For the past four Mondays in Raleigh, North Carolina, evening sessions at the Legislature building have been interrupted by a growing numbers of protesters. After months of petitioning Gov. McCrory and leadership in both houses, NC NAACP chapter president, Rev. William Barber, called for civil disobedience to highlight immoral policies which are being made into law with disregard for the millions of North Carolinians who will be harmed. On the first “Moral Monday,” April 29th, seventeen people were arrested.
On Monday of this week, hundreds of people filled the rotunda of the Legislature building, singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” and lifting up prayers for a better way forward in this state. Nearly sixty people were arrested, bringing the total number of arrestees in the “Forward Together” campaign to 153.
This much of the story about what’s happening in North Carolina has been reported widely.
But the story about who this movement is and why it has escalated to this point has not been told. It is, however, a story of everyday awakenings–a story rooted in faith, in the best of North Carolina’s history, and in a radically democratic vision for the America that has not yet been.
After standing with the ministers, labor leaders, professors, and public officials who were arrested this week, I spent seven hours in the Wake County Detention Center Monday night, listening to the stories of people who had decided as a matter of conscience that they needed to break the law in order to expose what has been happening behind closed doors. I talked to a school board member from Durham, where my kids go to school, about why she believes the so-called “Opportunity” bill before the legislature is an underhanded way to sell out public education to big business. I listened as an economics professor from UNC Chapel Hill, the country’s oldest public university, explained why extreme legislature that is being promoted to “boost the economy” makes no economic sense. I sat with organizers from the public workers’ union who talked about how the people who go to work everyday and keep our public services running are desperate. Long after midnight, I listened to the man who led the sit-in movement in Chapel Hill in 1960 explain why, after more than fifty years of public service, he felt compelled to again engage in civil disobedience.
Though I was feeling the lack of sleep by the end of them, these interviews left me with three distinct impressions:
1) These people are not easy to write off. I’ve been to enough marches, rallies, and protests over the years to recognize the young, disaffected person who protests to complain. Fifty two of the fifty-seven people who were arrested on Monday had never been arrested before–had not so much as missed a traffic court appearance. This movement that has erupted in Raleigh is not extremist, but is rather a response to extremism. It is public outcry from people who understand what is at stake.
2) These are people of faith. Yes, some of us are clergy, wearing our collars and stoles. But professional religious are a minority in this movement. What I heard over and again as I listened to people on Monday was the deep faith of lay people who know that truth is the light and a lie cannot live forever.
3) This is a new day for politics in America. The democratic experiment has always depended upon people who believe that beloved community can be built across the dividing lines of our society. The contradiction of slavery and Indian removal at the heart of American history has made democracy a struggle from the start. But we have, throughout our history, had movements that strove for the possibility of a democratic society.
In the 1960’s, young people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) demonstrated that democracy was possible when large numbers of people were willing to take direct, nonviolent action to enact a new America in public. While they had some older mentors, like North Carolina’s great Ella Baker, these activists were almost all under the age of 30. One of the most striking and hopeful aspects of the movement that’s springing up in North Carolina today is that it is not only multi-racial, but also inter-generational–young and old taking action together.
This is a new day for North Carolina–and, I pray, for our nation and our world.
You can continue to follow the story here at The Everyday Awakening. Our local NPR show, The State of Things, will also cover the movement with the first in-depth reporting today at noon and 9pm.