Barber found guilty of trespassing during legislature protest
Former state NAACP leader Rev. William Barber was convicted Thursday of trespassing at the state Legislative Building during a protest two years ago.Posted — Updated
A Wake County jury deliberated for about 15 minutes before finding Barber guilty of second-degree trespassing. Superior Court Judge Stephan Futrell then sentenced him to 12 months on unsupervised probation, 24 hours of community service and a $200 fine.
Barber said outside of court that he is appealing the verdict, noting that most civil rights victories come through appellate courts and not trial courts.
"We believe the real trespassers are those that are in those offices at the legislature," he said, noting courts have repeatedly declared voting maps drawn by state lawmakers to be unconstitutional. "What is really criminal is the way in which people have held on to power and then used that power to undermine living wages, health care, immigrant rights, women's rights and fundamental voting rights."
Barber testified Thursday morning that he was among a group of people who went to the legislature on May 30, 2017, to call for Medicaid expansion by presenting a letter to House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger laying out the need to provide health coverage to thousands of working poor in North Carolina. They were told the offices of both lawmakers were closed that Tuesday morning, he said, so the group sat down outside Berger's office to wait for him.
Barber led the group in a call-and-response that included Bible verses, sections of the state constitution and health care statistics.
General Assembly Police said the protest prompted calls from legislative staffers who said the noise from the protest was making it hard to work. Police Chief Martin Brock used a bullhorn to order the group to quiet down or move. After several warnings, he told his officers to start arresting people.
Barber disputed the protest was that loud, saying Brock's characterization that he was "yelling at the top of my lungs" was offensive.
"It was my preaching voice," he said. "I would never characterize call-and-response, preaching, reading the constitution, reading scripture as yelling."
"Democracy is raucous, it's loud, it's messy. It's supposed to be," defense attorney John McWilliam added in his closing argument.
Barber and his lawyers insisted that he had the right to be at the Legislative Building because the state constitution allows North Carolina residents to "instruct" their lawmakers.
"His history of attempting to instruct his representatives – our representatives – is nothing but being met with being ignored by those people," McWilliam said. "He went there because he couldn't get a hearing. ... Here he is, just trying, trying, trying to participate in his government, as we're encouraged to do so, and he gets arrested for his efforts."
Noting that the protest had been promoted on social media ahead of time as a sit-in and an exercise in civil disobedience, Wake County Assistant District Attorney Nishma Patel said there was a clear plan for people to be arrested.
They carried out that plan by refusing the repeated requests to be quiet or move, violating the rules of conduct in the Legislative Building, Patel said.
"He violated those rules, and at the point he violated those rules, he lost his authority to stay there," she said in her closing argument. "The protesting itself is not at issue. It's the actions of the defendant at the point that he was notified to leave and refused to do so is at issue."
Barber has since moved on from the NAACP to lead a national nonprofit advocacy group. But he still makes frequent appearances in Raleigh at events like last month's teacher rally and minimum-wage protests.
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