Raleigh, N.C. — When the Rev. William Barber II issued a call last week for the latest in a series of protests at the General Assembly, the rallying cry was clear: this time, the NAACP president said, protesters would be "united for women" against a range of issues advanced by Republican state lawmakers.
Thousands of people, including Lindsay Comstock, listened. A Raleigh minister, Comstock returned to Halifax Mall this week – her seventh time participating in what protest leaders call "Moral Monday."
"I realized that not only do these [proposals] not make sense in the long term for North Carolina, but these things are really sitting on the back of the most vulnerable people in North Carolina," Comstock said. "As a minister, I feel like it's my responsibility to speak on that injustice and say, 'We have to do better by one another.'"
It's a recurring theme at the gatherings, which have grown dramatically since the first rally on April 29, when a handful of people congregated across the street from the Legislative Building to pray and sing in protest against legislative actions they said are hurting the poor and erecting barriers to voting in the state. Only 17 people, including Barber, were arrested that day.
Since that time, protesters have flocked to the field on Lane Street in growing numbers to protest a widening variety of legislative proposals, and the number arrested has ballooned to more than 925 overall.
Diversity of issues brings together unlikely allies
Returning protesters say they've noticed the growth of the crowd and the breadth of issues that motivate them, from Medicaid expansion to abortion rights. Adam Linker, who has driven from Greenville four times for the rallies, says they're becoming impossible for lawmakers to ignore.
"I heard people who are more liberal during the Tea Party protests dismiss Tea Party protesters as outsiders, as being paid by corporations, as being self-interested. But the truth is, with the Tea Party protests, people felt like they didn't have a voice anymore and that they were locked out of the decision making," Linker, a policy analyst at the N.C. Justice Center, said. "Anybody who ignored them ignored them at their own peril. I think we see the same thing happening now."
At the rally Monday, protesters carried signs and sported stickers advocating for issues like Medicaid coverage, unemployment benefits and women's health.
Adrienne Hollifield, a teacher from Owen High School in Black Mountain, just outside Asheville, rode a bus with colleagues and others from the Buncombe County Democratic Party to rally against changes to education policy. But along with stickers opposing school voucher programs were others advocating for abortion rights and gay marriage. No single issue, she said, prompted her to join the protest.
"It's the accumulation of injustice," Hollifield said.
Monday marked Lauren Hauser's third or fourth time attending a Moral Monday protest. Although she hasn’t been arrested, the Raleigh resident said she supports those who have been and holds them “in very high esteem."
Despite the protesters' “many areas of frustration,” she said, they agree on one thing: “We recognize injustice when we see it.”
Standing among the protesters, Kellie Burris held a double-sided sign high above her head. On one side, “Pro-birth ≠ pro-life.” On the other side, “Pro-fetus ≠ pro-life.” Monday was the fourth or fifth Moral Monday protest the 28-year-old Raleigh woman has attended.
“I was upset at the abortion laws and the treatment of women,” she said, handing out a flier for her work with the Women’s Initiative, a program of the LGBT Center of Raleigh. “They keep calling us a minority or fringe, but we’re not."
The Rev. Peter Wherry, pastor of Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte, says there's a good reason why groups with typically opposing viewpoints – religious leaders and abortion rights advocates, for example – are sharing the field. In his view, "hard-hearted legislative strategy" is becoming a galvanizing force in the state.
"Unlike our General Assembly, we have the emotional intelligence to build coalitions across ideological lines. Now, nothing happens unless everything happens in lockstep," Wherry said. "I do not agree with abortion. I do not like abortion. But I am intelligent enough to realize that most women who want one don't like it either."
Few outsiders present among arrests
caused problems for law enforcement agencies struggling to cope with the arrests and has garnered criticism from Republican leaders, who say protesters' views are out of step with the voters who put them into office.The volume of arrests has
Data gathered by WRAL News on the arrested protesters paints a picture of a changing demographic among the rally crowd. Although the publicly available arrest records don’t show the entire pool of protesters, the sample does provide a verifiable glimpse into their makeup. (Search the entire database of arrested protesters)
The vast majority of them – 97 percent – live in North Carolina, despite claims from Republican leaders who have several times derided protesters as outsiders.
"Outsiders are coming in, and they're going to try to do to us what they did to Scott Walker in Wisconsin," McCrory told The Associated Press in June, referring to that state's governor.
The data shows protesters hail from 60 of the state's 100 counties. Ten out of the total 925 arrests are from New York, with one or two each from states like Georgia, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Over the last few months, the once male-dominated crowd of arrested protesters is now predominantly women, and fewer and fewer minorities have been among those taken into custody. Although the average age has remained more or less unchanged week to week, at about 57 it remains higher than North Carolina's overall average age of 37.
And although the arrested protesters are mostly registered Democrats by a wide margin, about 18 percent are independent voters and a handful are Republicans.
Many voters 'thankful'
Not everybody is unhappy with the work of lawmakers during the session. A day after Monday's rally, about 200 people met on Halifax Mall for “Thankful Tuesday” to show support for state Republicans.
Thomas Freeman said he traveled from Durham to attend Tuesday’s rally because of his “disgust with over taxation.”
“I see our taxes and entitlements sucking our productivity,” he said. “It’s not Candy Land. We can’t provide everything that citizens want to provide. The well has a bottom.”
Freeman, who recently retired after 33 years as a civilian in the Army, said he has been following the “Moral Monday” protests and “is very disappointed” in the group.
“I don’t agree with civil disobedience. I don’t think that’s an effective way to make a point,” he said. “It’s a new day in North Carolina, and the voters have spoken for a more conservative approach to government and greater responsibility in spending.”
Also among Tuesday’s crowd were Julie from Raleigh, who declined to give her last name, and Tonya Power from Hillsborough. Standing side by side, the women hoisted signs above their heads as they listened to the rally’s speakers. Power said it upsets her to see the Democratic and Republican sides so split. “It doesn’t do any good to fight about it,” she said.
“I would like to see more dialogue between the two sides,” Julie added. “It’s a shame that we have to resort to arrests.”
As lawmakers prepare to adjourn and head back to their hometowns, Moral Monday leaders are already making plans to move the protests across the state. Protesters like Comstock say they're confident the momentum will carry through to the next election season.
"This isn't going to be forgotten in just three or four months' time," Comstock said. "People are going to take this to the polls with them."
Editor's note: The statistics in this story have been updated to reflect the protest on July 22.