America’s partisan political wars have come to North Carolina, as big-money donors have helped bring the most ideologically extreme right-wing state government to power since the days of Jim Crow. (Democrats have been vastly outspent in recent elections, thanks in part to the largesse of Art Pope, NC’s answer to the Koch brothers and the current state budget director.) The GOP took over the legislature in the Tea Party wave of 2010, when a backlash against healthcare reform and frustration over the ailing economy swept right-wing politicians into office across the country. Republicans took advantage of once-a-decade redistricting to draw lines that deliberately diluted the voting power of African Americans, ensuring that conservative incumbents would have an easier time of holding on to their seats. The maneuver enabled Republicans to expand their margin in the legislature to supermajority status in 2012, while former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory took the Governor’s mansion–one of few Republicans ever to hold the post.
Despite McCrory’s image as a relatively moderate technocrat and big-city mayor, he has carried water for the far right agenda every step of the way. The Governor turned down Obamacare’s generous expansion of Medicaid, even as fellow conservatives like Arizona’s Jan Brewer raised eyebrows by accepting the new federal funds to provide access to healthcare for the poor, thus ensuring that an estimated 500,000 low-income North Carolinians will not get insurance that would have cost the state little (under Obamacare, the federal government would have supplied all the funds for the expansion in the first years of implementation, and 90% of the cost from then on).
Indeed, the GOP’s relentlessly mean-spirited legislative program has been a Tea Party dream come true: Republican proposals would make it nearly impossible to get an abortion, imposing regulations that would close all but one of the state’s clinics; require drug-testing for welfare recipients, a policy that has been proven to be a pointless boondoggle; defund a variety of health services provided by Planned Parenthood; arbitrarily deny federal unemployment benefits; undermine public education by funneling state money to private schools; cut taxes on the rich and make everyone else shoulder the burden of higher sales tax; end early voting and require photo IDs, a proposal meant to curb imaginary “voter fraud” that in fact makes it harder for the poor, elderly, and people of color to vote.
The list goes on. At a time when Republicans remain puzzled why minorities don’t support them at the polls, the NC GOP made it their top priority to repeal the landmark Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009 under the previous Democratic Governor. The law’s sole purpose was to provide recourse for individuals on death row, to ensure that no one wrongfully convicted would be executed by the state, when abundant evidence shows that African Americans are far more likely to be convicted and sentenced to death than whites, while blacks are much less likely to be selected for juries. Even this modest gesture to prevent a potentially tragic inequity was in the GOP’s sites, and it was easily repealed.
Going forward, Republicans will pursue their goals of slashing healthcare and education, including the state’s public university system–once the envy of the South and the overwhelming reason why North Carolina’s famed Research Triangle was able to draw well-paying, high-tech jobs to the Raleigh-Durham area. Voting will become harder; the poor will become sicker; teachers and students will make do with fewer resources as a state that has struggled for years to lift its poor educational performance falls farther behind.
For all these reasons (and many more), progressive North Carolinians have come out in force for weekly “Moral Monday” protests in front of the state legislature. The demonstrations have brought out thousands of North Carolinians, some of whom have chosen to practice civil disobedience and get arrested by marching into the legislature. The photos below detail the groundswell of activism and resistance that have erupted in Raleigh in recent months.
A protester supports separation of church and state, presumably to challenge the diversion of public school funds for private and parochial schools (and perhaps the GOP’s ludicrous effort to pass an anti-Sharia bill).
A protester voices frustration. One demonstrator told me that she pulled her 20-year-old NARAL poster from under the bed and dusted it off for the protest.
Tolerance and social justice versus the South’s legacy of racism and poverty.
The Raging Grannies take the stage and sing their songs, complete with a kazoo. The average age of those on stage was 79.
Moral Monday is hardly all about Raging Grannies, though they make for a catchy headline. In fact, the demonstrators encompassed everyone from LGBT and environmental activists to voting rights advocates and, of course, the black civil rights movement. Here, the NAACP’s Reverend William Barber III delivers a stirring address, chastising the GOP for the hurtful and hateful nature of their policies and imploring listeners to see the current political fracas in the long view. ”We don’t have a deficit of money,” Barber said. ”We have a deficit of character.” He reminded the audience of the struggles of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, of FDR to pass Social Security and the minimum wage (over Republican opposition, as always), the Daughters of the American Revolution’s effort to silence opera singer Marian Anderson, Nelson Mandela’s long sojourn in prison, and the kid with “big ears from Illinois, with a funny name” who would never be elected by the people of the United States. ”The only fights we lose are those we don’t fight,” he argued.
Demonstrators line up to practice civil disobedience, marching to the state legislature
Uncle Sam submits to arrest as a civilly disobedient protester.
It remains to be seen whether the backlash against NC’s GOP legislature will be able to stop the raft of right-wing legislation landing on Pat McCrory’s desk–the Governor has expressed qualms about the recent abortion measure, which was tacked on to a bill to combat the nonexistent threat of Sharia law in NC–but it seems that the conservative push will continue undeterred until at least the next election. However, recent activism suggests that the state could shift back to the position of moderation that has served it well in the past, as one of the most progressive and enlightened states of the old Confederacy. The legacy of figures like Terry Sanford, Jim Hunt, and Bill Friday (the namesake of my junior high school, in Dallas) today hangs in the balance, and we do not know yet if the much-vaunted “demographic shift” and the rise of new, urban, pluralistic South will lead North Carolina in a different direction than its current leaders propose.