Slightly more than a dozen protesters held a sit-in at Republican North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis's office Tuesday afternoon as part of the year-old Moral Monday campaign at the state capitol.
Tillis, who has been a frequent target of the movement's rhetoric, recently won the Republican nomination for the state's U.S. senate seat and will face off against incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D) in the general election. Recent polls have the two candidates within a margin of error. Moral Monday leaders are committed to focusing on state races during the midterms, but Tillis's role in state politics -- plus the group's plans to do extensive voter registration -- could mean that the protests will bleed into the Senate campaign.
North Carolina's Moral Mondays began on April 29, 2013, when 17 people were arrested while protesting legislation passed by the state's general assembly. Over the year, a total of 924 protesters were arrested for peaceful civil disobedience. The movement stands out from other groups calling for progressive turns in health, education and economic policy for its moral underpinnings. Religious leaders started the movement, which advocates for the working poor and voting rights, among other issues. And although its supporters have grown more racially, economically, ideologically and religiously diverse, the group still sees the political climate in North Carolina through a faith-based lens of right and wrong. Groups in other states -- such as Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama -- have tried to adopt that framework for the problems they see in their legislatures.
"If you're going to change American politics, you need to focus on state capitols, and you need to focus on state capitols in the South," said the Rev. Dr. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP and leader in the Forward Together movement, which organizes the Moral Monday protests, during a press call last week. "People need to know that this person running for Senate presided over this repressive legislative session. That must be known. It will be known."
The group of protesters, which included members of the clergy, fast-food workers and other low-wage workers, held the sit-in at Tillis's office to cap off a day of door-to-door visits at state legislative offices. The event was a Moral Tuesday, instead of its usual alliterative self, because of the Memorial Day holiday. Organizers had hoped to have 340 people take part so that two people could visit each of the 170 state legislators. Around 500 people showed up.
"You should see the diversity!" said Barber "This is not the old South. We had young people and old people, teachers and doctors. One guy came up to me and said, 'I'm a Republican, but I'm here.' We've got independents, and we even had a couple of people from England." Barber stood outside the sit-in with a group of witnesses since he had previously been arrested at a civil disobedience action last year. This year, the state's Legislative Services Commission said the capitol could ban groups that were creating disturbances. State Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam (R) told a local CBS affiliate: "It's all a media event. They're not really communicating with the legislature."
After the protesters entered Tillis's office, singing "We shall not be moved. Just like the tree that is planted by the water," the capitol police followed them, filming the protests on their smartphones. No arrests have yet been made. The protesters held signs that repeated the refrain they've been trying to hammer for over a year. "Repeal Attacks on Women's Rights." "Repeal Tax Hike for Working Poor." "Repeal Attacks on Voting Rights." "Stop Denying Medicaid Expansion."
The North Carolina General Assembly has the approval of 28 percent of residents, according at an Elon University survey from early May. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has an approval rating of 36 percent.
Last week marked the beginning of the General Assembly's legislative session for the year. It also featured the first Moral Monday protest of 2014. About 1,500 people walked silently through the state Capitol.
"Last week we said it would be the final time we were quiet in the people's house," said Barber.
Tillis's campaign and the North Carolina Republican Party had not responded to requests for comment by time of publication, but Tillis has been critical of the movement's methods. "There are so many positive things we can do if we can lower the volume and sit down and talk and show some mutual respect,'' Tillis told the New York Times last year.
Earlier this month, Mitt Romney endorsed Tillis in the Senate race. "Thom is a conservative who has been solving problems in North Carolina as Speaker of the House and I am confident he will do the same in Washington," Romney said in a statement. "I am convinced by his record of conservative results that he is the right candidate to help Republicans win a majority in the U.S. Senate in 2014."
Jeb Bush also endorsed Tillis, citing his successes in the North Carolina General Assembly, and Tillis's supporters have major resources to support his candidacy. Other conservative groups in the state have been giving generous support to conservative state legislators.
Julia Peeples, a senior pastor at the Congregational Church of Christ in Greensboro, was at the sit-in Tuesday. "I spoke to a family recently -- the husband has diabetes and the wife needs surgery, and they couldn't afford the new health insurance and can't qualify for Medicaid because it wasn't expanded here," she said. "They can't get any medical care. I see teachers working two jobs. I'm seeing the faces involved and felt like I needed to do something."
Amber Matthews is 22 years old and makes $7.50 an hour at Wendy's. Since she started working at the burger place three years ago, her wages have gone up by 25 cents. "We don't mind putting in the hours, we don't mind working," she said. "We're just not getting enough money for what we do." She often can't afford to pay bills. "I have people call me and call me, and I have nothing to tell them because I can't make the payments."
Bloomberg reported last fall that the state's labor force participation had hit a 37-year low. Last year, the state reduced the length of time the unemployed could receive jobless benefits, hoping to start paying off the state's debt. North Carolina's unemployment rate has dropped -- but the number of people who have given up looking for jobs, and left the labor force, has risen.
One of Matthews's co-workers told her about Moral Mondays, and she "felt like it was a good movement to join." She attended the sit-in with a few of her co-workers. "I'm glad they came with me, and we're all together."
It wasn't her first act of protest this month. A week and a half ago, five workers from her shift took part in a fast-food workers' strike. "I think it went really well," Matthews said.
Since the Moral Monday protests began last year, it has been clear that November 4, 2014, was a day with a big circle around it on the movement's calendar. In 2010, the North Carolina assembly went Republican for the first time since Reconstruction, and the legislation crafted by this legislature has been far more conservative than in previous years -- a development seen across the country in legislatures that flipped in 2010. This year isn't about just civil disobedience for Moral Mondays; it's also about getting people to vote in a midterm election year, when most of the electorate stays home.
"There's going to be a huge, huge focus on that in the upcoming months," Peeples said. "It's not enough to get people worked up on Facebook -- you need to turn that into action."
Turning the protests into action is also a crucial way for the Moral Monday movement to show whether their efforts are sinking in. The movement has sought to fight the legislature through the courts, through protest, through the ballot box. They will find out if the new voting law they oppose will go into effect later this year, and they will find out the fate of the new voter-ID law before it goes into effect in 2016. In November, they will see whether their complaints were shared with the voting public. For right now, Moral Mondays' chief success is getting people worked up. This year's legislative session and election will show if it has the power to change things too.
Barber stresses that although the movement is focused on voter registration, it's all toward the goal of changing the political atmosphere, not on driving any one candidate out.
"LBJ, he was a stark segregationist, until the political atmosphere changed," Barber said. "Then he became the leader of a movement. In this season when we remember what happened in 1964, we need legislators to repent what they have done in the past year, repeal the legislation that has passed and restore North Carolinians' faith in their state."