@NCCapitol

14 arrested after sit-in at NC Legislative Building

Posted May 28, 2014 2:55 a.m. EDT
Updated May 28, 2014 10:18 a.m. EDT

— Fourteen protesters were arrested at the North Carolina Legislative Building early Wednesday after sitting in House Speaker Thom Tillis' office for nearly 11 hours.

Nearly 20 protesters, described as "workers from McDonalds, Wendy's and Bojangles and clergy members" and dubbed the "Tillis 15," were removed from Tillis' office at about 1:45 a.m. They were handcuffed with plastic zip-ties and led out of the building one by one by General Assembly police.

All 14 were charged with second-degree trespassing and violation of building rules, General Assembly Lieutenant Martin Brock said. They were released Wednesday morning and expected to make court appearances at 2 p.m. All are banned from the Legislative Building until their cases have been resolved.

Police asked the protesters to leave and warned them they would be arrested eight times, after the building closed Tuesday night at 9 p.m., 30 minutes after the last legislative meeting.

The protest began with members of the "Moral Monday" movement gathering at the Legislative Building Tuesday afternoon to pray outside Tillis' office, and more than a dozen protesters went inside bearing signs with sections of the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions regarding their rights to assemble and petition their legislators.

Tillis, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate this year, was not in his office when the sit-in started Tuesday afternoon. He presided over the House session just across the hall, but when the House adjourned, did not return to his office or answer protester calls to meet with him. He is in a heated Senate race this year, looking to unseat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. The outcome of North Carolina's seat could help decide the majority in the Senate.

Anna Roberts, a spokeswoman for Tillis, declined to comment on the demonstration in the speaker's office and Tillis didn't respond to a phone message Tuesday evening. Tillis regularly didn't comment last year when demonstrators against Republican policies protested in acts of civil disobedience and hundreds were arrested inside the Legislative Building.

For the first two hours, dozens of other protesters lined the balcony of the second floor, holding hands and humming along to hymns, but the crowd dwindled as the night wore on.

"This shows the kind of games that they play," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP. "Last year it was arrest them quick and get out. This year, it's game after game after game instead of coming to the table and repealing these laws that are hurting people."

Police initially swarmed the hall in front of Tillis' office, but later dispersed when the House meeting ended. Demonstrators inside, along with Barber, held an unofficial news conference from Tillis' doorway, as his aide and the Sergeant-at-arms looked on.

In the fourth hour, pizza was delivered and the protesters inside and outside Tillis' office started a chorus of spirituals. A mix of police, news media, protesters and General Assembly staff milled about on the second floor of the Legislative Building, waiting, as those inside gave interviews and posed for pictures. Sleeping bags also arrived, along with more food and cases of soda for protesters and onlookers.

By late Tuesday evening, nearing the seventh hour, the atmosphere in Tillis' office shifted from tense policy confrontation to relaxed chit-chat and laughs. Protesters leaned against tables discussing who would get to use the air mattress, Tillis' aide, William Morales, who stayed in the office with the protesters all night, leaned back in his chair and chatted about theater and music with the protesters and read a book.

As Tuesday turned to Wednesday, the protesters were laying on the floor, limbs and heads hanging out of the doorway. Some broke into song, some left the room to go sleep on a nearby couch. Reporters loitered in front of the doorway.

Crystal Price, 27, of Greensboro said she decided to participate because she's is struggling to take care of her family on a minimum wage salary. Price has cervical cancer and prepares hamburgers at a Wendy's restaurant. She said she makes $400 a month and has to decide whether to pay for health care for her two children or herself.

"For them to go to the doctor to get a physical, to go to the dentist ... I have to decide, do I get me done or get them done," she said. And she said she always chooses them, but it's a struggle.

She said she is uninsured and has to pay all of her medical expenses out of pocket, she decided to participate in the sit-in because she wants things to change.

Stella Adams, one of the protesters arrested early Wednesday, said she doesn't understand why Tillis wouldn't come to his office. 

"I tell them to get out and meet the people you harm. Look them in the eye. Talk to them," she said of lawmakers. "We went to speak to Speaker Tillis, ask him to look us in the face and tell us he's done right by and he chose not to."

Tuesday's demonstration kicked off with about 200 people singing, clapping and chanting in a tent on Halifax Mall shortly after noon.

Organizers handed out signs and sheets of talking points for volunteers who planned to lobby individual lawmakers for an expansion of Medicaid, the restoration of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the extension of unemployment benefits, more money for teachers and public schools and stronger environmental regulation.