Despite new rules, Moral Monday protests return to legislative building
Posted May 18
Updated May 19
Raleigh, N.C. — New rules enacted last week aim to limit protests inside the legislative building, but Moral Monday supporters vow to continue the weekly peaceful demonstrations that resulted in nearly 1,000 arrests last year and spawned similar gatherings across the state.
The first Moral Monday protest of the legislative session will be this week, aimed at voicing dissatisfaction with policies and procedures supported by the Republican-led General Assembly. Demonstrators, often numbering in the hundreds and sometimes the thousands, gathered last year on the grassy mall behind the legislative building and on the building’s second floor, where the entrances to the House and Senate chambers are located. The protests mostly centered on voting rights, Medicaid and public education.
Under the new rules, which were last updated in 1987, any group making enough noise to interfere with conversation at normal speaking levels is creating a "disturbance." Singing, clapping, shouting and using a bullhorn were offered as examples of disturbing behavior – all common during last year’s protests.
The new rules also allow police or staff to order people out of the building if they think protesters pose an "imminent threat" of a disturbance, even if nothing has been done. If the visitors don't leave, they can be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. The term "imminent threat" isn't defined in the rules.
“Constitutional lawyers are skeptical that the rules will pass constitutional muster, since Article I, Sec. 14 of the N.C. Constitution guarantees the rights of the people to ‘instruct their representatives in the General Assembly’ about how the people feel about the policies being discussed there,” said Al McSurely, a civil rights lawyer working with the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, which has led the Moral Monday movement.
Similar practices were in effect during last year’s protests, where hundreds were arrested by State Capitol and Raleigh police. Over 700 of those cases have yet to be tried, according to the NAACP. Some protesters were convicted of minor charges while others had their cases dismissed for a variety of reasons.
The Legislative Services Commission, which sets the rules, approved the new changes Thursday in a 7-3 vote. A Republican voted against the changes along with the committee’s two Democrats.
Democrats say the rule changes are a blatant attempt to keep Moral Monday protesters out of the legislative building. Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, described the changes as “common sense updates” and hopes this year’s protests are calm.
“I hope that it's respectful that they are in the people's house,” said Dollar, a commission member. “Certainly all groups are welcome to come to the General Assembly. We as public servants want to be sure that we are listening to all the voices in the state.”
Earl Johnson, a Raleigh pastor and Moral Monday protester, expects a large turnout Monday and thinks some will not recognize the new rules.
"People are going there to break them," he said. "We are here to show you (that) you cannot make up rules to silence the voice of the people of North Carolina."
The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, thinks the rules are “an attempt to bully and to intimidate the people of North Carolina.” The civil rights group described the new rules as “vague,” “overbroad” and “incapable of a consistent application.”
Moral Monday protesters plan to walk two-by-two through the legislative building Monday to engage in what Barber described as “constitutional exercises.”
"On Monday, we will dramatize just how dangerous to debate in our democracy this action by (Speaker of the House Thom) Tillis and their allies could be if it is not challenged by a movement," he said.