NAACP leader, House speaker exchange jabs

Posted May 25, 2011 1:07 p.m. EDT
Updated May 25, 2011 6:34 p.m. EDT

— The president of North Carolina's NAACP said Wednesday his group will continue vigorous protests against a Republican-backed budget bill, doing whatever it takes to turn the public's attention to polices he said represent a "moral crisis" for the state.

The Rev. William Barber's comments came a day after he and six others were arrested following a vocal protest in the House gallery.

"The House budget was shamefully passed with debilitating cuts to education, health care and other vital resources," Barber said Wednesday morning after being released from jail. "We must challenge what is going on."

Some activists are unhappy with a number of legislative actions passed by the GOP majority this year, but the passage of a House budget bill most provoked their ire. The NAACP and affiliated groups charge that cuts in the proposed spending plan will disproportionately hurt poor and middle class North Carolinians.

On Wednesday, Barber chastised legislators, especially House Speaker Thom Tillis, for cutting programs for poor residents while failing to close tax loopholes for corporations and the rich, another option for helping to balance the spending plan.

"The constitution of this state says that the only purpose of political power is for the common good and not just to cater to a few, the wealthy. The General Assembly leadership is being disrespectful to our constitution," Barber said.

"Come on, Mr. Tillis. Come on, extreme right. Come on, tea party. Embrace the future," he continued. "Let's lift our state rather than trying to tear it down. We can do better than this."

Meanwhile, Tillis said he wants Barber to apologize for disrupting lawmakers.

"I do think that Rev. Barber owes this House an apology for his disrespectful and disruptive behavior," Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said during a news conference Wednesday.

Tillis said he would be willing to meet with members of the NAACP, but not Barber or the six arrested with him. "It would be inappropriate of me to meet with somebody that's the subject of a police investigation, I would think," he said.

Barber and his colleagues face trespassing and disorderly conduct charges. Barber declined to respond directly to Tillis' request for an apology, calling it an attempt to divide the group of activists that has become more and more vocal as the legislative session wears on.

But Michelle Laws, of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP chapter, said Tillis is off base.

"How dare he ask for an apology," Laws said. "Speaking as someone who cares about the children of this state, I think he owes us an apology."

Barber said the NAACP and members of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street coalition are planning to organize across the state to fight what they call "extreme right-wing" politics in city, county and state governments. He said voter registration drives are also planned in hopes of changing the Legislature's makeup during the 2012 elections.

Members of the NAACP and other protesters have complained that legislators brushed off their concerns, ignoring phone calls and letters and refusing meetings with group members.

Tillis said he did agree to meet with Barber and his group in February, but NAACP representatives canceled.

While Tillis acknowledged that the Republican leadership is unlikely to see eye-to-eye with NAACP members, he said he is ready and willing to listen and make policy changes where warranted. He said House members are open to working with the Legislative Black Caucus and are helping to form a new American Indian Caucus in the General Assembly.