The weekly protests at the General Assembly, known as “Moral Mondays,” have garnered national attention.
Led by the state NAACP, the protests have drawn people from all walks of life – from pastors to university professors – who are vocally opposing measures trumpeted by the legislature’s Republican majority. The list of almost 700 protesters who have been arrested includes four Johnston County residents.
Cuts to jobless benefits, the end of the earned income tax credit for low-income families and voter-ID legislation have drawn the ire of liberal groups across the state. But the biggest issue for many protestors is the legislature’s decision not to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid – money that advocates say could insure an additional 500,000 North Carolinians. Gov. Pat McCrory has said he’d like to see the current system reformed first.
Allen Wellons, a Smithfield attorney arrested earlier this month, said the Medicaid decision spurred him to take part in the protests. Wellons, a former state senator, said the Republicans are hurting poor residents for ideological purposes.
“Who is that good for?” he asked. “It is harming the most vulnerable of us.”
Wellons said the refusal to expand Medicaid would also be bad for Johnston’s economy, which relies heavily on health-care spending. “One of the biggest industries in our community is our hospital and our medical providers, and this is just taking money out of their coffers,” he said. “And those coffers are just re-expended in our communities. We’re just hurting ourselves.”
Patricia Anthony of Clayton worked as a bankruptcy attorney in Selma for the better part of two decades. Now retired, she looks back on her cases and remembers that many of her clients were plunged into the financial abyss because of medical conditions. Many of them, she said, were insured, but even then, it was hard to stay afloat.
“There’s just not enough money to go around to pay for it, even if you’re insured,” she said. Anthony believes the legislature’s decision only makes it worse.
David Anderson of Benson is coordinator of community ministries for Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. He said cuts to education brought him to the Legislative Building.
“Those are some of the things that I think make North Carolina great and have made North Carolina a leader in the South over the years,” Anderson said. “It’s very discouraging to see those being gutted.”
Wellons, Anthony and Anderson took the same path to being arrested. They went inside the Legislative Building and gathered in the main hall, where protesters were chanting, singing and praying. Officers told them they had 10 minutes to leave or be arrested. They chose to stay, and when time ran out, officers zip-tied their hands and led them downstairs.
The vast majority of those arrested are released from the Wake County Detention Center on their own recognizance hours after their arrest. Most face misdemeanor charges of trespassing, failure to disperse on command and violating building codes.
Most protestors on Moral Mondays choose to stay outside the Legislative Building or disperse on command. Wellons, Anthony and Anderson all had their own reasons for taking their protests a step further.
Wellons said he didn’t go to Raleigh with plans to get arrested, but when police ordered the protesters out, he stayed, knowing he could be taken into custody. He acknowledged he wanted to make a statement, but he doesn’t feel he did anything illegal.
“We never went into an area not open to the public,” Wellons said. “It’s important (for legislators) to be available to the public – even those who disagree with you.”
Wellons called the charges “questionable” and said the protesters were not disrupting business by being loud or boisterous.
Anderson said he also found the arrests strange. His group went in at 5:45 p.m.; only 30 minutes later did police order them to leave.
“It seemed a little arbitrary,” Anderson said. “Nothing had changed in the 30 minutes we were there. All of a sudden, it was an unlawful assembly.”
But all three said they were willing to accept the consequences – probably a fine and 40-plus hours of community service. The main point was to make a statement that could affect the outcome of the next round of legislative elections.
Anthony said she believes the protesters have done that. “We may not change the mind of a single member of the state legislature, but I do hope we get enough attention for voters who get themselves to the polls next November,” she said.