Raleigh, N.C. — Demonstrators on Wednesday kicked off their third year of protests – and arrests – at the General Assembly.
"We're back," Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president, said at a news conference before he and a few dozen clergy members marched from Davie Street Presbyterian Church to the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh.
“We have come back – not as a fad, not as a farce – but we have come back because we have a moral responsibility to do justice, love mercy, work humbly before God and fight for the soul of this state,” Barber said.
Once at the legislature, about a dozen protesters were arrested by the General Assembly Police as they blocked the doors to the Senate chamber and loudly made their presence known through singing and chanting. The Senate paused its session for about 20 minutes during the disruption.
Late Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of protesters rallied on Bicentennial Mall, across the street from the Legislative Building, and more arrests followed as participants again marched into the building.
"I will continue to come back and resist, resist and resist," said T. Anthony Spearman, who also was among the first people arrested in a legislative protest two years ago.
On April 29, 2013, the first of the weekly protests that came to be known as the "Moral Monday" movement was held at the legislature, resulting in several arrests. Over the course of the summer, the demonstrations against the agenda of the Republican-led legislature grew in size, and more than 900 people faced trespassing and other charges by the end of the legislative session.
More protests were held last year, but they resulted in far fewer arrests after state judges started throwing out the charges because the rules for public access to the Legislative Building were too vague and because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding protester arrests in a Massachusetts case.
Legislative Building officials have since enacted new access rules, allowing the General Assembly Police to designate specific areas of the courtyard rotunda area for specific uses.
To mark the two-year anniversary of the protest movement, clergy members displayed signs that read "Expand Medicaid Now, "Support Public Education," "Stop Attacks on Women's Rights" and "Workers Deserve a Living Wage" as they marched to the Legislative Building.
The group wants lawmakers to pay more attention to voting rights, Medicaid, public education, job development and the criminal justice system than to issues such as expanding gun rights.
"They have put us on a path of social catastraphy and greed," Barber said of lawmakers. "Denying people worker's rights is violence. Undermining health care is violence. Undermining opportunities for public education is violence. We believe these policies are a form of political violence."
Organizers said the protests would shift to Wednesdays at the legislature in the coming weeks – May 13 and May 27 – and groups plan to target the districts of lawmakers in coming Mondays. They first plan to hit Lee and Chatham counties, followed by the Charlotte area.
On July 6, a planned demonstration in Winston-Salem would coincide with the start of a federal trial over changes to North Carolina's elections laws, they said.
The North Carolina Republican Party called the protests "political theater" and that demonstrators are pushing a "radical agenda."
"These are more political stunts organized to get media attention," GOP spokesman Ricky Diaz said. "That is the kind of agenda that would break the bank and stop the economic turnaround in North Carolina."