A dozen North Carolinians had the brazen idea that, as American citizens, they could exercise their right to express their concerns to one of their elected representatives, Thom Tillis, who is the general assembly’s Speaker of the House.
They waited patiently for 10 hours in Tillis’ office in the state Capitol late last month. Then police charged them with trespassing, handcuffed them, and hauled them out of the people’s house.
These Moral Monday protesters didn’t understand the situation as Tillis did or, for that matter, from the perspective of his fellow hardline Republicans from Wisconsin to Georgia. The way GOP hardliners see it, Tillis is the Speaker. He speaks, and everybody else shuts up and listens. These lawmakers don’t represent constituents in a constitutional democracy. They are overlords. And as rulers over the people, they’ve awarded themselves the power to muzzle and handcuff anyone who disagrees with them.
While styling themselves as defenders of the constitution and protectors of individual rights, hardline GOPers, in practice, protect their own power and position by violating the Constitution and denying individuals their rights. Just take North Carolina for example.
There, Moral Monday activists gathered at the Capitol weekly for months last year, protesting the general assembly’s voter suppression laws, cuts to unemployment benefits, denial of expanded Medicaid benefits to the working poor under the Affordable Care Act, repeal of the Racial Justice Act, and tax cuts for the rich. These demonstrations resumed this year, with 80,000 rallying at the first one in Raleigh in February. And they’ve spread across the south, to Georgia and South Carolina. In Alabama, the weekly events are called Truthful Tuesdays.
Last year, police arrested 945 of these protesters when they entered the North Carolina Capitol to make their voices heard after congregating outside to chant, sing spirituals and hear speeches. They got lots of publicity. And their popularity soared while that of the GOP-controlled general assembly plummeted.
This, of course, annoyed hardline Republicans responsible for the policies the activists protested. So this year, they did something about it. No, they didn’t “repent, repeal and restore,” as the activists requested. Instead, the hardliners attempted to repress, rescind and revoke the citizens’ constitutional rights.
The Republican majority in the North Carolina legislature adopted rules making it a crime – a misdemeanor – for citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights to assembly, speech and protest in the Capitol, legislative office buildings and grounds.
The rules forbid citizens who enter the Capitol buildings from “disturbing” lawmakers or their staff members. This includes singing, clapping, shouting and playing musical instruments. No Christmas carols in the North Carolina Capitol! Skulking lobbyists, however, are welcome.
That’s not all, though. The rule says police may arrest and criminally charge a citizen who poses an “imminent disturbance.” The GOP neglected to define imminent disturbance, though. So, depending on the law enforcement officer, an imminent disturbance could be casting a dirty look at a lawmaker. It could be clutching a hymnal. It could be walking with two hands capable of clapping.
The rules also outlaw signs on sticks and placards that would “disturb” a lawmaker or legislative staffer. So, basically, picketing at the state Capitol is barred. Under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, North Carolina GOP State Senator Thom Goolsby was free to denigrate the activists as “Moron Monday” protesters in an op-ed published in the Chatham Journal. But if Goolsby were “disturbed” by a citizen scrawling “Goolsby is a moron” on cardboard and carrying it in the Capitol, the legislative rules give the GOP lawmaker the power to order guards to confiscate it and charge the citizen with a crime.
In addition, the rules require protesters to get permits to rally on Capitol grounds from the very people who don’t want them to rally on Capitol grounds. The GOP hardliners have invested in themselves the power to determine exactly who has and who does not have a First Amendment right to assemble on public property in North Carolina.
The GOP decrees violate virtually every protection in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, the right to peaceably assemble and the right of free speech.
This is Republican rule, not representative governance. This is the arrogance of King George, not the deference of a public servant. It’s unconstitutional and un-American.
In May, immediately after Republicans in the legislature imposed the new rules, 1,500 Moral Monday activists met and broke bread in the Bicentennial Mall in front of the North Carolina Legislative Building. Then they covered their mouths with duct tape and marched silently through the Capitol, distributing bread to several lawmakers.
The Raleigh News & Observer described it this way in an editorial afterward: “These protesters have done a public service, pure and simple. They have spoken eloquently and loudly, even when they do not speak at all.”
Americans cherish the idea that they live in a country that pulls up the downtrodden, protects the weak, and provides equal opportunity for all to succeed. They believe their government should work to fulfill these ideals. When it fails, Americans know their Constitutional protections, like the right to speak, protest and assemble, will help them get their representational democracy back on track.
The Moral Monday protesters are dissidents, defying overlords who are trying to shut them up and shut them down by denying them their most basic Constitutional rights.