Some longtime observers of lawmaking in Raleigh say they’ve never seen anything like the protests taking place late on Monday afternoons at the Legislative Building.
The growing crowds of people — who from the beginning in early May have included Carolina professors, students and alumni — have entered the legislative chambers and shouted their concerns about various proposed new laws and reductions to existing state programs as the Senate and House conduct business.
Many have been arrested in the organized protests, called “Moral Mondays.” About 150 people were arrested most recently on June 3. Two prominent UNC faculty members — oral historian Jacquelyn Hall and AIDS researcher Dr. Charles van der Horst — and Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton ’93 and Chapel Hill Town Council member Donna Bell ’94 have been among those briefly jailed.
With the 2010 elections, the Republican Party gained control of both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since 1896; in 2012, Republicans kept control of the Legislature while also winning the governor’s mansion. The party’s leaders in the Legislature have promised a substantial overhaul of the state’s tax system and its funding for public education at all levels, as well as major changes in laws affecting workers’ rights and voter identification.
The protesters generally are upset about human rights issues. By June, they were coming into the capital city by organized busloads and vowing to keep up the Monday visits.
Van der Horst, internationally recognized for his AIDS research, was arrested May 6 after he went to speak out against the legislative leadership’s decision to decline a Medicaid expansion under federal health care reform. The decision, Van der Horst said, would limit health care access for some 500,000 people.
“These are North Carolinians who are paying taxes now but are not earning enough to pay for health insurance,” he said in a video posted on YouTube. “The governor and the Legislature have turned their backs on these North Carolina citizens. … They profess to be for the sanctity of life, but they don’t give a damn once the baby’s born.”
Hall, who directed UNC’s groundbreaking oral history program for most of 40 years before her recent retirement, told The Daily Tar Heel: “In the 1960s and 1970s, we had moderate Democratic governors who had their differences with the Republicans, but they also were forward looking in … progressive ways. This is not your grandfather’s Republican Party that we’ve got now. It’s a story of the takeover of the Republican Party by a certain faction within the party that has just purged it of its moderate wing.”
In an editorial submission to The News & Observer of Raleigh, Hall and emeritus history Professor William Chafe from Duke cited a progressive era in public education that started with Gov. Terry Sanford ’39 in the 1960s and continued through Republican and Democratic administrations.
“That history is one that our current legislature and governor now seek to reverse,” the two wrote, “by denying 500,000 people health care through Medicaid, even though it would not cost the state a cent for the first two years; by restricting women’s access to reproductive health care; by terminating unemployment payments for more than 160,000 workers laid off through no fault of their own; by endangering the right to vote of tens of thousands of people through curtailing early voting and requiring state-issued picture IDs; by cutting taxes on the rich, and increasing them on the poor.”
Carolina senior Zaina Alsous made a video before she was arrested.
“I made this decision because I know where I come from. I am the daughter of immigrants and the by-product of opportunities that were afforded through access to public education. … In the past few months, I’ve watched as opportunities for social uplift for a quality life have been snatched away from the people of our state. Health care, rights in the workplace, even the right to vote have been attacked.
“And now we’re even seeing public education, normally a bedrock of our state, under devastating attack from those in power. … I’m tired and I’m angry like so many others in North Carolina. I truly believe that mass resistance at this point is our only option.”
The DTH asked Hall if she thought civil disobedience was an effective way to make her point.
“I definitely think it’s an effective way. Now, I don’t think it always is, and I didn’t do this lightly. But there’s a huge amount of evidence that in this particular case, these legislators are not open to reason and discourse and communication. We hope that the people in the state Legislature will listen to what we’re saying and think, ‘Well, gosh, if this many people are willing to take these risks, maybe we should rethink.’
“But, even if they don’t, our hope is that other citizens will say to themselves, ‘Why are these people doing this?’ Then they’ll educate themselves and make up their own minds as to whether what’s going on is good for them and for this state.”
Van der Horst said, “I was scared. I’m thinking, ‘I’m violating a state law.’ ”
Joanne Harrell is a retired professor in the nursing school who hadn’t planned to get arrested but did.
“I didn’t think I was going to do this,” she told The N&O. “It’s about time I did something to make a difference. I see it as my duty.”
It has been unclear how effective the protests might be. Shortly after the June 3 protest, legislative leaders said the Monday events were not a constructive dialogue.
Gov. Pat McCrory, who since taking office in January has questioned the value of a liberal arts education, said he welcomed lawful demonstrations but found protests that blocked the Legislature’s work to be unacceptable.