'Tillis 15' arrested following sit-in at House Speaker's office

After a silent protest at the General Assembly last week, demonstrators turned up the volume on Tuesday - and into Wednesday - in an overnight sit-in at House Speaker Thom Tillis' office.

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Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — After a silent protest at the General Assembly last week, demonstrators turned up the volume on Tuesday - and into Wednesday - in an overnight sit-in at House Speaker Thom Tillis' office.

Nearly 20 protesters, described as "workers from McDonalds, Wendy's and Bojangles and clergy members" and dubbed the 'Tillis 15,' refused to leave Tillis' office for nearly 11 hours. Fourteen were arrested at about 1:45 a.m. Wednesday. 

They were handcuffed with plastic zip-ties and led out of the building one by one by General Assembly police.

General Assembly Lieutenant Martin Brock says all 14 will be charged with second-degree trespassing and violation of building rules.

"We are so proud of the hundreds of new and old friends who took a day off work to advocate for the repent, repeal and restore demands to all of our legislators, Democrat and Republican," State NAACP President Rev. William Barber said in a 1 a.m. statement. "People will die as a result of these cruel policies that have been put in place. People will lose the fundamental right to vote. We cannot stand idly by as our brothers and sisters are hurting."

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.

Police were called in to persuade the protesters to leave instead of waiting to speak with Tillis, who was presiding over the afternoon House session.

The signs are in response to rules regarding public decorum in the Legislative Building that lawmakers adopted two weeks ago. The rules allow police to arrest people if they “disturb or act in a manner that will imminently disturb the General Assembly.”

Last week, hundreds of people marched through the building with tape across their mouths to protest the new rules.

Barber said at the time that protesters returning to downtown Raleigh on Tuesday would not be silent.

The NAACP plans to challenge the rules in court.

"(Lawmakers) need to listen to what Henry Thoreau said. Any rule that's unjust, we have a right to violate – a moral responsibility," Barber said. "So, a rule is not going to stop us from opening our mouths."

General Assembly Police used couches to block hallways off from protesters, who held hands in solidarity as they lined the second floor rotunda of the Legislative Building and quietly hummed the civil rights song "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around.

As police cleared the crowd outside in an orderly fashion with Barber's help, protesters inside Tillis' office could be heard singing hymns.

Tillis declined to meet with the protesters, and they began to chant, "Hey hey, ho ho. Thom Tillis, where'd you go?"

Chief Jeff Weaver of the General Assembly Police said he didn't plan to arrest the protesters in the speaker's office.

"Speaker Thom Tillis and his aides have refused to engage in a serious discussion over the deep and weighty issues, and now they are playing a waiting game in hopes that we will lose heart, pack up and go home," Barber said in a statement.

Supporters tried to deliver pizzas to the protesters, but the sergeant-at-arms turned them away, saying it was too crowded inside the office. Later, sleeping bags were dropped off at the building as the protesters settled in for a long night.

Those outside Tillis' office, including Barber, left at the request of police.

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.

Cassandra Belcher Tripp worked her way through the Legislative Building later in the day, knocking on doors.

"We want the people in the House and Senate to know that we have a voice, and we all want to be heard," Tripp said.

Barber decried attempts by conservative pundits to brand the Moral Monday movement as a Democratic organization, reading quotes by notable Republicans praising Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, environmental conservation and the perils of income inequality.

"Some things are bigger than Democrat or Republican," he said. "We are the center. The moral center."

He said called legislative leaders "extremists" who are "hurting all of us in North Carolina."

"We are black. We are white. We are young. We are old. We are Democrats. We are Republicans," he exhorted the crowd. "We are North Carolina. We are here to stay, and we are not going away."

Barber also called out a tracker for the conservative PAC America Rising, who was filming the rally at the rear of the tent, inviting him to bring his camera to the front for a better vantage point.

"Maybe you'll learn something," Barber joked.


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