Editor’s Note: The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president of the North Carolina NAACP State Conference and the convener of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Coalition.
William Barber: A coalition of North Carolinians challenges shameful state leadership
He says series of policies cut funds to education, unemployed, health care; hurt poor people
He says lawmakers' moves aim to disenfranchise voters. Tax changes target poor
Barber: Lawmakers splitting state into haves-have nots; coalition will protest for redress
In the face of injustice, the Book of Isaiah tells us to “cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet.” North Carolina’s State Constitution says the people have a right to assemble and petition their lawmakers for the redress of grievances. It is in this spirit that a growing coalition of North Carolinians is exercising its moral calling and constitutional right by challenging the shameful leadership of our state government – even if it means going to jail.
We don’t take civil disobedience lightly. But the avalanche of extreme policies from Gov. Pat McCrory and the North Carolina General Assembly – attacking the poor and unemployed, cutting crucial funding from public education and dismantling voting rights – left us no choice. From teenage college students to elderly grandmothers, we are assembling in the State Capitol, week after week, to sing, pray and force politicians to hear our voices.
After our first nonviolent protest, 17 of us were arrested and jailed. The next Monday, 30 moral witnesses were carted off in handcuffs, and the next week the number was 49. Last week, 57 protesters were arrested and jailed. Still more of us are prepared to put our bodies on the line to oppose the backward, far-right ideological vision taking hold in our state.
In the first 50 days of this session alone, the General Assembly and McCrory cut the earned income tax credit for more than 900,000 poor and working people. They rejected federal funding to expand Medicaid to cover 500,000 North Carolinians without health insurance. They slashed state unemployment benefits and rejected federally funded Emergency Unemployment Compensation to 170,000 laid-off workers. This vicious war on the poor will devastate hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who are already suffering. And with no checks on the Republican hold on the legislature and governorship, these laws are only the beginning.
Piling further indignities on the poor, they also want to require people applying for temporary assistance or benefits to submit to criminal background checks, and force applicants to a job training program for low-income workers to take a drug test, for which they have to pay.
Now the legislature wants to increase and expand taxes on groceries, haircuts and prescription drugs. They’re even taking aim at poor children with a bill to lower the income requirement for North Carolina’s prekindergarten program, making it off limits to nearly 30,000 children who would have previously qualified.
Perhaps most terrifying is that the politicians who have seized control are trying to rig the state’s election rules, seeking to remain in power far after this legislative session. In their kitchen sink approach to voter suppression, they have pushed bills to require strict forms of photo ID for voting, repeal same-day registration, cut early voting from 17 days to six and ban early voting on Sundays.
They even want to impose a tax penalty on the parents of students who register to vote at their North Carolina college addresses, and pass the most restrictive felony disenfranchisement law in the country. These measures have been carefully crafted to make voting harder for people of color, students, seniors and the working poor.
McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger apparently intend to be the new George Wallaces, adopting the same Southern Strategy of blocking the vote and dividing our state further into haves and have-nots. So our battle continues. We will not sit idly by as this governor and legislature trample on the most vulnerable in our state without the world knowing about it. We will keep going to the State Capitol where their bills are being passed, bearing witness to their ugly, immoral and unconstitutional agenda. We will not allow this to happen in the dark.
This battle is so urgent that Dr. Charles Van Der Horst, a pioneering AIDS researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was arrested at the General Assembly, despite having completed a 199-mile ultra-marathon the previous day. Though physically drained, he still took a stand. When Molly McDonough, an 18-year-old freshman at North Carolina State University, decided to participate, her friends and family expressed concerns about her future. Her courageous response to them: “I’m doing this so I can have a future.”
We call on all North Carolinians of conscience to join us in using the tools of protest to show the nation the shameful acts taking place here. Our arrests will not stop us. Now is the time. Here is the place. We are the people. And we will be heard.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the William J. Barber II