The Morality of the Left

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Feb. 10 2014 5:19 PM

The Left Fights Back

This weekend’s massive protest in North Carolina shows that the GOP doesn’t own morality.

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The Feb. 8, 2014, Moral Mondays protest in Raleigh, N.C.

Courtesy of United Workers/Flickr Creative Commons

I spent most of this past weekend answering two questions: “Why are you so interested in what happens in North Carolina?” (Posed mainly by people not from North Carolina.) And: “Why doesn’t anyone care what’s happening here in North Carolina?” (Posed largely by folks rallying in North Carolina.)

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

The answer to the first question was laid out forcefully by Prof. Jedediah Purdy in the Huffington Post. As state governments limit reproductive rights, gerrymander voting districts, harm workers and the environment, and suppress the vote, we are all North Carolina now. The answer to the second question is that I don’t really know why the major national media, with a few notable exceptions, keeps ignoring this story.

So my son and I joined friends from Virginia and Georgia on a road trip to Raleigh, N.C., on Saturday, where tens of thousands of protesters gathered, largely undetected by cable news, to protest the raft of vicious new laws passed by the North Carolina state legislature in the past two years. Organizers hoped that 20,000 protesters would assemble. The NAACP estimates that between 80,000–100,000 protesters turned out. Either way, it should have been news.  

If you haven’t heard of “Moral Mondays” or North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber II or the amazing HKonJ coalition, which stands for Historic Thousands on Jones Street, well, check it out: For the past eight years, a diverse group of North Carolinians under the HKonJ umbrella have been protesting state government policies at monthly rallies. Then last spring Moral Mondays became a thing. When the GOP won both the state House and Senate and then elected Republican Pat McCrory as governor in 2012, the party gained complete control of state government for the first time in more than 100 years. GOP-controlled redistricting and a truly nasty voter suppression bill attempt to ensure that this remains the permanent state of affairs in North Carolina. The legislature promptly raised taxes on the bottom 80 percent, eliminated the earned-income tax credit for 900,000 people, slashed education spending, passed radical gun legislation, declined the Medicaid expansion (leaving 500,000 of its poorest citizens without health insurance), and passed a draconian abortion bill that was tacked onto a motorcycle safety law. The state, in short, turned on its own workers, its own minorities, its own teachers, its own doctors, its poor, its women, and its prisoners, with what has looked like unbridled glee. As Deborah Gerhardt explained recently in Slate, the effect of the school cuts on the state’s teachers has been nothing short of devastating.

The steadily expanding Moral Mondays protests—held since April at the state legislature—led to the arrests of almost 1,000 peaceful citizens protesting at the rotunda. And Saturday’s demonstration was, according to Ari Berman, “the largest civil rights rally in the South since tens of thousands of voting rights activists marched from Selma to Montgomery in support of the Voting Rights Act.” As the Moral Mondays movement has grown, it has spread to other states, with protesters in Tennessee and Georgia recently arrested at their own Moral Mondays demonstrations in response to state government outrages. South Carolina has now created “Truthful Tuesday.” I think it’s probably high time Virginia progressives adopted something along the lines of a “Thoughtful Thursday.”

Based on Saturday’s turnout in Raleigh, this is not a movement that is going to fade away. And based on the growth of out-of-state participation, it’s no longer clear that what happens in North Carolina only matters to North Carolinians. One of the great ironies of the Moral Mondays movement is that although Republican politicians like to deride the protesters as out-of-state meddlers, they are passing mass-produced American Legislative Exchange Council–sponsored laws that are crafted at the national level by huge interest groups promoting national big-business interests. Hardly a grassroots effort. It turns out that social justice, like corporate greed, knows no geographic boundaries.

So what was Saturday’s protest like? Lovely. Busloads of marchers from across the country joined tens of thousands of state protesters on a chilly gray morning. They started at Shaw University, where 54 years ago the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded and radically altered both politics and protest in the South. They ended up in the plaza and surrounding streets across from the state Capitol. No arrests were planned at this protest, and none occurred. Parents marched with their babies, LGBT activists stood next to doctors in lab coats, and immigration reformers and students of all ages chanted and sang. The reproductive rights activists wore pink. Organized labor supporters wore red. Teachers, veterans, and nurses stood shoulder to shoulder with rabbis, imams, Unitarians, and Baptist preachers. Sound corny to you? As someone who fully supported the goals of the Occupy movement of 2011 but never felt perfectly comfortable with the fact or rhetoric of an occupation, this form of protest—nonviolent, respectful, even expressly faith-based and across multiple coalitions—felt right. As Barber put it: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

One of the first speakers of the morning opened with a booming, Southern, “Shabbat Shalom, y’all.” An imam spoke eloquently of civil rights. An astute 11-year-old friend observed that when so many religious leaders can agree so much about moral truths, “The speeches can be much shorter.” And when Barber spoke, he toggled almost imperceptibly between quoting the Constitution and the Bible. “Kicking hardworking people when they are down is not just bad policy. It is against the common good,” he preached, pleading, “Lord, Lord, plant our minds on higher ground.”

Progressives are not used to so much religion in their politics. I met someone who planned to avoid Saturday’s protest because of the God talk, and it’s clear that for many liberals, it’s easier to speak openly about one’s relationship with a sexual partner than a relationship with God or spirituality. But there are a lot of liberals who live on the seam between faith and politics. And one of the core messages of Moral Mondays is that ceding all talk of faith and morality to the political right in this country has been disastrous for the left. Or as Barber put it when he spoke, those who dismiss these protesters as “violent, and losers, and leftists, and socialists” fail to understand that the great prophets of the Bible and the founders of American constitutional democracy were “violent, and losers, and leftists, and socialists,” too.

As discomfiting as it may be to hear the Bible quoted alongside the Federalist Papers, the truth remains that for most people of most faiths, kicking the poorest and most vulnerable citizens when they are down is sinful. Stealing food and medical care from the weakest Americans is ethically corrupt. And the decadeslong political wisdom that only Republicans get to define sin and morality is not just tactically wrong for Democrats. It’s also just wrong. This is a lesson progressives are slowly learning from nuns and the new pope. When we talk of cutting food stamps or gutting education for our poorest citizens, we shouldn’t just call it greed. We should call it what it is: a sin.

The other exciting component of Moral Mondays is that its leadership has worked to forge “fusion” politics that strive to undo the atomized nature of liberal activism, where climate change issues have no bearing on reproductive rights and reinstating voting rights must come at the expense of immigration reform. Barber and the Moral Mondays protests have broken down single-issue-based divisions on the left by focusing each Monday protest on one issue while enabling protesters to understand that they are all ultimately connected. Instead of fighting dozens of separate battles, Moral Mondays have made those battles everyone’s battles. As a result, at Saturday’s protest, teachers spoke of budget cuts and of women’s health; doctors spoke of insuring the poor and of the right to vote. People who arrived angry about LGBT rights in the state left angry about organized labor. Working across constituencies means that injustice for any one group becomes injustice for all.  

So what does this all accomplish? The Moral Mondays’ short-term demands are to reinstate the lost health care, LGBT rights, voting rights, reproductive rights, and rights of prisoners. But the real effort is to get out the vote, to organize and mobilize state voters to demand change. “We are the voters, and there will be elections in 2014, and there will be elections in 2016,” explained a Raleigh physician who was arrested protesting last year.” Don’t forget, if the 2012 elections showed us anything, it’s that attempts at vote suppression usually end badly for the GOP.

On Saturday, the protest was long, the weather was chilly, and when Barber started to really preach at the end of his speech, my 8-year-old kid found it all too loud and too much. So we took him to a nearby science museum, where he handled stuffed squirrels for a few hours until he was cheerful again. As we were leaving the museum, he mused that it was a good day for combining history with science. I asked him what part of the day had involved history. “The protest was history,” he said, deploying the silent “duhhh” of a slightly older child. I thought about this for a minute and then told him it may indeed have been history—and that it will be his generation, not ours, that makes it so.