Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Movement Envy: Chicago Looks at North Carolina

Protesters rally during "Moral Monday" demonstrations at Halifax Mall near the General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., in July. More than 1,000 people have been arrested while protesting against policies being enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

By Susan Klonsky

I admit it. We have a great movement here in Chicago, but still, I'm jealous of Mondays in North Carolina.

Reviving the spirit and moral compass of the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s, protest has become the Monday Lifestyle in NC.  People  put their Monday evening rallies on the calendar. “Mon. 5:30 pm:  Sit in, get arrested @ State Capitol.” It’s becoming sort of normal.

For the past 4 months in Raleigh, every Monday  is Moral Monday. Late in the day, as people get off work, they surround the Statehouse with rings of protesters. Mass arrests are scheduled, followed on Thursdays by well-organized press conferences by those arrested.  Every Monday the protests get larger—now exceeding 15,000 in Raleigh, with big rallies throughout the state. The movement is multiracial and has spread well beyond North Carolina’s capital out to the mountainous west of the state, to small towns and tiny hamlets.

Reverend Dr. William Barber

The leader of this movement is a Disciples of Christ minister, the Reverend Dr. William Barber III.  I had the pleasure of meeting Rev. Barber earlier this week. He is the latest in a bloodline of activist pastors who have fought racial segregation and its ugly siblings, poverty and violence, for generations. Rev. Barber, a giant of an orator, is the state chairman of the North Carolina NAACP. With the NAACP as its nucleus,  the Moral Monday Movement is an expansive coalition embracing an impressive number of organizations in all fields, labor unions, religious congregations, professional societies, and even fraternities and sororities. And they are on a roll.

“We’ve got a strategy. We never expected this thing to take off as it has. But we had to sit down and say, ‘where are we going with this?’” Barber explains. “We started off with one rally, and now we’re at the point of having 13 mass rallies in all 13 Congressional districts across the state. We’ve even had one of the county Republican party chairs renounce his own party,” as the result of the backward legislation the GOP has rammed through the North Carolina Legislature.

The Moral Monday folks have put their heads together and done the math. They’ve cooked up a plan for retaking the Democratic majority in the North Carolina Legislature and the state’s Congressional delegation. To accomplish these objectives will require a massive voter registration effort designed to boost the percentages of African American registered voters as well as a one-percent shift of white voters away from Republican candidates.

More than 1,000 arrests for civil disobedience.

The plan involves mass participation in voter education and mobilization. Unions and professional societies will play a big part, by having their members trained to register voters (and to deal with the new and exceptionally stringent, obstructive regulations about voter identification). “If each of us does 50 registrations, we can make our goal of 45,000 new voters,” Barber explains. “That’s why we must start now. It’s totally attainable.”

I asked Rev. Barber if he feels they can keep these Monday events going indefinitely. He explained that they are building for a few major events this winter. In particular, in December when the remaining major cutbacks to Medicaid in the state kick in, and again in January, he expects an uptick in mass protest against the attacks upon public education, social and health services, including reproductive rights, and state aid to the poor and unemployed.

Last month, Barber told us, the movement spread to some of the whitest, most heavily Republican parts of the state, where the Tea Party had until recently held sway. Now that people are beginning to experience the impact of budget slashing including removal of protections for teachers and other public employees, the picture is changing. “We were invited to speak up in rural Mitchell County, way up in the mountains,” Barber said, “and we found ourselves at a church way up there, in the evening, with at least a thousand people—an all white crowd—waiting for us.”

It used to be  Klu Klux country up there, and Reverend Barber admits he was somewhat apprehensive about what kind of reception he might receive.  He was greeted by the assembled joining together to sing Blessed be the tie that binds/Our hearts in Christian love.  “They were  fired up for Moral Monday.”

What brought them out, at least in part, Barber observed, was the attacks upon teachers. “They have 17 or 18 percent unemployment up there. And the schools are some of the biggest employers in these counties, and now they are having to lay off school personnel because of the state budget cuts to education. Plus, there is no more tenure or job security at all for them. A man got up at that meeting and declared, ‘When they hurt education, they really hurt us mountain people.’”

Moral Monday has lots of religious participants. But it is not a religious movement. “For me, this is a fight to uphold our deepest Constitutional, Biblical and faith values,” says Barber. It is many things to many people. At public meetings throughout the state, people testify to their worries, anger and intention to be part of the fight in North Carolina.

The issues draw them together:

Voting rights, health care, education, jobs and poverty. The movement stands in defense of  LGBT rights including marriage equality. How does Moral Monday deal with religion and religious differences? “We are tired of the Christian Right which is so wrong trying to dominate the moral high ground,” Barber explains. “We challenge them:  Are you really ready for a moral debate? Are you ready to defend what you have done?  Of course they don’t want to debate. It most certainly is a moral issue. Cutting people off from health care, from their jobs, taking food off their tables. They have no integrity and they hide from debate.”

The budget slashing and violations of basic civil rights are shaped by the ALEC agenda--the same ALEC which we protested less than 2 weeks ago in Chicago. The same ALEC which designed Florida’s murderous “Stand Your Ground” law.  These people are extremists, Barber emphasizes. Their policies are dangerous. And people are beginning to see them for what they are.

At the core of the Moral Mondays movement is a strong principle of anti-racism. It is impressive to witness this principle beginning to penetrate a broad swath of the population, as people come together to win back the rights that have been violated and denied.

Yes, we have a great movement here in Chicago, but I’m still a little jealous.

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