RALEIGH, N.C.—For a few hours every Monday, one of the black churches on the outskirts of town becomes a political beachhead. Today it’s Christian Faith Baptist Church on Hilltop Drive, conveniently about a mile from the Wake County Detention Center. I walk in shortly after 2 p.m., sign in as “media,” and pick up yesterday’s prayer program, which includes a Harper’s-style listicle of ominous numbers. The last of them:
21 million – estimated numbers of votes cast in North Carolina elections in the last twelve years
1 – number of cases of voter impersonation fraud that occurred in North Carolina in the last 12 years according to the State Board of Elections
It syncs up neatly with today’s rally. For the 12th time this year, state NAACP President Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II will lead a few hundred protesters to the North Carolina legislature, where 90 or so will refuse to leave and be hauled away by police. Every week, they focus on a new piece of legislation from the state’s Republican House and Senate—background checks for welfare recipients, opting out of Obamcare’s Medicaid money, an end to long-term unemployment benefits, an omnibus abortion restrictions bill attached (for reasons of efficiency and bad PR) to a motorcycle safety bill. Every week, the legislation passes anyway.
Yet the reporters keep showing up and talking to Barber. As a PBS camera crew sets up in the chapel, two volunteers wheel a yellow-and-black NAACP logo in front of the pulpit, to frame the shot. Barber, a former linebacker who steadies his considerable bulk on a wooden cane, makes small talk with his interviewers. They want to know how many people they’ll be filming.
“The thing about a moral movement is that you don’t measure numbers,” says Barber, opening the buttons of his long suit coat. “You say you’re gonna get 5,000. Everybody focuses on whether you got 5,000. In a moral movement, it takes one person whose constitutional rights are violated, or one person who’s offended in some way. Think about Dr. King. Birmingham—that was started by 50 people.”
Barber sits for one interview, then another, then talks to me, offering only slight variations on a theme. The goal today is to occupy the Statehouse until police start arresting protesters. It’s not to stop the new voter ID bill, which was dropped at the end of last week, because Moral Monday protesters aren’t taken seriously by the solid Republican majority in the legislature. State Sen. Thom Goolsby calls the movement “Moron Monday.” Gov. Pat McCrory has accused them of “cussing” him out. Sen. Tom Apodaca, who runs the rules committee, has announced the progress of these bills with all the confidence of someone who can’t possibly lose re-election.
“They haven’t moved,” Barber tells me, after I ask what the protesters are actually winning. “The people have moved. Now less than one in five North Carolinians agree with them. Moral Monday is more popular than them.”
This theory, that a boldly obnoxious “citizens movement” can bring down the elected class, gets a new text every year or so. In the summer of 2009, to the horror of Democrats, Tea Party activists swarmed congressional town halls and begged them not to pass the Affordable Care Act. The swarmers won. In the winter of 2011, progressives occupied the Wisconsin capitol until the newly dominant Republicans found a way to pass a “budget control” bill that broke most collective bargaining rights for labor unions. The Republicans won, crushing an attempted recall of Gov. Scott Walker and keeping control of the legislature thanks to their own favorable gerrymander. Then came the Occupy movement, then came the protests of Texas’ abortion bill, all of it resulting in a legislative defeat but plenty of media.
That’s what’s happening in North Carolina, with a twist. Barber is a veteran organizer who became the NAACP’s leader in the state in 2006 and jumped feet-first into the Duke Lacrosse rape scandal. His credibility survived, and by 2011 he was celebrating a Democratic rout of Wake County school board members who had ended a busing program. When the new Republican legislature started working through its backlog of conservative bills, Barber was ideally positioned to embarrass them in front of national TV cameras.
So he does. As we finish talking, volunteers for today’s rally and civil disobedience walk into the pews. “Marchers on the right,” says a volunteer. “Civil disobedience on the left.” Out in the lobby, another volunteer is ripping up green gingham cloth to create armbands for the people who’ll get arrested. “It’s what was on sale at Marshalls,” she explains. Outside, as activists stream into the church, seven members of an extended family wait to meet Barber—he wants to congratulate them for joining the cause last week.
“It was awesome getting arrested,” says Alisa Denbow. She worked at a gun shop—Sovereign Guns—got laid off, and joined the cause when the Republicans ended long-term unemployment benefits. “I’ve never been arrested, but I felt really good about standing up for what we believe.”
“Half of the officers said they agreed with us!” says her cousin Dennis Bailey.
“Well, the one I had wasn’t too nice,” says Denbow. “He about ripped my arms off. He tightened that cuff so frickin’ tight I couldn’t feel anything.”
Denbow and Bailey are white, as are most of the people training and rallying today. The activists have their theories about this. “Six years ago I’d march with Rev. Barber and you could pick me out of a crowd,” says Timothy Tyson, a Duke professor who’ll be cooking lamb stew for the protesters when they get out of the detention center. He teaches civil rights movement history, he had a book about his father’s activism adapted into a movie, and on a previous Moral Monday, he’d gotten himself arrested. “There might have been three white people at one of those protests. Now, I think the people getting arrested are the people who can afford to, a lot of older people.” Younger people or black people might worry more about acquiring Google-accessible mug shots.
A good crop of younger people make it to the civil disobedience session anyway. After they learn how to conduct themselves and which attorneys to talk to afterward, they join the generally gray-haired activists in rows behind Barber for a press conference-cum-sermon. Barber points to veterans of the 1960s marches for civil rights—one of them “was there with those who said we’re gonna march from Selma to Montgomery to create a crisis that was going to save the possibility of our voting rights.” And that’s why they’re going to get arrested today. The media won’t cover the predictable march of conservative legislation through a conservative legislature. They will cover an actual march that ends in a flurry of white plastic handcuffs.
So the marchers are off, and at 5 p.m. they join the public, jail-free part of Moral Monday. Halifax Square, a pleasantly anonymous green space in front of the Statehouse, is around half-filled with a few hundred protesters. They move closer to the center of the field as the July sun is obscured by clouds. Some hold up pictures of Trayvon Martin. Some hold up parasols decorated with slogans against the “War on Women,” mementos from the week before, when the legislature rammed the “motorcycle abortion bill” through. “That crowd went all the way back to the Statehouse,” says Leslie Boyd, a health care access activist who was arrested after the state opted out of Medicaid expansion money. “Seeing these middle-aged and older women smiling politely, walking out in handcuffs, that was just incredibly inspiring.”