Around 1,500 protesters assembled on Bicentennial Mall as the Moral Monday movement returned to Raleigh for the short session of the North Carolina General Assembly.
Moral Mondays may be back, but protesters face new rules of conduct, imposed by a long-dormant committee of the General Assembly.
Signs held on sticks are now prohibited inside the legislative building, as well as singing, clapping, shouting, or playing musical instruments.
Last night, protesters seemed aware of the new restrictions. Most of those who showed up with signs carried smaller, handheld ones.
Meanwhile, a few Republicans took advantage of the relatively quiet half hour before the rally, to mount a very small public opposition.
Dallas Woodhouse, the former director of the North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity, is now the president of Carolina Rising, his new conservative advocacy group.
He and House Republican Speaker Pro Tempore Paul “Skip” Stam spoke to a few assembled journalists in front of the legislative building.
Here’s Woodhouse, explaining how, in his view, cutting the number of weeks for unemployment benefits in North Carolina to a national low is “compassionate.”
“What we now know, is when people take a job – whatever job is – it keeps them from becoming one of the long-term unemployed,” said Woodhouse.
When it was Stam’s turn to speak, he was competing unsuccessfully with funky beats coming through a much louder set of PA speakers across the street.
After a few opening rallying cries were shouted from the podium to a cheering crowd of about 1,500, the Moral Monday rally got underway with some musical comedy from the Raging Grannies.
In song, they mocked a vague new assembly rule that gives police and legislative building staff leeway to eject protesters who may pose “an imminent threat.”
Here’s a sample:
“You cut off funding for public schools/ Suppress our votes, but we’re no fools/ the federal courts will stop you yet/ So which of us is the imminent threat?”
Then things got serious.
Dr. Charles van der Horst is Associate Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the UNC Department of Medicine.
He decried the 2013 decision by Gov. Pat McCrory and the majority in the General Assembly to reject federal dollars for expansion of Medicaid.
“This left half a million working, tax-paying North Carolinians whose income falls below the federal poverty level, without health insurance,” said van der Horst. “There have been now, three published studies, showing that an estimated one-to-two thousand North Carolinians will die each year because they lack health insurance.”
Durham public schools teacher Holly Jordan is one of more than 900 protesters that were arrested at the General Assembly last summer.
She began her remarks Monday by telling the crowd she had some good news: The protests seem to have spurred the recent plan to increase teacher pay statewide,
Then, she said, there’s the bad news.
“McCrory plans to fund that teacher pay raise by plundering $49 million from the UNC System, and $122 million from Health and Human Services,” she said, to boos from the crowd. “This is an absolutely unacceptable solution.”
Reverend William Barber, the leader of the Moral Monday movement, assured the crowd that the NAACP will go to court to challenge the new protest rules. He calls them “unconstitutional.”
Since there will be no Moral Monday protest on Memorial Day next week, he urged those in attendance to show up next Tuesday at 9 a.m., to visit legislators in their offices.
Rather than defying the controversial new assembly rules by making more noise, Barber opted to defy them instead with silence, enhanced by a striking visual.
“We’re going to do in the NAACP what we call ‘direct action,’” he said. “We want everybody to get at piece of tape, in a moment, and put it across your mouth so we can show the nation what extremism looks like. We’re not complying with their law – we’re exposing how crazy it is.”
Carrboro Alderperson Damon Seils and former candidate for Orange County Board of Commissioners Mark Marcoplos were spotted in the crowd, both wearing tape over their mouths.
Alderperson Sammy Slade was there, too, but I-40 traffic caused him to show up late.
Instead of filing into the building silently with hundreds of others, Slade stood to the side and watched.
He talked to WCHL about the Energy Modernization Act, a pro-fracking bill introduced Thursday in the General Assembly.
“Already, they’re undermining further a municipality’s ability to have any kind of local autonomy,” said Slade. “There’s a committee that is seeking to ban municipalities’ ability to regulate trees in towns – and also, runoff into water. Environmental issues are being undermined. So yeah – it’s already panning out to be a controversial short session.”