chapter 99 logo on his shirt.
“I speak for people who are dead, or too cracked up because of what they’ve been through or too busy working two jobs,” the Vietnam veteran said. “I see it as an obligation to be here.”