80,000 people protested in NC this weekend. Here’s why.

The NAACP estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 people gathered outside the North Carolina State Capitol Saturday morning for the Moral March in Raleigh (official attendance numbers have not been released yet). The march was the culmination of a year of Moral Monday protests at the State Capitol organized by The Forward Together Movement, a "fusion movement" of over 150 groups fighting for mostly progressive causes in North Carolina.

A year ago, only 15,000 turned out for the same march in Raleigh. The leap in turnout is a good indicator of the growing support for the movement's agenda in the months before the 2014 midterms, and a show of how much more popular the movement has become since last February.

So why were nearly 100,000 people in the streets of Raleigh on Saturday? Mostly dissatisfaction with the current state government, which has left North Carolina -- once a bastion of progressive policy-making from both parties -- a petri dish for Tea Party political experimentation in the eyes of Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of NAACP and leader of the Forward Together Movement.

In an interview with the Washington Post on Friday, Barber said, "the governor and the legislature is trying to say we’re in the middle of a Carolina comeback. We got a team of experts, economists, professors, etc., together, and they said we’re in the middle of a Carolina setback. No way you can spin what’s happening to us."

Earlier in the year, Gov. Pat McCrory, who was ushered into Raleigh on the same wave that brought in the new Republican state legislature, called the Moral Monday protests "unacceptable" and "unlawful demonstrations." He added, “But lawful demonstrations we welcome. That is the great part of our democracy.”

One state senator called the weekly protests, "Moron Mondays." It is unclear how McCrory and the state legislature will respond to the demands made on Saturday -- which featured no civil disobedience -- and the ongoing efforts of the group. Barber responds to the backlash by noting that Republican leaders in North Carolina have "done what no politician should ever do: they made everyone mad."

Here is a list of the main reasons those tens of thousands of people were mad and marching -- and why Barber's breed of activism -- using the Christian right's favorite political ammunition for progressive ends -- is starting to pop up in state capitals all across the South.


North Carolina NAACP President William Barber talks about fighting for social justice at the King Day rally on Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, in Columbia, S.C. Barber told the crowd of a few thousand people that what conservatives leaders have done to the country is mighty low, but he thinks they are ready to find higher ground. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

Outside Spending

In 2006, Barber helped found the Historic Thousands on Jones St. (HKonJ) People's Assembly Coalition. The group's aim was to push for progressive reform in the state by explaining the moral underpinnings of issues like income inequality, women's rights, LGBT rights, and education. HKonJ's first big event was a rally held in February 2007, when around 3,500 supporters met in Raleigh. They have held a big rally outside the State Capitol every February since.

For the next few years, HKonJ kept fighting to make the moderate Democrats in the General Assembly consider their progressive reforms, and racked up some notable successes. In 2010, however, the political battlefield in North Carolina shifted dramatically. For the first time since 1870, Republicans had won a majority in the General Assembly. North Carolina became the national poster child of what donors were capable of in post-Citizens United election cycles — especially in state and local elections where an additional million dollars can radically alter the fundamentals of an electoral contest.

Art Pope, owner of a chain of discount stores in the South, was pinpointed as one of the chief funders of Republican candidates that year -- groups affiliated with Pope spent over $2 million influencing legislative races in 2010, according to the News & Observer.

Candidates supported by the Pope family won 78 percent of their races. Chris Heagarty, a Democrat who lost a campaign in Wake County that year, told New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, "For an individual to have so much power is frightening. The government of North Carolina is for sale."

The goals of the North Carolina NAACP and its sister organizations had to shift from moving the Democratic legislature to the left to keeping the newly elected legislature —where the Tea Party was well-represented —from erasing the gains they had made in the past four years.

Redistricting

The chief spoil awarded to a party that wins a state legislature in a year ending with "10" is the chance to design electoral districts for the following ten years. The new legislators elected in North Carolina in 2010 created an electoral map that opponents saw as a clear case of gerrymandering. Here's a quick history of the term gerrymandering, via Robert Draper:

Serving as his second vice president was Elbridge Gerry, who as the governor of Massachusetts in 1812 had presided over a redrawing of the state map so blatant in its partisan manipulations that the curiously tailored shape of one Boston-area district resembled a salamander. The term gerrymander has been used ever since to describe the contorting of districts beyond all reason save political gain.

The newly elected assembly members in North Carolina, like most newly elected state legislators (and the Democratic North Carolina legislators who preceded them), were intent on preserving their change of fortunes in 2010. Parts of North Carolina were previously covered by Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, which mean that states known for racial discrimination in the past needed to have their newly drawn electoral districts "precleared" by the U.S. Justice Department. The Justice Department approved the 2011 redistricting plan, but  when the Supreme Court invalidated Section 3 last June, lawsuits challenging the 2011 redistricting efforts began to appear. A News & Observer article from last November laid out the case:

The architects of the 2011 redistricting, the three voters contend, “ignored the common rural and agricultural interests” of Coastal Plain residents that federal courts have previously recognized. Durham, the newly added urban center, constitutes 25 percent of the district’s population. ... “A person traveling on Interstate 85 between the two cities would exit the district multiple times, as the district’s boundaries zig and zag to encircle African-American communities,” the federal lawsuit contends.

Dave Weigel summed up the total effect of the changes last October: "the new North Carolina map packs Democrats into a small number of ultra-safe seats and gives Republicans largely-safe seats that will be un-loseable in anything but a wave election."

Analysis from the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation showed 44 General Assembly districts leaned or were safe for Democrats. Sixty-six districts lean or are safely Republican, and ten are swing districts. A panels of justices in North Carolina upheld the districts in July 2013. The NAACP appealed the decision in August, and the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the case in early January. Brent Laurenz, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, told the Carolina Public Press, “So far no court has stepped in to to say there’s a problem. I’m not terribly sure we’ll see that.”

The NAACP and other progressive groups in North Carolina contend that the massive infusion of outside spending, coupled with the new districts, is the reason Republicans had 33 seats in the 50-seat Senate and 77 seats in the 120-seat General Assembly after the 2012 election.

In 2012, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory won the North Carolina gubernatorial election with 54.6 percent of the vote in the first statewide race with the new districts. Although he was seen as a moderate Republican official during his mayoral tenure and time on the Charlotte city council, his platform during the governor's race has followed the legislature further to the right. He is the first Republican governor in North Carolina in over 20 years. Bloomberg reporters described the change in his policy views after he was elected:

A different McCrory emerged in the gubernatorial campaign, Fitzsimon said. He spoke against President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul at rallies sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a non-profit group funded by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch. He endorsed a Tea Party- backed measure condemning as “extreme environmentalism” a 20- year-old United Nations statement in favor of urban planning and energy conservation. He told the Charlotte Observer that he supported a ban on gay marriage.

The governor's office declined to comment on the Moral March for this article.

These are the things that led Republicans to take over North Carolina government, but the thousands rallying in Raleigh this weekend have more of an issue with the legislation passed by the new government than the process that got them there.

Voting Rights

Protecting voting rights is one of the chief aims of Barber's group. Last summer, soon after a state court rejected a lawsuit against the 2011 redistricting map, the North Carolina legislature passed a new voting law after three hours of debate, which was then signed by Gov. McCrory. The two provisions of the law that received the most attention were a new voter-ID requirement and changes to early voting regulations. Seventy percent of black voters used early voting in 2008 and 2012, and 318,000 registered voters don't have photo ID, which are a free, but likely time consuming, acquisition under the new law.

However, the law was far more expansive than that. As Reid Wilson pointed out, the 56-page "Monster" law also had provisions eliminating public financing, making it nearly impossible to register online, a new prohibition on letting 16-year-olds preregister, a repeal on the requirement that candidates say “I’m Candidate X, and I approve this message," at the end of a campaign advertisement, an elimination of state-sponsored voter registration drives. Other changes, like the one making it even harder for lobbyists to get involved in election fundraising, were the type of things that those looking to expand election access love.

On whole though, University of California, Irvine political science professor Rick Hasen thought,

this North Carolina measure is the most sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades. I’m not big on using the term “voter suppression,” which I think is overused and often inaccurate, but it is hard to see this law as justified on anti-fraud, public confidence, or efficiency grounds. The intent here is to make it harder for people—especially non-white people and those likely to vote Democratic–to register or cast a vote that will be counted. It also makes money matter more in North Carolina politics and kills public financing of the North Carolina courts.

The Justice Department agreed, and filed a suit against North Carolina because of the new law, the first voting legislation passed after the Supreme Court's Voting Rights Act ruling. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement this September, "By restricting access and ease of voter participation, this new law would shrink, rather than expand, access to the franchise. Allowing limits on voting rights that disproportionately exclude minority voters would be inconsistent with our ideals as a nation.  Whenever warranted by the facts and the law, the department will not hesitate to use the tools and legal authorities at our disposal to fight against racial discrimination, to stand against disenfranchisement, and to safeguard the right of every eligible American to cast a ballot."

Two other suits were filed by groups in North Carolina, with an expansive list of plaintiffs including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. The cases won't be heard until July 2015 — many months after the important 2014 elections. The NAACP are currently hoping to win an injunction that would delay the start of many of the law's provisions until after November.

Education

North Carolina once stood as a model for desegregation, just as it stood as a model for voter access. Newsweek wrote in 2010 that "in Charlotte, federally mandated busing ensured balance until 1999, when a court ruled that integration had been accomplished. Since then the number of 90 percent–minority schools has jumped almost fivefold. In Wayne County, one high school is now 99 percent African-American, which prompted the NAACP to file a federal complaint alleging 'apartheid education.'"

In 2011, the General Assembly lifted the cap on charter schools, which has previously held at 100. Many applauded the policy change, and around 30 charter schools were in the works for 2014.

Duke University researchers also found last year that charter schools can often exacerbate existing segregation issues in North Carolina: "Whereas 30 percent of regular public school students attended a racially unbalanced school (one with less than 20 percent or more than 80 percent minority enrollment), more than 60 percent of charter school students attended a racially unbalanced school." The investment in charter schools has left the available funds for public schools notably smaller. In the 2012-2013 school year, only three states — Texas, Utah, and Arizona — spend less per public student in the state. Funding for pre-K in the state was cut by 20 percent — $548 million. Enrollment dropped by 19 percent from 2011 to 2012, the biggest drop in the country.

The state government has responded to some of the complaints — today Governor McCrory announced a new bill that would raise starting salaries for North Carolina teachers, which are currently ranked 47th in the nation.

Income Inequality

Cuts affecting the poorest residents of North Carolina have been among the most controversial moves made by the state government in the past year. As on January 1, 2014, 900,000 working households were no longer receiving the Earned Income Tax Credit, because North Carolina became the only state to completely eliminate it.

According to research provided by the legislature's fiscal research agency, the tax-reform bill passed by the General Assembly will provide notable tax breaks to the wealthiest residents in the state, while increasing the tax burden of the poorest residents. Sales taxes were also hiked. The state also declined, along with 25 other states, to take part in the Medicaid expansion offered by the Affordable Care Act. Around 500,000 North Carolina residents would have been eligible for Medicaid under the expansion. The state just paid a D.C. consulting firm $3 million to fix their Medicaid program last Friday.

The state cut unemployment benefits on July 1, 2013 and the state's unemployment rate later dropped faster than any state in the country. Republican leaders in North Carolina credited new jobs and the fact that workers were taking available jobs thanks to the disappearance of jobless benefits. Progressive groups instead pointed at the 110,000 North Carolina residents who stopped looking for a job last year. A University of North Carolina researcher interviewed by the Winston-Salem Journal last month said, “If we took all the people who left the labor force in 2013 and put them back in the labor force, and then recalculated the unemployment rate for December, it’d be 9.1 percent instead of 6.9 percent."

Other Issues

Although economic and electoral issues provide the backbone of the Forward Together Movement's complaints, many of the 150 groups that have joined forces with the NAACP have sought to add women's rights, LGBT rights, and other issues to the mix. Healthcare and environmental groups have also joined the fray. This inclusiveness is likely one of the foremost reasons so many people turned out in Raleigh on Saturday — Reverend Barber has provided a forum for North Carolina residents to voice their complaints with the state government, and they welcome all who have something to say.

The Forward Together Movement leadership are also adamant that they aren't a Democratic v. Republican movement. As Barber puts it, "This is a moral versus immoral battle." He finished a 16-city tour in North Carolina shortly before the Moral March, and there were more than a few Republicans and Republican groups who were willing to join him. The reason? "We found common ground," Barber said on Friday. "The Republicans who have joined us, they’ve said 'we’re not extremists, we’re Republicans.' They know you can’t kick people when they’re down. The problem with McCrory and Art Pope and his team, is that they overreached. Some of the issues we’re fighting for, we’d be perfectly happy to elect a Republican who stands for these things."

What's Next?

The next big event on Barber's agenda is preparing for the 2014 elections. He said that the Forward Together Movement is "battling this on all fronts: in the courts, in the streets, in the legislature and at the ballot box."

The courts, streets, and legislature prongs of this approach have been listed above, but the ballot box is perhaps where the true test of the movement's efforts will take place. A poll released by High Point University last week shows that only 37 percent of voters approve of Governor Pat McCrory. Thirty-two percent approve of General Assembly. Only 23 percent of the poll respondents think North Carolina is headed in the right direction.

Registration booths were set up at Saturday's events, and the 945 people arrested during Moral Mondays last year pledged to register new voters. As Barber puts it, "North Carolina is 23 percent African-American and 2 percent Hispanic. We only need around 25 percent of whites to vote with us to have a majority."

Another big development that's sure to get more attention in the next couple of months is how far Barber's influence has spread across the South. The model of using morality as a way to fight for progressive issues, and a way of challenging the Christian Right's use of religion, is starting to spread to other states as well.

The Moral Monday movement in Georgia has been protesting the state's Stand Your Ground law. Barber adds, "The movements across the South must be indigenous. No one’s parachuting in to start a movement. But the spirit of the movement, that’s already spread, to Georgia, to Alabama, to Florida, they’re thinking of starting Moral Mondays there. Twelve states have called us about the methodology of our movement."

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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