An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people showed up for Mountain Moral Monday this evening, filling Pack Square Park and protesting the policies of the North Carolina General Assembly.
Participants — in one of the largest turnouts for a protest in Asheville in recent years — held signs and heard speeches by local activists and Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP. Their grievances included voter restrictions, an education overhaul, legislators' refusal to expand Medicaid, new rules that could close the state's abortion clinics and cuts in support for low-income families. (For a full recording of the event, go to Asheville FM.)
photo by Jonathan Coble
“From the mountains to the coast, we're sick of this mess,” Barber declared. “This is no momentary hyperventilation or liberal screaming match; this is a movement. We have a governor that has decided to be on the wrong side of history. We have a legislature that is bragging and boasting about its power and is legislating on the basis of lies and discrimination. Though they have temporary power, the future does not belong to them.”
The Moral Monday protests are the beginning of a “new South, a new North Carolina and a new future,” he said.
Barber has emerged as a leader of Moral Mondays, which have been a regular occurrence in Raleigh over the summer, growing in numbers (and arrests during civil-disobedience actions) while the legislature was in session. Mountain Moral Monday is the first of several rallies the movement's leaders are holding around the state as a way to keep pressure on legislators during the off-season.
He was particularly critical of the voting restrictions, asserting they constitute a “crime against democracy.”
“You can tell [local Sen. Tom Apodaca] that you haven't seen a headache until you've seen us fight for the right to vote,” Barber said.
Asheville Police Department Capt. Tim Splain told Xpress the crowd “well exceeded” the 5,000 they'd prepared for, and Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell later told protesters that the APD estimated 10,000 people showed up.
Protesters also criticized the closure of local abortion provider FemCare and state legislation (currently in court) seizing Asheville's water system, among other issues more specific to the local area.
“Now that they've closed [FemCare], what do they want women to do?” resident Honour Stewart told Xpress. “They're not looking out for us. Tell them to go frack off.”
Ashevillean Geronimo Owen, who held a sign protesting the water bill, said he'd “wanted to go to Raleigh, but wasn't able to. I think what Rev. Barber says is right on. .. Locally, [the water fight] is probably the largest issue we face.”
Local teachers Regina Blount and Demetra Harris wore blue shirts with the word “Practice” on them, part of a push to encourage people to become more involved in the political process, in local elections as well as state and federal. Some protesters were registering voters, soliciting donations, and signing people up for various groups involved in the coalition.
In their case, they said changes to the education system disturbed them, including changes to the state budget that will lead to cutting teachers' assistants.
“The assistants' hours in Buncombe County have been cut one hour per day, which amounts to thousands of hours per school year,” Harris noted, and with other cuts, she worries that “hundreds of students won't have the services they need.”
“We need more people in the classroom so children can really be supported," Blount said. "That's so important.”
Some of the targets of the protesters' criticism were nearby. State Rep. Nathan Ramsey was walking around the park and said he was “listening” to the protesters.
A picture posted on Twitter by Council member Gordon Smith also showed Rep. Tim Moffitt sporting a sticker for Smith's re-election campaign. Smith's a vocal opponent of Moffitt, and one of the speeches, by local activist Heather Rayburn, was partly devoted to criticizing the east Buncombe lawmaker and his connections with the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, director of the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, said the Moral Monday protests represented a uniting of many different causes.
“We know what it's like to have those in power tell you you should wait an undetermined period of time for equal protection under the law; we can't wait and we won't,” she said. “We are part of every single community represented here. When you attack any community, you attack us. When you attack us, you attack every community.”
Earlier in the afternoon, organizers gathered downtown at a local church, singing hymns and chanting “we fight” to prepare for the rally and to talk to local media.
Barber, along with representatives of local organizations, laid out the motivations and rationale behind Moral Monday. He alluded to a “third Reconstruction” (after the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s) and “a new "fusion politics," referring to the alliance between white working-class Populists and African-American Republicans during the late 1800s. That coalition won some elections, but faced violence and voter suppression from the Democratic Party, then dominated by ex-Confederates. In his remarks later that day, Barber would summarize that history and compare the tea party to the Redeemer and Red Shirt groups that terrorized voters.
He said the issue wasn't one of political party, but rather the “avalanche of extremism” from the current legislature. In response, he said, “This is not the time for us to cool, calm, and amicable.”
In more immediate terms, Forward Together, the coalition that's emerged out of the Moral Monday protests, is pursuing a three-pronged approach: a legal attack on recently passed legislation, a voter-registration drive and events around the state like Mountain Moral Monday.
Today's “fusion politics,” Barber asserted, involves putting aside old divisions and a focus on single-issue politics to form a united front.
“We are destroying the myth of the old white Southern strategy — that you can hurt some people without hurting everybody,” he said. “On one occasion I spoke on the LGBT issue and the LGBT community spoke on voting rights. We realize we're all interconnected. This old divide and conquer is not going to work anymore.”
For a full recording of the event, go to Asheville FM.