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In N.C., the art of protest movements is still alive and well

Jonathan P Hicks | 6/20/2013, 12:48 p.m.
It's time to make youth unemployment the focus of our national attention

There are a host of commemorations this year, which is the 50th anniversary of some of the seminal moments of the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, 1963 was filled with pivotal events that defined an era of grassroots activism. None was more central or more powerful than the March on Washington. It was the event during which people flocked to Washington by the hundreds of thousands to protest discriminatory policies and demand new, equitable ones in their place.

For those who think that the spirit of activism and protest has gone by the wayside, they need only look to the events in the last two months in North Carolina. In that state, thousands of demonstrators have been converging on the state capital every week to make clear their outrage over the policies being pursued by an extremist, Republican-controlled Legislature and their governor, Pat McCrory.

The Republican governor, who was elected last year, seems intent on turning the clock back to another era, following a playbook of an outdated era, namely the belief that the wealth of certain citizens will somehow trickle down to bring prosperity for those less fortunate.

Last year, Republicans gained control of the two houses of the Legislature as well as the governorship. And it seems that the governor and the General Assembly are doing everything in their power to enact regressive, restrictive policies at breakneck speed.

In response, the protesters are voicing their anger at a host of policies being pursued by McCrory and his fellow Republicans. They are denouncing the cut in the payroll tax credit for more than 900,000 poor and working people in North Carolina as well as a rejection of federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage for more than 500,000 residents who don't have health insurance. They have rallied against cuts to unemployment benefits and denounced the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. And they have expressed their outrage at plans to make voting more difficult for urban and poor North Carolinians.

These protests, which are now widely known as "Moral Monday" demonstrations, take place every week, with ever-growing participation by regular citizens of North Carolina. The protests are led by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP (who said the historic civil rights organization can't play a relevant role in today's world?). At the same time, the demonstrations have become a most vivid example of the power of the kind of grassroots demonstrations that defined a movement a generation ago.

On this past Monday, 84 people were arrested for participating in the demonstration at the state capital, placing the total number of arrests at nearly 500 people since the protests began. Meanwhile, more than 4,000 demonstrators came to participate this past Monday alone, a stunning number. They are young and old, Black and white, union members, clergy, students and unemployed. It is a spectacular movement.

For some time, the governor and his allies in the Legislature tried to ignore the protests. But that becomes increasingly difficult as more and more arrests were made and an increasing number of demonstrators started showing up to Moral Monday events.

And so, McCrory was forced into responding to growing media questions. In language often used in the civil rights era by such figures as George Wallace, McCrory said the demonstrations represented the handiwork of "outsiders." Meanwhile, his fellow Republican, Sen. Thom Goolsby, made his views of the protests clear, calling them "Moron Mondays."

The Rev. William Barber II, the head of the NAACP in North Carolina, told me that the response by the governor and others like Goolsby have worked to intensify the feelings of the protesters and galvanize them--and others--to participate. Far from being made up of outsiders, as the governor suggested, the protests are made up almost entirely by North Carolinians. "His insult has actually inspired the movement," Barber said.

Where these protests will ultimately lead is anyone's guess. But, in the meantime, they represent a remarkable development that defies any notion that citizens have become apathetic about addressing policies with which they disagree and that powerful protest actions are a thing of the past. In this era of continued assault on voting rights by Republican-controlled state legislatures, the Moral Monday movement is something to be encouraged, deeply appreciated and emulated.