Organizers of the Poor People's Campaign lead a group of protesters Monday afternoon into the center of Jones Street in front of the Legislative Building in Raleigh. Police later arrested 49 members of the group for blocking traffic. Kirk Ross / Carolina Public Press

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RALEIGH – Forty-nine people stood arms linked in a temporary box marked by yellow tape in the middle of Jones Street near the entrance to the Legislative Building in the shade of nearby trees and the Museum of Natural Sciences building.

Police read each of them their rights, then led them away, one by one, drawing a round of thanks from the crowd of 100 or so on the sidewalk.

“Thank you Nancy! We love you, Nancy!” came as Raleigh police led away Nancy Newell, wearing a brown armband that designated that she had volunteered to be arrested.

Like the others, authorities cited her for impeding street traffic, then released her a few minutes later.

Organizers coordinated Monday’s action in Raleigh with similar events in 30 states in a new nationwide Poor People’s Campaign.

The campaign attempts to revive the movement Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. started, which former North Carolina NAACP president Rev. William Barber II now leads. Barber was the architect of the escalating series of Moral Monday protests in 2013 that drew national attention.

Barber coordinated Monday’s national event from Washington, D.C., where he faced arrest during an action at the Capitol Building.

Rev. Nancy Petty, of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, led the event there. She worked with Barber on the 2013 campaign at the legislature during which police arrested close to 1,000 people.

Petty promised a new series of events this year. People need to push back against policies that hurt the poor, disabled and disadvantaged, she said.

Each action event of the campaign will have specific focuses. The program Monday highlighted concerns for women, children living in poverty, the LGBT community and people with disabilities.

Derick Smith, a political science professor at North Carolina A&T and a political education coordinator for the Poor People’s Campaign, called for a “renewed commitment to the eradication of poverty.”

Smith reminded the crowd of the section of the North Carolina Constitution that declares “Beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate, and the orphan is one of the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state.” (NC Constitution Article XI, Sec. 4)

“Creating equity and eliminating gross inequities are truly hallmarks of a democratic, free society,” Smith said.

Teacher protests expected today

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The revival of Moral Monday actions is prelude to a much bigger event planned for opening day Wednesday, when thousands of teachers and their supporters are expected to flood into Raleigh.

Thirty-eight school districts have cancelled classes Wednesday after thousands of teachers asked for time off to take their case directly to legislators. Combined, these districts teach about two-thirds of the public school students in the state.

Educators typically hold an advocacy day during each legislative session, but organizers say the heavy turnout this year has been inspired by successful walkouts and rallies in other states.

A set of key priorities identified by the North Carolina Association of Educators include increases in per pupil spending, restoration of longevity and advanced-degree pay, more counselors and nurses, and money for repairs and renovations.

Estimates of the number expected at the rally range from from 10,000 to 15,000. Teachers and supporters are scheduled to start at 10 a.m. with a “March for Students” to the legislature and then file into the building to meet with legislators be on hand for the noon opening of the 2018 short session.

Complicating the flow of the crowd into the building are newly installed security measures in the Legislative Building including metal detectors and baggage scanning devices.

The NCAE is sponsoring a “Rally for Respect” after the meetings in Bicentennial Mall at 3:30 p.m. Gov. Roy Cooper, who has pressed legislators to raise teacher pay at a higher rate, is scheduled to speak at the rally.

GOP questions motives of protesters

The teachers advocacy day has drawn heat from GOP leaders in and out of the legislature, with some calling the event a strike, which is illegal under North Carolina’s Right to Work law.

In its latest statement, the state Republican Party denounced it as a “Teacher Union Walkout.”

NCAE officials say teachers have followed the law by requesting time off to attend the event. North Carolina’s teachers and state employees do not have collective bargaining rights and state law forbids contracts with unions and labor organizations.

At a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said they also believe there’s a political motive behind the rally. Berger said the NCAE is closely aligned with Cooper and the Democratic Party.

“Much of what we’re hearing is politically motivated,” he said. “It’s an effort on the part of Democrats to support Democrats.”

However, both Berger and Moore said that, like other legislators, they do plan to meet with educators from their districts.

“It’s not all politics and sound and fury,” Berger said. “I’ve said I’ll sit down and talk to teachers from the district I represent. We’ll see what they have to say.”

Moore and Berger said they are working on a pay plan that would raise teacher pay by an average of 6.2 percent.

In the budget he rolled out earlier this month, Cooper calls for suspending a scheduled tax cut for individuals making more than $200,000 and using the roughly $114 million in revenue on an additional boost in teacher pay instead.

Cooper said he wants to see teacher pay reach the national average within four years. His plan would raise pay by an average 8 percent.

Budget on fast track with fall campaign ahead

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As the short session starts, legislative leaders say they are poised to make this short session live up to its name. Although a commonly broken promise, members are eager to get back to their districts. The legislature cranks up after a primary that saw eight incumbents lose and many more face challenges from within their own parties for the first time.

After a candidate recruitment push last year by both parties, only one of the 170 seats in the General Assembly will go uncontested in the general election this fall, a sharp contrast to the last election cycle in which nearly half of the incumbents ran unopposed.

House and Senate budget negotiators have been working since April with hopes of rolling out a compromise that could clear both chambers in the next few weeks.

At Tuesday’s press conference Moore said Berger said they have settled on budget targets far earlier than in years past.

They dismissed Cooper’s call for freeze on the cut for higher income tax payers. Moore said the tax cuts would proceed as planned.

“We’re really far ahead of the curve right now,” Moore said. “We’ve already got the spend number, we’ve already got an agreement on taxes and we’ve already got an agreement on teacher pay raises and we haven’t even hit the gavel.”

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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