Raleigh, N.C. — Protesters returned to the General Assembly Monday evening, but in accordance with new rules regarding decorum in the Legislative Building, they avoided causing a disturbance.
Hundreds of people in the "Moral Monday" movement put tape across their mouths so they couldn't be accused of being loud enough to disrupt conversations, which is one of the standards set last week by a legislative committee for asking people to leave the Legislative Building and arresting them if they don't comply.
Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president and a leader of the Moral Monday protests, said demonstrators wanted to draw attention to what he called the outrageous nature of the new Legislative Building rules. But he called on supporters not to perform any act of civil disobedience Monday.
“Not because we are complicit with their rule, but because we are defying their rule," Barber said. "We want to show the whole world how crazy it is to try to shut down democracy.”
Protesters, who brought loaves of bread to share in a so-called "love feast," quietly marched into the building two-by-two, circled up to the second floor and then headed back down and out. The circuit took more than an hour for everyone to complete.
“It reminds of what they’re trying to do – they’re trying to shut the people up,” protester Perry Parks said when asked what it felt like to walk in with tape on his mouth.
"I thought it was a really effective statement,” protester Nancy Brown said.
Last year, hundreds of people were arrested during the weekly protests at the General Assembly over a Republican agenda that included cutting unemployment benefits, changing election laws and refusing to expand the Medicaid program.
After some of those arrested were acquitted, the Legislative Services Commission, which hadn't met in more than a decade, on Thursday revised the rules for public access to the Legislative Building.
Some of the changes address old rules that judges have ruled unconstitutional, such as a prohibition on hand-held signs in the building. But the new rules go further, prohibiting any group from making enough noise to interfere with conversation at normal conversational levels. Singing, clapping, shouting and using a bullhorn – all common during Moral Monday protests last summer – are now deemed disturbances.
The new rules also allow police or staff to order people to leave the building if they think those people pose an "imminent threat" of a disturbance, even if they haven't done anything. 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.
"They’re trying to get rid of us, but we’re not going anywhere,” protester Bessie Yarborough said.
Manzoor Cheema, a native of Pakistan who was participating in his fifth or sixth protest at the legislature, said the new rules shouldn't be allowed in a democratic society.
"We come here because of democracy, because of democratic values, because we believe in this vision – it’s a rule by the people, for the people, of the people," Cheema said.
Meanwhile, a new group wants to rebut the Moral Monday protests.
Carolina Rising wants to promote the work of the Republican majority in the General Assembly, and director Dallas Woodhouse said the protesters should be praising state lawmakers. The state's falling unemployment rate is proof that GOP initiatives are working, he said.
"It is good policy that is creating good results with continued tax relief and reform, regulatory reform and unemployment insurance reform, signed into law by Gov. (Pat) McCrory and put into place by this legislature," Woodhouse said.