British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
It might surprise you to know that Jesus is frequently and unabashedly invoked in a protest movement that includes support for LGBT and abortion rights, but such is a simple fact of life in North Carolina. The Moral Monday protests here seek to reclaim the rhetoric of morality and – often explicitly Christian – spirituality in ways that are confounding to the Tea Party.
The twelfth consecutive week of Moral Monday protests took place on Monday, July 22, outside the North Carolina General Assembly building at 5 p.m. as usual. Thousands of people were there, this time focusing on proposed state voter restrictions and attacks on public education. It hasn’t received much attention in national media outlets, but there’s a growing popular uprising in North Carolina against the extremist policies of the Republicans who currently control state government.
Every week prayers and gospel songs infuse the air and participants offer blessings to the latest batch of 100 or so activists entering the Raleigh General Assembly building to commit civil disobedience. If you’re not from here, it may all seem a little counter-intuitive: A movement for inclusive and just secular governance that is deeply inflected with Christian ethics and arguments.
Each Monday we stand in a courtyard near a paved walkway that boasts a large representation of the North Carolina state seal which reads “Esse quam videri.” We learned the state motto in fourth grade, state history: “To be rather than to seem.” Nothing plays worse to North Carolinians than disingenuousness. Many things have changed in the decades since our founding, but this one stuck. And this is who we are as a culture, for better or worse. It’s hard to grow up in this place without becoming at least a little bit Christian in a cultural sense – moved and motivated by the same spiritual imagery that drove the people who came before us.
It’s not that there aren’t plenty of atheists, agnostics and members of other faiths in attendance every week. The Moral Monday movement is supported by a 150-organization coalition spearheaded by the NC-NAACP that includes everything from Occupy Raleigh to Planned Parenthood-NC to the NC Association of Educators. But outsiders have to understand what it means to be an activist in the South. Even as regressive conservative forces have cloaked themselves in Biblical rhetoric throughout our history, so have social justice movements in this historic site of Civil Rights Movement activism. Jesus has been a central figure in virtually every mass social movement in North Carolina history, and that doesn’t change in the context of this intersectional movement encompassing everything from LGBT rights to reproductive justice. So the NC Council of Churches is involved too, as are local United Church of Christ and Quaker congregations.
This is an extremely gerrymandered state – one that is relatively evenly divided in terms of political party affiliation but leans blue at least since 2008. Even though a majority of votes were cast for Democrats in 2012, North Carolina’s state government is dominated by Tea Party-affiliated ideologues with none of the moderation or interest in compromise that previous Republican leaders – like former Governor Jim Martin – displayed when they held office. They have quickly mounted aggressive assaults on Medicaid, unemployment, public education, reproductive justice and voting rights. What was once a bastion of moderation and tolerance in the South is now outpacing other Southern states – having turned down federal aid for Medicaid expansion and unemployment. We’re not used to contending with this level of extremism – after all, this is the first time the right wing has controlled both congressional houses and the governorship in 150 years.
It isn’t playing well with the public, either, which remains as moderate as ever — but is now contending with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Since April, tens of thousands of people from throughout the state have come to the NC legislative building to voice concerns about the far-right ALEC-dictated agenda of the people in charge. As of July 22, nearly 900 have been arrested in the course of entering the building to commit civil disobedience. This Monday, an impromptu sit-in is thwarted almost as soon as protesters take their seats – more than 70 are arrested and police lock the building doors on all sides.
Moral Monday protesters led by the NC-NAACP now enjoy a higher statewide approval rating than the General Assembly, which has bottomed out at less than 20 percent. Republicans in the state legislature have not even held on to the majority support of registered Republican residents. This explains the leadership’s interest in more and more voter restriction laws – and why they recently targeted college students. They will need to suppress the vote considerably to stay in power. Free and fair elections, a cornerstone of the democratic process, are a thing of the past, and district lines can’t be redrawn for nearly another decade.
Republican leaders have called the protesters “outside agitators,” and this couldn’t possibly be a more disingenuous characterization. Now participants make signs that say things like, “ALEC is the real outside agitator” – or that simply stake their claim to North Carolina residency: “6th-Generation North Carolinian,” “Rocky Mount native,” “Transylvania County.”
In fact, the striking thing about the protests is their local character. Groups like Black Workers for Justice, Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice sometimes print signs, but most people make their own. Crowds are uniformly polite and friendly. Just as we were schooled all our lives, we jump up from our seats any time an elderly person passes – the elderly, we all know, get first dibs on benches, lawn chairs and every other manner of public seating.
There’s a certain order of business at every Moral Monday protest, almost like a church service: Each week has a designated theme like voting rights, economic disparity or justice for women. It starts with a handful of brief speeches from coalition leaders all over the state. Women are the theme on Monday, July 15th. This is partly a response to the extreme anti-choice legislation sneakily pushed through the North Carolina legislature earlier this month. It’s expected to force all but one of the state’s abortion clinics to close and effectively end access to safe and legal abortion.
NC-NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber, who has emerged as a de facto leader of the movement, opens with what can only properly be called a sermon. Barber, who identifies as an evangelical Christian and theological conservative, is a Disciples of Christ pastor. He invokes the liberationist promises of the Old Testament prophets and Synoptic Gospels in his scathing critiques of the ALEC-beholden extremists who currently control NC government. A powerful orator, his preaching style is old-school Southern Black Pentecostal, and shouts of “Amen!” ring out through the crowd as the intensity of his delivery grows. Even those of us with differing religious convictions – or none at all – have to respect the role of religion in this movement.
Because the George Zimmerman verdict was announced on the previous Saturday, members of Black Workers for Justice pass out printed signs that say “Justice for Trayvon,” and much of the focus on July 15 focus falls on mothers. Directly referencing the acquittal, Barber says the fight must extend beyond Moral Monday, which has mostly served to help North Carolinians realize that we’re not alone. “Never again will we allow the South to succumb to the divisive strategy of the Old South!” he says in closing.
Reproductive rights organizations like Planned Parenthood-NC and NARAL Pro-Choice-NC – and lots of pink t-shirts – are here. Executive Director Suzanne Buckley of NARAL’s state chapter situates reproductive freedom in broader moral and ethical terms, refusing to cede morality to the Christian Right. She tells the audience, “Let me be clear – being pro-choice is a moral position. Women’s lives matter. Women deserve our trust and respect.”
But the Moral Monday crowd sees justice for women in broader terms than just abortion rights. That’s why so many of these speakers discuss how economic disparity in our state disproportionately affects women. Executive Director Angeline Echeverría of non-partisan Latino advocacy organization El Peublo, Inc. speaks about undocumented mothers who face police profiling and discrimination while driving to work. “It doesn’t matter what political party you belong to!” she says to loud applause, “This isn’t right for Carolina del Norte!”
After the speakers wrap up each week, those who have chosen to participate in civil disobedience this time form a line in the center of the crowd. A clergy member offers a collective prayer on their behalf, and a local gospel singer leads the crowd in a Civil Rights anthem like “We Shall Not Be Moved” as they proceed into the General Assembly building. This week we’re asked to extend a hand toward the procession to bless the activists as they pass.
Other weekly musical guests include members of the North Carolina Music Love Army collective led by Caitlin Cary – best known for co-fronting former band Whiskeytown with Ryan Adams – and former collaborator Jon Lindsay. Each Monday, members of the group perform songs they’ve written for this moment. “We’re the soundtrack of Moral Monday,” Cary says before launching into a peppy but scathing song about rigged elections with a chorus that begins, “We did not elect your body.” Almost every well-known local act is involved, from Hiss Golden Messenger to The Love Language, and the growing group counts dozens among its ranks. The word is that they’re recording and planning a statewide tour to raise funds for the NAACP and other coalition groups involved in this fight.
When the festivities end, members of the NAACP lead protesters across Salisbury Street, where we hold up signs and wait for the latest bus of arrested North Carolinians to pass. As we congregate, we chant slogans like the July 15 reworking of an old classic: “Ain’t no power like the power of women ‘cause the power of women don’t stop!” It’s rush hour, and we’re greeted by countless waves, beeps and other signs of good will from folks leaving work in Raleigh.
When the bus passes by, the hundreds still standing clap and cheer in support of the people being taken to jail for processing.
There’s a spiritual revival of sorts underway here in North Carolina, and thousands of pilgrims from all over the state come for the service every Monday, where we can draw sustenance and energy from the growing people’s uprising here. In the past three months, tens of thousands have converged in Raleigh, and more than 800 people have been arrested – all loaded on the bus near the spot where they’ve just tripped over the words: “Esse quam videri.”
Kristin Rawls is a freelance journalist based near Raleigh. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, AlterNet, In These Times, Religion Dispatches, GOOD magazine and many others. Follow her on Twitter @kristinrawls. More Kristin Rawls.
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