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Winning Moral Monday

By Aaron Keck Posted February 17, 2014 at 4:46 am

CHAPEL HILL – Last weekend, the “Moral Monday” movement entered its second year in a big way, as tens of thousands of North Carolinians—hundreds from Orange County alone—gathered in Raleigh for one of the largest civil rights rallies in the South in decades.

The march was electrifying, and it gathered national attention. But is that enough? At what point can we declare “Moral Monday” to have been a success?

How do you measure a movement?

Participation

“My estimation was about 25,000,” says Ashley Melzer, who was gauging attendance for Planned Parenthood. “We counted one little chunk of a building—there were 50 rows with an average of 35 people (each)—so we tried to eyeball what that might be all the way down the street. There were certainly areas that were denser, so it could have been more like 30,000.”

If Melzer is correct, then the so-called “Moral March” was the largest civil rights rally in the South since the Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965, nearly half a century ago. (And those marches peaked at 25,000—so last Saturday’s rally might have even been bigger than that.)

Whatever the final attendance, though, one thing is clear: the “Moral Monday” movement has exceeded all expectations, taken on a life of its own, and shows no signs of slowing down. Americans are notoriously apathetic when it comes to politics—but “Moral Monday” has spurred tens of thousands of North Carolinians to take to the streets, many even risking arrest. And while those people were certainly motivated by the policies enacted last year by the General Assembly, they didn’t all take to the streets organically based on those policies alone. It was also the movement itself—the active mobilization—that played a major role.

But is that enough? Can we, today, declare “Moral Monday” to have been a success, just on the strength of that mobilization?

Some local leaders say yes. “The big success is how widespread it has been and how it’s captured so many different people’s attention,” says activist Allison DeMarco. Carrboro Alderman Michelle Johnson agrees: “People are showing up to these rallies, (and) that’s surprising me—so I think it’s already a success from the amount of people that are connecting to it.”

Orange County Commissioners Penny Rich and Mark Dorosin add that the measure of success isn’t just the number of people in attendance, but their diversity. “I think down the road, when you go back in history and you look at this movement, you’re going to see that it was successful because it drew in so many people,” says Rich. “It wasn’t just the NAACP, it wasn’t just the women’s rights (advocates), it wasn’t just the environmentalists, it wasn’t just the teachers—everybody came to the table.”

Dorosin agrees: “It’s brought together such a diverse collection of North Carolina residents, so committed and concerned about the future of our state and what’s happening right now. By at least a basic measure of civic engagement and bringing together diverse interests for the common good, I think the movement’s already succeeded.”

Ashley Melzer goes further, saying success is not just about the big attendance at the big marches—but rather about how well the movement can motivate individuals to get involved on their own.

“I think what’s going to make or break the movement are the people who by themselves call a State Senator, or by themselves send a letter, or by themselves talk to their neighbor about voting,” she says. “It’s not going to be the big picture moments…it’s going to be the small people who maybe don’t get written up in the newspaper, who do it on behalf of this movement.”

Elections

But Melzer’s argument there speaks to a larger point. Increasing participation is an impact in itself—and certainly an important one, especially given that “Moral Monday” was initially a response to the new voter ID bill. But participation alone doesn’t seem to constitute success: the Occupy movement drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets, but it’s harder to argue that Occupy was successful—because it’s harder to identify how it effected real change in government.

It’s that “change” that the Moral Monday protesters say they’re after—including a change in the makeup of the General Assembly.

“The most important thing we have to do is work on voter registration, get the vote out, and change the face of the legislature,” says Chapel Hill Town Council member Sally Greene.

County Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier agrees. “This movement is not about changing what this current General Assembly does—success means that the people of North Carolina will come out and vote for individuals who will promote policies that are just and morally right,” she says. “And so success means that some of the people who are now in office in the GA need to be voted out of office. That’s what real success will be.”

But winning elections is going to be an uphill battle too, at least in the short term. Not only has redistricting solidified the Republican majority in the state legislature; it’s also President Obama’s sixth year in office—and the President’s party historically loses seats in that year’s election. (Beyond that, researchers have also found that social movements are less likely to succeed when their number-one goal is just to “kick the bums out”: it’s very difficult to remove people from power, even in the best of circumstances.)

But as State Representative Graig Meyer observes, even elections are only a means to an end. “We (in the ‘HK on J’ movement) have been marching for long enough that it goes back to when Democrats were in control of the GA,” he says. “So it’s not about who holds control of the government—it’s about what our government (does).”

Policy (and Perception)

Most of the people I spoke to agree with Meyer: the movement’s success, they say, depends ultimately on whether the General Assembly enacts their policy goals.

“Elections themselves are an important litmus test,” says Chapel Hill Town Council member Lee Storrow, “but elections are important because those elections dictate the policies that are passed.”

Michelle Johnson agrees. “Twenty years from now,” she says, “if we have policies that are actually going to support poor folks to get out of poverty, and to allow (everybody) access to voting…and (guaranteeing women) control over their bodies—once we see these things turning around, that’s the success.”

Others take the argument one step further.

“It just seems like decisions are being made that are so extreme, so extremely outside of what mainstream North Carolina wants, that I think to pull it back toward the middle—where it has actually been for decades—would be much more reflective of our state as a whole,” says Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle.

CHCCS Board member James Barrett adds: “I think for several decades, North Carolina was a progressive leader in the South, and in just the last couple years we have really turned back to a direction that doesn’t reflect the values that we have. I think success will be if we’re able to turn that tide and get back to moving our state forward.”

Sally Greene says that turn from progressivism left her “heartbroken.” “I moved to North Carolina almost 30 years ago because it was a progressive Southern state,” she says. “Raleigh wasn’t Montgomery, and Chapel Hill wasn’t Philadelphia, Mississippi. On the other hand, I knew about the Greensboro Four, I knew about Jim Hunt, Terry Sanford, Bill Friday. I was coming to a progressive Southern state…

“That’s the state that we have lost, and it breaks my heart, and I want to do what I can to take it back.”

Those are important points for the movement—because success is often about perception as much as policy. Notice the point Lavelle and Barrett and Greene all make, that the General Assembly today is outside the mainstream of North Carolina politics. That’s key. The sociologist Paul Burstein argues that social movements can succeed either by changing public opinion itself or by changing how elected officials perceive public opinion. “Moral Monday” seeks to do both: on the one hand, it’s trying to change hearts and minds—but on the other, it’s asserting that it doesn’t need to change hearts and minds, that “mainstream” North Carolinians already support the policies it’s calling for. (That’s why activists on both sides have fought so vigorously over whether “Moral Monday” is an “outsider” movement. Are the protestors mostly from out of state, coming here to tell us what we ought to think? Or are they native North Carolinians, stepping up to tell us what they already believe?)

Mark Dorosin captures the idea nicely: “I think the legislature is going to recognize that this is a movement of real North Carolinians, grassroots folks from around the state, (and) that they can’t be pigeonholed as outsiders or extremists,” he says. “And I think that policies will reflect that.”

Patience

Of course, Republicans in the General Assembly generally say they aren’t convinced the “Moral Monday” movement represents the mainstream. (Debunking the “outsider” argument didn’t have much of an effect.) So success, on a policy level, is still likely to be a long-term goal. That’s often the case with social movements, though—and those who turned out for last Saturday’s march say they’re both resigned to that reality and resolved to see it through.

“I spoke (at the rally) with several people who had protested the Vietnam War…and I think we all realized that while it took a long time, it did ultimately change American policy,” says County Commissioner Barry Jacobs. “The long view is probably the best view, considering that the legislature has written itself into office for much of the rest of the decade.”

Penny Rich agrees. “You have the General Assembly who are making a joke out of this,” she says. “They’re thinking that it’s not serious, they’re calling it left-wing propaganda. But when you have that many people show up on a Saturday morning…it’s not a joke anymore. Even though (they) might want to paint (it) as a failure, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think people are going to let up.”

“We just need to be patient,” adds Michelle Johnson.

But if those policy gains are going to be years in the making, we’re back to the original question: how do you measure a movement? Is “Moral Monday” succeeding where Occupy failed? (For that matter, can we even write off Occupy?) It’s hard. Academic research on social movements is limited, and even within that subfield there’s very little agreement on what constitutes “success.” The sociologist William Gamson argues that a movement succeeds if it wins “new advantages”—or in other words, if it achieves its stated policy goals. In the case of “Moral Monday” there are quite a few: repeal of the voter ID law; increased teacher salaries and funding for public education; extension of Medicare and unemployment benefits; expanded power for local governments to set their own policies; and the repeal of laws restricting women’s reproductive freedoms—for starters. Of course all of those are going to be difficult to achieve.

But it’s not impossible. Republicans in the General Assembly don’t seem to have wavered too much from their platform, but Mark Dorosin points out that they do seem to have pulled back on at least one issue.

“They’re going to raise teacher salaries,” he says, “(and) I don’t think that would have happened had it not been for the Moral Monday movement. So I think we’re already seeing the successes, even beyond just organizing and engaging folks.”

Morality

And maybe even that “new advantages” standard is too narrow. Sociologists Edwin Amenta and Michael Young say it’s not just about whether a movement achieves its stated goals—it’s about whether life gets better for the people it represents. (Their standard is called the “Collective Goods Criterion.”)

With that in mind, it’s worth noting one argument that kept coming back among all the people I spoke with. “Moral Monday” isn’t just about policy, they said—it’s about promoting a worldview, one of solidarity, togetherness, and mutual respect.

In other words: it’s about morality. Both on a societal and an individual level.

“I think the movement’s success will be judged by positive change and whether or not people feel more of their basic needs are being met,” says Alicia Stemper, “and (whether) we’re all taking care of each other.”

Annette Stone agrees: “There’s a shift back to something a little bit more moderate,” she says (that ‘turn back to the mainstream’ idea again), “that we as a people pick up our social hats and put them on and think about other people more, and be willing to share and help other people—as opposed to being the Me, Just Me, kind of society.”

And Carrboro Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnell says that shift is part of a larger trend. “I think America is shifting culturally,” she says, “and this is what the transition looks like…(and) we will see this as one of those seminal points of pushing back, so that the emergence of the new culture can come forth.”

And if that’s the case—if the movement has as much to do with how we learn to treat each other as it does about state-level policy—then the success of “Moral Monday,” if it comes, will come not just from what they do in Raleigh…but also from what we do in Chapel Hill.

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