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This past summer, "Moral Mondays" in North Carolina emerged as the locus of one of the country's most insistent state-level movements against extremist efforts to slash the social safety net and roll back civil rights. But what has become of the protests in the past two months? And what's next for the movement that catapulted Moral Mondays into national prominence?
It took several months last spring and early summer for the Moral Monday protests to reach a crescendo. While early statehouse rallies in North Carolina started by attracting about 50 protesters, by July thousands of people from around the state were swarming the state capitol. After three consecutive months of action, there had been around 920 arrests for civil disobedience at the weekly rallies.
Since the state's legislative session closed July 26 and lawmakers left town, the fight has become more decentralized, with coalition activists showing up at district offices to protest. "The Legislature was going home," says North Carolina AFL-CIO President James Andrews. "We went home with them."
One example of the new, locally based protests appeared in Asheville, where police estimated that the crowd at the August 6 incarnation of the "Mountain Moral Mondays" rallies drew between 8,000 and 10,000 people. "We were fueled by people's sense of total outrage," says Max Socol, co-founder of Carolina Jews for Justice, a coalition member group that brings Jewish progressives together from around the state for political action.
The surge of activism was prompted by the type of state-level Republican overreach that has become familiar in many parts of the country. In February, North Carolina's Republican-controlled Legislature, along with Gov. Pat McCrory, passed into law restrictions to the state's unemployment program that resulted in 70,000 people immediately losing their benefits; an additional 100,000 were cut from the rolls shortly after. In April, they passed a measure prohibiting the state from accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid and from establishing the health care exchanges mandated by the Affordable Care Act. They also cut $332 million from the state's public school system, severely restricted abortion rights, and passed a law eliminating early voting and requiring all voters to show a state- or government-issued ID to vote.
In a response reminiscent of the Wisconsin uprising of 2011, a coalition of grass-roots community, faith and labor groups organized a weekly protest outside the state capitol building in Raleigh that grew in participation and militancy. The coalition includes just about every advocacy and community group imaginable, including the North Carolina NAACP, Carolina Jews for Justice, Teamsters Local 391, Black Workers for Justice, UE Local 150, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Southern Piedmont Central Labor Council, and a variety of Christian church leaders.
Moral Mondays "have really caught fire with progressive groups," says Socol, who characterizes Republican budget cuts and voter suppression measures as "furious overreach on the part of the Legislature." His view is reflected in recent polling among North Carolina voters: 54 percent of respondents in an August 12 Public Policy Polling survey said they disapprove of what the state Legislature is doing, with just 24 percent approving and 21 percent unsure. In another poll from September 25, 49 percent of those asked said they have a favorable opinion of the Moral Mondays protesters, with just 35 percent saying they have an unfavorable opinion of the protestors and 17 percent undecided.
Sounding the refrain that "This is a movement, not a moment," Andrews and other grass-roots organizers insist that the real story isn't the archconservative assault. They say the real story is of an ongoing grass-roots mobilization that has raised the consciousness of thousands of North Carolinians and that has grabbed the national spotlight after a years-long swelling. Well before the current Legislature took charge, the organizers anticipated a conservative attack. "It was, 'Build the defense wall,' " Andrews says. " 'Get your ammunition, get your folks together because there is a storm coming' - and we knew it was coming."
The Genesis of a Republican Assault
I asked Andrews about how the battle lines in this state that helped birth the civil rights movement of the 1960s were drawn. He described a moment, just after the 2010 election, when Republicans, funded primarily by conservative multimillionaire Art Pope, captured majorities in both chambers of the state's General Assembly for the first time in more than 140 years. They promptly went on the offensive.
"After the 2010 election, the Republicans got a hold of the pen, and they drew the boundaries and took full control of the Legislature," he said. "This group of Republican, right-wing, Tea Party leaders decided that they were going to put forth all of the ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) legislation, any right-wing group's agenda."
Socol agrees. "The serious overreach that they committed just demonstrates that they're amateurs at being in the majority," he said. "They don't seem to know how to control themselves in that situation."
Andrews explained that unemployment and voter suppression were the first two issues that spurred the coalition to act. "As a result of the changes, North Carolina is not eligible for extended [unemployment] benefits," Andrews explained. "Therefore 170,000 workers in North Carolina not only won't be able to get state dollars - but they won't get federal dollars, under the extended benefit program at the national level. That's just mean-spirited and cruel."
Combating budget cuts and voter suppression fit within a wider agenda being pursued by Moral Mondays organizers. The coalition that created Moral Mondays, called Historic Thousands on Jones Street (and known as "HK on J") saw the need for a progressive political agenda that could help to shore up the gains in civil rights that the state has made since the 1960s. With the Rev. William Barber, a progressive minister and state NAACP president, at its helm, HK on J developed a 14-point agenda, a deeply researched set of policy proposals that includes fully funding the state's mandate to provide a sound basic education for all children; stopping the school-to-prison pipeline for at-risk students; raising the state minimum wage and indexing it to inflation; accepting and implementing the ACA immediately and expanding Medicaid and other health care programs aimed at low-income patients; legalizing collective bargaining for state employees and better regulating workplace safety; and protecting the rights of immigrants.
The genius of the platform was that it has allowed the organizers to draw together the interests of a wide variety of communities - including African-Americans, Latinos, women, poor people, children, seniors and incarcerated people. Andrews argues that a diverse representation was the best way to make a swift, strong impact. "Legislators get blown away," he says, "when they see the labor movement walking in with the NAACP, with NOW, with the environmental group, with the church-based groups. We said, we are going to bring folks together, and we are going to lay out not just what's wrong but how to fix it to this legislature."
Toward Civil Disobedience
I asked Andrews to elaborate on his own decision to be arrested for civil disobedience. He described the mentality of himself and others - a different group stepped forward each week - who risked arrest at the state capitol. "There are some of us who walk into the Legislature and say, 'We think it is immoral, it is cruel for you to do what you are doing, and I've got a right to stand here and tell you that," he explained. "This Legislature is my house. And if you want to arrest me, arrest me.' " He added, "I've got grandkids in the public school system. To see what [lawmakers] are doing to the teachers and to public schools here - by channeling money to private schools and vouchers - it just tears at the core of who I am."
Asked about what impact the Moral Mondays protests are having, Andrews noted that, within the movement, the arrests have built a cadre of committed activists. "Among the more than 900 folks that have been arrested through Moral Mondays, there is a family now," Andrews said. "We are planning and making connections with each other, and we are committed. The first project that we are working on now is trying to push out some voter registration with these 900-plus folks."
Socol, who also was arrested during Moral Mondays rallies, believes the protests could help produce political gains in the coming year. "North Carolina historically has been a progressive Southern state," he said. Noting district-by-district polling in the wake of the Moral Mondays upsurge, Socol said, "We have very good chances to flip every four state senators in 2014, and that would be a huge win for us. That would move us a lot closer to rolling back some of the damage from this past session."
"Our biggest challenge is to keep people's attention, keep them focused," Socol said. "To remind them that unless we make a big splash in 2014, this could always happen again."