North Carolina's Moral Mondays Protest Austerity Agenda
First by the dozens, then by the hundreds, now by the thousands, North Carolinians are protesting in the state capital every Monday – raising their voices against a conservative assault on economic and social equity, voting rights, and essential supports for poor and working families. Hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested for acts of civil disobedience since April.
The "Moral Monday" protests were triggered by sweeping new laws and proposals that will have devastating economic consequences for the most vulnerable people and threaten the state's growth and prosperity. More than 70,000 people lost unemployment benefits after the government imposed a 19-week limit, shorter than in any other state, and abandoned participation in a federal program that helps jobless residents when state benefits run out. About 100,000 more people will not get checks they would have received in the months ahead – this in a state with the nation's fifth highest unemployment rate, 8.8 percent, and a black unemployment rate of 17.3 percent.
That's just one example. Legislators have also passed severely regressive tax reform, including a flat income tax, a lower corporate tax rate, a sales tax increase, and elimination of the earned income tax credit, which benefits 900,000 low-wage workers. Together, these changes would increase the tax burden on all but the richest people and corporations while reducing the revenues available for critical services by $2.4 billion over five years.
Galvanizing a broad alliance
The protest movement, which is gaining national attention, did not spring up overnight. It is the result of years of organizing and coalition building across issues, race, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, and generations, "to galvanize everyday people in North Carolina to move toward an agenda of equity,"said longtime activist Joyce Johnson.
In 2006, the Reverend Doctor William Barber II, head of the state NAACP, brought together a diverse group of activists, academics, and community leaders to build a broad-based network for change. The effort soon gave rise to The Historic Thousands on Jones Street People's Assembly Coalition, an alliance of hundreds of organizations working on issues across the progressive spectrum – labor, immigration, anti-fracking, abortion, school funding, gay rights, prison reform, the war in Iraq, and more.
The genius of the strategy was in crafting a "fusion"platform. It united disparate, often single-focused groups, around a broad 14-point agenda of civil rights, justice, education and economic opportunity, and dignity.
"We're a coalition that connects many streams, so these streams become a river," said the Reverend Nelson Johnson, who, with his wife, Joyce, leads the Beloved Community Center, a community empowerment organization in Greensboro. "Rivers tend to make their own pathways, and I think this has the capacity to reshape the landscape of North Carolina."
The coalition spearheaded local organizing campaigns, translated its agenda into several bills introduced in the state legislature, and held rallies every February in Raleigh, the state capital. This year's event drew 18,000 people.
A movement seizes a moment
The coalition adopted the slogan "a movement, not a moment." But a pivotal moment came this year. Largely because redistricting diminished the impact of voters of color, Republicans took supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature and captured the governor's office.
The leadership immediately set in motion plans to roll back years of racial progress and democratic inclusion. The legislature recently passed a strict voter ID law and restricted same-day registration and early voting – practices that increased voting by African Americans and helped President Obama win the state in 2008. Civil rights groups have now filed lawsuits challenging the law in federal court. Governor Pat McCrory signed a repeal of the Racial Justice Act, which had allowed prisoners on death row to use statistical evidence to argue that race played a significant part in their trial or sentence. African Americans make up about 20 percent of the state's population but 53 percent of people facing the death penalty.
About 60 people joined the first Moral Monday protest on April 29 this past spring, and 17 were arrested – among them the Reverend Johnson. The demonstrations have grown each week along with arrests. The idea is to sustain the momentum by growing an informed, committed, intergenerational corps of leaders who can help North Carolina move toward greater equity and inclusion, and by anchoring the work in the places where people live.
"Big crowds are not unusual," the Reverend Johnson said. "What is unusual is sustaining it and translating it into policies that speak to the needs for which people are protesting. We need to think creatively and we need to think long term. If we change everything [the state government] put in place we will be back where we were 10 months ago. That's not sufficient."
North Carolina is not the only state under right-wing siege. Moral Mondays offer not only inspiration but also guidance for activists around the country as reflected in the words of the Reverend Johnson: "Take a stand, that's number one. Work in creative and compassionate ways to unite the broadest possible population. Build a movement that reflects the interests of the whole. Expose and educate in real time so that people can be part of it as it's happening."
Learn more about Moral Mondays and how you can get involved: www.naacpnc.org.