When average people feel they have no other choice

When average people feel they have no other choice

- in Weekly Briefing


The growing civil disobedience protests at the General Assembly

These are strange and difficult times in North Carolina. Despite its fast-growing, outward-looking, ever-more-diverse and globally-connected population, the state has taken a hard and destructive political turn backward and to the right. Thanks in large measure to a combination of the Great Recession, the largely uninspired performance it provoked in then-Governor Bev Perdue and the mid-term electoral meltdown it spurred for Democrats in 2010, an increasingly modern and progressive state has been transformed almost overnight into a Tea Party lab experiment run amok.

Ideas that would have been dismissed as literally crazy and hopelessly reactionary a few years ago — even by right-of-center, upper middle-income suburbanites – are now rushed through legislative committees like fast food orders. The list grows almost daily:

  • Innocent low-income children: Punished,
  • Fat cat millionaires: Lifted still higher,
  • Decent and affordable health care for the uninsured: Denied,
  • Health care providers: Threatened with prison for counseling and serving women in need,
  • Control of our public schools: Taken from experts and handed over to religious frauds and corporate profiteers,
  • Voting: Rigged to favor the powers that be and made more difficult for the poor and disabled,
  • Modest environmental standards: Repealed,
  • Worker rights: Eviscerated,
  • Predatory consumer practices: Expanded and encouraged,
  • The unemployment insurance system: Gutted,
  • Science: Ignored,
  • Utterly loony conspiracy theories: Accepted as the basis of public law, and
  • The scourge of dangerous weapons: Encouraged to metastasize.

On Monday of this week, the conservative majority of a House Committee rebuked the state Homebuilders Association (a group that has long fought tooth and nail with state regulators to resist virtually every environmental protection initiative one can imagine) for being too supportive of energy efficiency regulations. The Committee voted to repeal a law the Association had long ago agreed to and which it defended in the meeting!

This is not a mere political shift or an attempt to promote the discussion of “bold” new ideas; what we are witnessing is nothing less than a radical assault on the very fabric of the modern social contract. Spurred to action by a network of demagogues, reactionary billionaires and media frauds, a pliable group of largely inexperienced lawmakers does what it is told with soldier-like predictability.

If any group dares to contest a proposal, demand extensive fact-finding and debate or even hints at an ability to slow the march to the far right, votes are miscounted and rules are altered, manipulated or ignored.

When facts and rational debate are not enough

The impact of this brazen and scandalous across-the-board assault on social, economic and political justice has been profound. Across North Carolina, thousands of average citizens who once paid scant attention to the goings on the state capital have become aware, angered and politicized. Here at NC Policy Watch, we have witnessed this phenomenon month-by-month in a rapid an unprecedented rise in the traffic to our websites.

People who have long followed the legislature, if at all, out of the corner of their eyes as it debated what seemed like the mostly mundane details of civil society – building roads, improving schools and the safety net, preserving natural resources – suddenly have it squarely in their focus. They are amazed at what they are witnessing and find themselves frighteningly aware of just how far back in time the people in power mean to drag things.

“What’s next?” they ask themselves. “If the people running the state really believe in arming citizens against an imagined threat from the federal government, executing abortion doctors and selling off our public schools to Wall Street profiteers and think that Christians are a persecuted minority, is anything off-limits?”

And so it is that the protests, petitions, pickets and direct actions have begun to percolate and multiply. In Raleigh and several other cities across the state, average moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, college students and workers have started to stand up and speak out against school privatization, predatory lending, the exploitation of workers and the move to bestow goodies on corporations and millionaires that would make a banana republic oligarch blush.

And so it also is that some from that group of average people have begun to register their opposition with peaceful, often-prayerful acts of civil disobedience at the General Assembly. These are not formerly influential polticos who find themselves suddenly frustrated to be without power as some ignorant observers have suggested. These are just average caring and thoughtful citizens who find themselves outraged that their great state is being hijacked in a ruinous and unprecedented power grab.

Similarly, the groups spearheading the “Moral Monday” protests at the General Assembly – groups like the state North Carolina NAACP – have never been insiders or close to power. Indeed, these groups were protesting many of the actions of government and demanding access (often with little success) when the Democrats ran things in Raleigh. That these groups are now taking their protests to a new level simply bespeaks the truth that they literally believe themselves to have no other viable way to effectively register their opposition and alert the broader public at-large to the threat posed by the current state leadership.

The Legislative Building protests

Some have suggested that the Monday protests are ill-conceived because they constitute acts of trespass rather than direct interventions against unjust laws as was the case with, for instance, the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960’s. This, however, is absurd nitpicking.

The fact of the matter is that there is no other practical way to take such action against the laws in question. What should the protesters do? Wait until 2014 and then try to vote on a Sunday without photo ID? Sit in an unemployment insurance or Medicaid office and demand benefits to which they ought to be entitled? Attend a legislative committee meeting of which the public wasn’t properly notified?

Moreover, the trespasses that have occurred have been utterly peaceful and scarcely even disruptive to the flow of business in the General Assembly. Indeed, when one watches and reads about the arrests and listens to the descriptions of the rough and disproportionate treatment meted out to some of the protesters, one almost gets the sense that the police officers assigned to the task have been directed to inflict pain and punishment on people who obviously have no intention of acting with violence or even active resistance to arrest (and even mere spectators).

These protests may technically amount to “trespass,” but they are wholly and uniformly political acts that have been carefully and skillfully carried out by people of great earnestness and integrity. In this sense, they are fully in keeping with the spirit and teachings of Gandhi and King and other great proponents of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Going forward

At this point, no one can say for sure what the Mondays ahead will bring for the Legislative Building protests. One thing is for sure, however: Barring some dramatic reversal in the actions of state leaders, there will be no putting the genie back in the bottle anytime soon when it comes to the statewide movement that birthed them.

Photo credit: Democracy NC

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.