Weekly Briefing

Hiding from the truth

What last week’s General Assembly evictions say about conservative legislative leaders

There’s been a good deal of controversy in recent days over the decision by officials in House Speaker Thom Tillis’ office to evict a group of quiet and peaceful demonstrators from the second floor of the state Legislative Building last Thursday morning. In case you’ve only heard snippets, here are the facts that I witnessed as a participant in the event:

  • At around 11 a.m., a group of 75 to 100 protesters gathered in front of the Legislative Building in a grassy space to the left of the main (south) entrance. The purpose of the event was to protest and call attention to a legislative “special session” that was scheduled for 12:00 noon that day. The groups sponsoring the protest, which included NC Policy Watch, had obtained a permit to use the space. Throughout the event, members of the General Assembly police and House Sergeant-at-arms staff milled around, monitoring the proceedings.
  • At around twenty minutes till noon, when the various speakers had concluded their remarks, one of the event organizers, Adam Sotak (pictured above) of Democracy North Carolina, asked the people in attendance to turn in any large signs they were holding, take a piece of ordinary copier paper with a message written on it, and enter the Legislative Building. The destination was to be the second floor of the building where the plan was for folks to silently line the broad corridor that leads from Speaker Thom Tillis’ office to the back door of the House chamber (the door Tillis usually uses to reach the podium). About 50-60 people appeared to take Adam up on his request.
  • As demonstrators approached the front door of the Legislative Building, they were confronted by police and sergeants-at-arms who demanded that people surrender their pieces of paper since, it was explained, they would violate the building’s “sign ordinance.” After a minute or two of discussion/debate between some of the demonstrators and the officials, all such signs were wither confiscated or disposed of.
  • The people then proceeded to the second floor. For readers unfamiliar with the building layout, the second floor is divided in two, with the House chamber on the west side and the Senate chamber on the east side. Each chamber is surrounded by offices on three sides with a central rotunda area dividing the two chambers in center of the building. To the north and south of each chamber, there are also large, open “quads” around which the various offices are located. Each quad features a great deal of open space with wide corridors lined with couches for visitors and a first to third floor open rotunda-like area that provides views of skylights above and a similar open office space below on the first floor.
  • When the protesters arrived at the second floor, they began to silently line the far west corridor of the quad – a hallway/open space roughly 15 feet wide and 60 or 70 feet long that lies between Speaker Tillis’ office and the House chamber.
  • Almost immediately after this, police and sergeants-at-arms swooped in and demanded that the demonstrators disperse under the terms of an obscure rule that purports to bar members of the public from the second floor of the Legislative Building who lack prior authorization – a rule that few, if any, people had ever heard of. (One former building employee who worked on the second floor many years ago noted wryly that he’d wished he’d known of the rule back then so that he might have been able to tell some particularly bothersome lobbyists to leave him alone!). You can watch a six-minute video of the drama that ensued and the conversations that Adam Sotak had with various officers by clicking here.
  • Eventually, of course, the demonstrators removed from the second floor to the House gallery on the third floor and Tillis was able to walk to the chamber without having to be eyeball any protesters.
  • The following day, NC Policy Watch unearthed a video of House Speaker Tillis and his chief of staff chatting amicably with a comparable crowd of Tea Party protesters last March in the very same second floor space.

Red flags

There are, of course, a lot of reasons that last week’s events are extremely disturbing. Any time law enforcement officials interrupt peaceful and quiet protesters and force them to end or alter a demonstration in the seat of government, alarm bells ought to go off. That last week’s law enforcement intervention appears to have been a matter of selective enforcement directed at a group that’s been critical of the people running the General Assembly make matters even more serious.

Even if one assumes that the obscure rule barring people from the second floor is somehow legitimate or constitutional, it certainly can’t be either if it’s never applied except toward those disfavored by the people in power. While no one with any common sense would dispute the right of officials to keep hallways generally clear and/or prevent any unreasonable disruptions of the activities of the General Assembly, there is absolutely no indication that protesters intended to cause either such problem. All they intended to do was bear witness to the special session and make sure Speaker Tillis knew they were watching.

A different kind of General Assembly

So why did Tillis do it? Why did he direct officials to evict the protesters when he could have just as easily walked right past them quietly (perhaps even feigning a cell phone conversation) or – Heaven forbid – stopped to engage them? The answer is obvious. It’s the same reason he made his infamous “divide and conquer” speech, the same reason lawmakers held a midnight session to punish the N.C. Association of Educators and the same reason House leaders shut off debate repeatedly during the 2011 session: Tillis and his team are in over their heads.

Like a lot of political leaders who ascend to power rapidly and without much experience, Tillis, Senate leader Phil Berger and their teams simply don’t have the kind of experience, wisdom or confidence necessary to govern effectively. Lacking much real experience in state government (and, indeed, possessed of an ideological opposition to government generally), they also lack the capacity to assess their opposition, to listen to its spokespeople or to debate and engage with it effectively. Like a petrified monarch afraid of his own illegitimacy, they are fearful, ignorant of history and their critics and prone to overreact to challenges.

The result of this fear and ignorance is palpable. Even as recently as a few years ago, the visible law enforcement in the General Assembly consisted almost exclusively of a small handful of retired gentlemen serving as sergeants-at-arms. Democratic legislative leaders met regularly in all sorts of venues (hallways, committee rooms, offices) with citizen groups – both friendly and hostile. Conservative gun advocates, abortion protesters and property rights crusaders frequently trolled the hallways confronting lawmakers. Had former leaders Joe Hackney or Marc Basnight ever ordered the removal of such groups, you can rest assured that the groups on Right-wing Avenue would have been screaming at jet engine decibels about “jack-booted thugs.”

But, today, things are noticeably different; security officials are everywhere in the General Assembly. Tillis even takes them with him to his out-of-town political speeches, where they command the audiences to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Moments after last week’s eviction, Tillis invited a member of the General Assembly police to help convene the session with an explicitly Christian invocation. It’s as if these people have been integrated into the leadership team itself.

Going forward

So what’s next? Let’s hope Tillis and his team will learn something from their latest P.R. disaster. With any luck, it might cause them to reexamine some of their approaches to governance.

But don’t hold your breath. When so much of the philosophy that guides a political movement is based on fear of change, willful ignorance of the past and a commitment to governance by an exclusive, wealth-based aristocracy, more fiascos like last week’s are almost inevitable.