Raleigh, N.C. — The Rev. Deborah Cayer arrived at the state Legislature building here Monday night wearing a protest button and toting an umbrella. She had tucked her driver’s license into her skirt waistband.
That was all she carried. She had come prepared to spend the night in jail.
Along with 83 other opponents of the Republican-led legislature, Cayer and several fellow clergy members were arrested at a rainy “Moral Monday” protest. Their civil disobedience — they ignored police orders to disperse — was the latest in a growing series of protests over the conservative agenda of North Carolina’s Republican-run state government.
“I wanted to be a part of this, and to be heard,” Cayer, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Durham, said moments before a police officer gently wrapped plastic flex cuffs on her wrists and led her off to jail. Her button read, “Forward together — not one step back” — a theme of the more than 380 protesters arrested in the six weekly protests held so far.
North Carolina has long portrayed itself as a progressive former Confederate state — a moderate Southern beacon in civil rights and social justice. That image has been challenged since November, when Republicans won the governor’s race and took control of both the Legislature and governor’s mansion for the first time since Reconstruction.
For the state’s Democrats, Barack Obama’s narrow victory in North Carolina in the 2008 presidential election — the first by a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 — seems a long, long time ago.
Since November, Republicans have proposed or passed measures to cut unemployment insurance; impose a voter ID law; divert public money to private and religious schools through vouchers; and trim public education budgets. The state has joined at least 12 other states in rejecting billions of dollars in federal Medicaid expansion funding under the Affordable Care Act.
A “North Carolina Defense of Religion Act” proposed this spring would allow a state religion, presumably Christianity. A bill offered in May would outlaw Islamic sharia law and any other “foreign law” in state courts for family law cases. And a February bill proposed banning women’s bare breasts in public, except for nursing mothers.
In a move that prompted Cayer to protest on Monday, Republican legislators this month overturned North Carolina’s landmark Racial Justice Act. The only such law in the country, the act allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences or convictions on the basis of racial discrimination in jury selection or sentencing. If successful, inmates’ death sentences can be reduced to life in prison without parole.
The act was signed in 2009 by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. The repeal is expected to be signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
The Moral Monday protests have been organized by the state chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, but they have attracted protesters of all races and ages. Monday’s protest, which drew more than a thousand people, was dominated by clergy members.
“Inequality is more costly than injustice,” the Rev. William Turner Jr. told the crowd shortly before he was arrested. “You can’t kill the poor. There are too many of us, and the numbers grow every day.”
A group of North Carolina rabbis issued a statement supporting “the use of nonviolent civil disobedience to draw attention to the reckless and heartless policies currently passing into law in Raleigh.”
One rally protester wore a T-shirt that read: “Jailbirds for Justice.” Others carried signs that read “Take back N.C.” and “Stop making our state the subject of The Daily Show” — on which comedian Jon Stewart has ridiculed the Legislature.
Many protesters carried posters that read “Governor, we are not outsiders” — a dig at a comment made by McCrory at this month’s state GOP convention. “Outsiders are coming in and they’re going to try to do to us what they did to [Gov.] Scott Walker in Wisconsin,” he had said.
The Raleigh protests have drawn comparisons to larger demonstrations in Madison, Wis., in 2011, in response to Walker’s move to strip state workers of collective bargaining rights. But the North Carolina protests target a much broader range of issues, including tax fairness, civil rights and services for the poor and elderly.
The protests have settled into a well-rehearsed drama: On Monday, as before, protesters sang, prayed and refused to disperse. Police officers lined up, coils of white plastic cuffs in hand. Jeff Weaver, chief of the General Assembly police, warned protesters they had five minutes to end their “unlawful assembly.”
Five minutes later, with news photographers and police officers recording the event, protesters offered their wrists for cuffing. The officers politely escorted them to an elevator for a short walk to a prison bus that would take them to jail. One officer carried the handbag of woman he had arrested. Outside, other protesters cheered as each handcuffed arrestee boarded the bus.
Recent protests have focused on Republican-sponsored tax reforms that Democrats say would benefit corporations and wealthy individuals while imposing sales taxes with a proportionally greater impact on poor and middle-class consumers. Republicans say the proposals eliminate tax disparities and encourage investment in the state.
“This is a plan of action that respects all our citizens,” state Rep. John Szoka, a Republican, said this week.
The Legislature has also alarmed environmentalists with bills that favor developers over environmental regulations. One proposal would repeal restrictions on upstream sources whose pollution flows into Jordan Lake, a major municipal water supply in central North Carolina.
After the city of Durham voted against a proposed development project near Jordan Lake, a bill to force the city to allow the development failed by a single vote. The Legislature has also moved to take control of an airport from Charlotte and a water system from Asheville. All three cities are led by Democratic mayors.
In a statement issued in response to the protests, state Republican Party chairman Claude Pope Jr. said demonstrators’ “unnecessary antics” and “prefabricated events” had cost the state thousands of dollars and diverted police from more important duties.
Pope said state Republicans “inherited massive debt, a broken economy, and a broken government” after years of Democratic control.
“The liberal left wing is advocating that the state maintain a constant poverty of the people,” he added. “We want to take the people out of poverty and into jobs.”
By Tuesday morning, the Rev. Cayer was out of jail. After less than two hours in custody, she was charged with trespassing, failure to disperse and violating legislative building laws, all misdemeanors.
Asked whether she worried about having an arrest record, the minister replied, “in my profession, it’s a plus.”