By Tom Baxter
With protesters in the streets across the globe from Istanbul to Sao Paulo, what has been going on every Monday in Raleigh for the past couple of months hasn’t received nearly as much attention, outside North Carolina, as the 2011 demonstrations at Wisconsin’s capitol in Madison. But North Carolina’s Moral Mondays, as they’re called, bear watching.
Politics in North Carolina never was as smooth-edged as it might have appeared during the Mayberry era, and in recent years it has cycled into a particularly bitter period. After voting for Barack Obama and electing a Democratic woman, Bev Perdue, governor in 2008, the state swung dramatically to the right in 2010, putting Republicans in control of the legislature and the redistricting process. The GOP tightened its lock in 2012, electing Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, governor and strengthening its hold on the legislature.
Just as meaningful as the change from Democrats to Republicans has been the shift within the Republican Party to a more confrontational brand of conservatism. McCrory had a reputation as a moderate when he was mayor, but as governor he has been overshadowed by Art Pope, the conservative moneyman who orchestrated the Republican legislative takeover with financial support from the Koch Brothers and other conservative national players. Pope has since taken a front-row seat McCrory’s administration as his budget director.
There are some who say that as much as Pope may be a symbol to national liberals of the Republican oppression being wreaked on the state with his support for measures like the elimination of public funding for judicial elections, he has actually been the closest thing to a brake that there is on a legislature eager to take on every target from climate change to electric cars.
The legislature, with McCrory’s blessings, has slashed unemployment benefits, rejected the federal Medicaid expansion, eliminated the Earned Income Tax Credit and rolled back early voting. Republicans have taken over in other states with the goal of making a difference in a hurry, but seldom with the fervor of North Carolina
That has led in turn to the emergence of a symbolic figure on the other side, Reverend Doctor William Barber, president of the state NAACP and the force behind the protests which have gone into their 8th week. By the time the next round of arrests have been made this afternoon, the total is likely to be more than 500 since the weekly demonstrations protesting the new actions by the legislature began April 29.
The ritual acts of civil disobedience at a state legislative office could be read as the ultimate expression of how much influence Democrats have lost in a state where they still held power such a short time ago. The Democratic establishment has effectively been replaced by an activist wing with only the power to bang on cans and get arrested. On the other hand, there was evidence the growing demonstrations were beginning to needle their opponents when the conservative Civitas Institute, which was founded by Pope, put up a database of those arrested, with information about their age, race, jobs, places of residence and arrest records, not to mention a “Pick the Protester” game.
McCrory has tarred the protesters as “outsiders,” and a Republican legislative leader called Barber a “carnival barker” leading a crowd of “mostly white, angry, aged former hippies.”
“In the South, for the NAACP to be leading a moral movement and you see crowds that are 40 percent white and 30 percent young? That’s what’s really concerning them, and why they’re calling us names,” Barber said in an interview.
Similar versions of this political drama have been played out across the South, including Georgia, but because the rightward swing was so swift and pronounced in North Carolina, the response also has been sharper. But with the full impact of refusing the Medicaid expansion set to come home across the region next year, they could also be a harbinger of things to come. Moral Mondays are evidence of how close to the surface tensions are. With the theatrical protests and the talk about “outsiders,” the story in North Carolina could be viewed in a retro, 60ish cast. But it could also be a preview of how politics may become when moderation is completely expunged from the process and both sides move into their respective corners.
This week, the first wave of protesters arrested in April had their day in court, hours before the next group was to be arrested. This appears to be settling into a long-term struggle, with implications beyond North Carolina. (Update: This week’s protest was the largest to date, with close to 120 people arrested, bringing the total over the eight weeks to more than 600.)