Raleigh, N.C. — Over the four weeks of "Moral Monday" protests at the North Carolina state legislative building this spring, 153 people have been arrested. Five others were arrested during a May Day protest.
The arrests have all started much the same way, with crowds bustling into the atrium between two giant sets of brass doors marking the entrance to the state House and Senate chambers. They sing, they chant, they hear testimony from some of those gathered. During that time, General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver uses a bullhorn to warn the protesters that they are trespassing and in jeopardy of being arrested.
After about 20 minutes, bystanders are cleared away, and those determined to be arrested are obliged.
Weaver typically walks up to the first person to be arrested, sometimes with a gentle nudge, and says something, often having to lean in above the din.
"I want to make sure that they understand they are under arrest," Weaver said, recounting the procedure he has used and will likely employ again this coming Monday.
Organized by the NAACP, churches, union groups and liberal organizations, the "Moral Monday" protests are meant to push back against the policies of the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Those who have spoken during the near-weekly gatherings have cited topics including budget cuts to education, abortion access, immigrant rights, voting law changes and health care policy.
- April 29: 17 Arrested
- May 6: 30 Arrested
- May 13: 49 Arrested
- May 20: 57 Arrested
"As a woman, I am here to declare that this body is mine," said Ivanna Gonzalez, speaking out against proposed legislation further restricting access to abortion.
She was among those arrested at the legislative complex on May 20, and like the others, she has been charged with violating building rules, failure to disperse and trespassing.
Building rules, Weaver said, prohibit displaying signs and disrupting the work of the legislature. The state House and Senate typically hold floor sessions at 7 p.m. Monday night.
Protesters did not convene at the General Assembly on Memorial Day. Rather, they traveled the state last week gathering support for their movement and promising to return for their biggest rally yet on June 3.
'That's just the price of government'
The General Assembly Police is a force of about 18 sworn officers and three civilians tasked with maintaining order in the two-building legislative complex and occasionally protecting lawmakers when they travel throughout the state.
In order to manage the protests, Weaver said, he has called in all available officers, piling up about $11,000 in extra personnel costs and blowing through his overtime budget for the year.
"To this point, they've been cooperative," Weaver said of the protesters. "They're there for their cause. I understand they have a strong commitment. ... Our concern is the safety of everyone there – the staff and members (of the legislature), citizens as well as the protest participants themselves. We want them to be in as safe of an environment as can be."
But even though the legislative building is designed to be open to the public – no metal detectors guard the doors, and on most days, tourists and school groups freely wander the corridors – its meandering concrete and crushed marble spaces do not handle crowds of more than 100 easily.
"There's the potential for an incident of some sort when you have that large of a crowd," Weaver said. "You can never predict people's behavior."
Weaver has called in help from the Raleigh Police Department, whose officers have been involved in the arrests and transportation of the protesters.
Police department spokesman Jim Sughrue said that aid has added up to about $16,000.
"Generally, we do not provide staffing information concerning security-related assignments, and that's especially true in a case such as this, when the assistance is in support of another law enforcement agency," Sughrue said.
Officers staffing the protests, he said, have been both regular on-duty officers as well as those accruing comp time or overtime for their work.
Raleigh police help not only with arrests inside the building but help manage the crowds who remain outside. On May 20, hundreds of people showed up outside the building, only about 150 of whom came inside. Only those who refused to leave were arrested.
Once protesters are arrested, their hands are zip-tied, and they are taken to the lower levels of the legislative building by elevator. From there, they are loaded in a white bus and taken to the Wake County Detention Center.
On May 20, the center brought in 15 extra staffers, including sheriff's deputies, to help process the 57 people arrested, said Larry Wood, chief of staff for the Wake County Sheriff's Office.
As part of the processing, each person arrested will undergo a background check and photograph by the City-County Bureau of Identification and appear before a magistrates. Both of those departments have had to add extra staff in order to handle the influx of protesters as well, Wood said.
"Each of these arrestees is processed just like anyone else," said Wood, who was on hand two weeks ago and will likely be on hand again this coming Monday. "Based on the information we've gotten, we're anticipating a larger number arrested, so we will probably have additional staff."
In a typical day, the detention center processes 80 to 90 people who have been arrested, which means the Moral Monday protests increase a day's workload by more than 50 percent.
Wood didn't have an estimate of how much the extra staffing costs but said that there is no special fund to handle it.
"It's on the citizens of Wake County," he said.
Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, said he did not consider the costs to be significant. People, he said, have a right to protest and seek redress.
"That's just the price of government," he said.
'Who do you serve'
As speaker pro tem, the No. 2 position in the House, Stam is one of the Republican leaders protesters would most like to influence.
"I would say they've had zero impact," he said. "They're not talking to members. They're talking to themselves and to the media."
The biggest impact the protesters have had, Stam said, is that they were loud enough to be heard inside the state House chamber on May 20, but the session kept going.
"I've been in protests. There's nothing wrong with protests," he said. "But to have any effect, they can't just be scatter shot, 'How loud can we shout?'"
Although protesters have championed a variety of causes, those who have spoken before being arrested have been clear about their objections. For example, Leigh Bordley, of Durham, who was arrested May 20, spoke for more school funding and against bills that would create use taxpayer funding to send some children to private schools and separate the administration of public charter schools from other public schools.
"I sacrificed a couple of hours of sleep and a meal to have my voice heard," said Bordley. She is a member of her county board of education, although she stressed she did not appear at the protest in her official capacity.
So why did someone who has participated in elected politics take the path of civil disobedience?
"Residents of Durham have a sort of unique challenge when it comes to trying to communicate with this General Assembly," she said, noting that, while lawmakers Durham sent to Raleigh have what she sees as pro-education philosophies, they are not part of the Republican majority.
"I don't know if it changes their minds or not," Bordley said.
She pointed to the sacrifice made by some of those arrested with her who were in wheelchairs or needed oxygen tanks and waited hours to be processed through the Wake County jail.
"I would hope that maybe a representative or a person who lived in another part of the state would see this and it would give them pause," she said.
As Weaver began warning the protesters and those supporting them that they were in jeopardy of being arrested May 20, a chant of "Who do you serve?" rose up from the crowd.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, quickly called on the crowd to calm itself.
"The officers here are not the issue," he told the crowd. They had a job to do and should not be faulted for it, he said.
"You keep your focus on Berger, Tillis and McCrory," he said, referring to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Gov. Pat McCrory, all Republicans and all involved in crafting policies that Barber said will hurt poor people and minorities.
Barber said people should expect the "Moral Monday" movement to grow, fueled by frustration with legislative leaders who "don't listen."
He was one of 17 people arrested on April 29, the first of what were initially called "pray-ins." Barber called it "a shame" that people are being arrested for bringing their grievances to lawmakers.
"Think about it," he said. "The same people who want to talk about, legislate prayer in public school are the same as those having people arrested for praying in the General Assembly building."