“What do we do when they mess with education?” Rev. William Barber shouted to the people assembled in downtown’s First Congregational Church Aug. 5.
“We fight! We fight! We fight!” the people assembled replied.
“What do we do when they mess with Medicaid?” (“We fight!”) “What do we do when they mess with our voting rights?”
(“We fight!”) “What do we do when they mess with women's rights?” “We fight!”
And so it went at the prologue to Mountain Moral Monday, hosted a few hours later in downtown Asheville as follow-up to a series of similar protests held in Raleigh in the past few months. The Western North Carolina edition boasted significantly larger crowds than those at the Statehouse and was one of the largest downtown gatherings in recent memory. Crowd estimates vary — from City Council member Cecil Bothwell’s declaration that 10,000 packed the square, to Asheville Police Department Capt. Tim Splain’s report that the numbers “well exceeded” the 5,000 the APD prepared for. According to an Asheville Citizen-Times report, the We Still Pray rally in 2000 drew about 4,500 people downtown, and some other protests have drawn 2,000 or 3,000 people.
Whatever the exact number on Aug. 5, the crowd swelled in size and in voices, starting nearby with Barber’s mid-afternoon presentation at the church to a group of about 40 organizers, core supporters of Moral Mondays and the press.
“What do we do as long as we have breath in our bodies?” he called out. Supporters again shouted, "We fight!" The sounds rang off the rafters of the old stone church. President of the state NAACP, Barber has emerged as a leader of Moral Mondays, which target legislation passed by the General Assembly in recent months, such as one of the South’s strictest voter I.D. laws, changes to the state education budget and a bill that could restrict access to abortion.
Ready to rumble
At the church, Barber laid out his conviction that Moral Mondays are more than a protest. He referenced the end of the Civil War and the more recent Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, calling this year’s events part of a “third Reconstruction.” Further, Moral Mondays represent a new "fusion politics," similar to the alliance of white Populists and African-American Republicans during the late 1800s.
"Every time this country has tried to reconstruct itself, in the 1800s or the 1960s, the first attack to stop it has been an attack on voting rights," Barber said. "People are coming from everywhere as a fusion movement. The reason these extremists are doing what they're doing is not because we're weak. It's a reaction to our strength"
Barber alluded to North Carolina’s post-Civil War history: The fusion coalition won some elections, but encountered violence and voter suppression, orchestrated for the most part by the Democratic Party and allied groups that were then dominated by ex-Confederates. Today’s issues aren’t simply limited to one political party or other, Barber continued, but this year’s legislation represents an “avalanche of extremism. … This is not the time for us to be cool, calm and amicable.”
With that in mind, a coalition has emerged out of the Moral Monday protests: Forward Together. The group 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, its first major rally outside of the state capitol.
Today's “fusion politics,” Barber explained, means putting aside a focus on single-issue politics.
“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.”
Rally 'round the flag
As an unseasonably breezy afternoon ended, people made their way into Pack Square Park. Some came individually, others in groups. To judge by those who carried signs, their grievances were many, such as legislators' refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and cuts in support for low-income families.
Whatever their particular reasons, they'd responded by the thousands to Barber's call for a “new South, a new North Carolina and a new future.”
They waved banners for local causes, too, such as the fight over local control of the water system and the closing of the Femcare clinic.
“Now that they've closed [Femcare], what do they want women to do?” Asheville resident Honour Stewart told Xpress. “They're not looking out for us. Tell them to go frack off.”
Local teachers Regina Blount and Demetra Harris wore blue shirts with the word “Practice” on them, representing a push to encourage people to become more involved in the political process and local elections. Harris said 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 added.
Local speakers talked about such issues and more, while some people actively registered voters, solicited donations and signed people up for various groups involved in the coalition.
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, director of the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, took up Barber’s call to fuse groups and goals. “We are part of every single community represented here,” she said. “When you attack any community, you attack us. When you attack us, you attack every community.”
Some state legislators mingled with the crowd. Reps. Nathan Ramsey and Tim Moffitt, both Republicans who represent Buncombe County, said they were there to listen and talk with protesters. Moffitt was grilled by some residents and blasted by local activist Heather Rayburn in her speech attacking his connection with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that has helped coordinate conservative legislation across the country. Meanwhile, the Buncombe Young Republicans engaged in a prank petition aimed at embarrassing the demonstrators.
Bring it home
As Barber got ready to speak, more people flowed into the square, covering the park in a tight mass and cheering the local speakers. Then the preacher got them going.
“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 attendees shouted and cheered through Barber's remarks. He blasted the new voting restrictions as a “crime against democracy,” and the crowd burst into applause.
“We've been through too much, we've learned too much, we've seen too much, we've waged too many battles,” he said. “When you mess with the right to vote, you desecrate the graves and blood of the martyrs.”
Barber drew a breath and continued: “You might win a vote or two in the legislature, but ultimately we're going to win.”
A few more speakers followed the reverend, but his words encompassed the spirit of the event. “Injustice has its moments, but the future doesn't belong to injustice.”