Democrats and liberals have been losing in North Carolina. Democrats lost control of both houses of the legislature in 2010, but Republican legislative efforts were slowed by Democratic Governor Bev Perdue. In 2012, Republican Pat McCrory soundly defeated Perdue’s lieutenant governor–and Barack Obama lost the state as well.
Once the Republicans had full control of North Carolina’s government, they sought about doing all the things they believed in. According to state senator Thom Goolsbee (Republican), “Once ensconced in power, the pro-growth, commonsense Republicans went to work like the business people they were.”
This meant cutting unemployment benefits, funding for schools and preschools, implementing Voter ID laws, reducing early voting, and relaxing environmental regulations to encourage fracking. It meant rejecting federal money to expand Medicaid. And it means restructuring the state tax code by cutting property and income taxes and relying more on sales taxes.
Having lost at the polls, opponents of this agenda took to the streets, or more accurately, the lawn of the state capitol in Raleigh. Organized by Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the NAACP’s state conference, the first protest took place on April 27, including a rally and ending with 17 arrests. Each week, more people have turned out at the rallies and more people have been arrested. More than 400 people have been arrested to date.
A large share of the original protesters were clergy or religiously-motivated (see Rev. Barber’s description of the agenda, replete with quotations from Scripture), but as the protests have gone on, the crowd has grown and diversified, and so have the grievances. The advocates for the poor have been joined by environmentalists, educators, death penalty opponents, and organized labor; they share a common opponent.
The demonstrations are sending a message which starts with “Stop.” But who’s listening?
With more or less vitriol, Gov. McCrory and the Republican state legislators say that they already know what the protesters think; the governor has refused to meet with them. Less graciously, some say they are “outside agitators” (note: 98 percent of the arrests have been of North Carolinians) or just “old hippies.” It’s unlikely that Republican legislative stalwarts will trim their sails because of new information about the issues or the passions of their opponents.
Governor McCrory, who had to be elected by a broader electorate than any of the legislators might–and it doesn’t have to be visible. In backroom negotiations, he can shape the bills that come to his desk.
Even more significantly, allies and potential allies who are now quiet or less visible can see the amount of support they might be able to mobilize for something else, likely related, in the future. People who will demonstrate or get arrested are likely to also be people who will work in campaigns, organize communities, sign petitions, or even donate money.
And, in an era where advocates of the poor are just as frustrated as national conservatives are, the protests in Raleigh send out a message that something else is possible. If Rev. Barber is successful, you’ll see imitations elsewhere–in places even he probably doesn’t expect.
Protests matter, just not always and not by themselves. They matter when they engage a broad audience and get them to do things in addition to protesting. Rev. Barber clearly knows this, he says:
The protests are only one part of our four-part strategy. We have a voter registration and voter education strategy, a social media strategy, and we have a legal strategy, because many of these things, not just the voting rules, are going to be challenged in the courts using our state and federal constitutions.