To a packed house at the Diana Wortham Theater last night, leaders of local and state organizations condemned the policies of the North Carolina General Assembly and heard concerns from local citizens.
The event, “Better Choices for North Carolina,” was organized by the NC Justice Center, a progressive advocacy organization, and a number of local groups including the WNC AIDS Project, the Asheville City Schools Foundation, Just Economics, United Way, and more.
“The state being created [by the legislature] is not the state that the vast majority of people in North Carolina want,” the center’s director, Melinda Lawrence, said. Chris Fitzsimon, of the center’s NC Policy Watch, said he was “tired of all the jokes about NC” because “these are people’s lives we’re talking about here.”
The crowd skewed older (something one person pointed out during public comment, noting “we have to do better”).
Most of the event was taken up by local speakers, some leading organizations who said they and the people they serve will be harmed by the legislature’s decisions on education, abortion, healthcare, and new restrictions on voting
Kate Pett, from the Asheville City Schools Foundation, said that the budget passed by the state, which included a variety of cuts along with the end of teacher tenure and a pilot voucher program for charter schools, was “truly damaging,” Asheville schools stand to lose 13 teaching assistants, she noted, along with cuts to supplies and support.
“There have been efforts to confuse the situation, suggesting there have been increases to the support available to students, when we know that’s not actually true,” she said, asserting that local teachers deserve more than becoming “a beleaguered and exhausted group of people who feel their state representatives do not care about them and worse, actually disrespect the work that they do.”
Peggy Weil, of the WNC AIDS project, claimed the state missed an opportunity to “save money and save lives” when it rejected Medicare expansion. “People get sick with insurance or without.”
Tyrone Greenlee, of Christians for a United Community, remembered when his mother had to go to the segregated Plaza Theatre (where the Fine Arts Theater is now), and said that those days weren’t far away, with NC’s new voting restrictions raising the specter of making it harders to vote for low-income and minorities to cast their vote.
“I’m not that old and I still remember that,” he said. “I know that I was able to walk downstairs into that theater with my mother because someone fought to integrate that theater.”
“This legislation will cause them not only to have to jump through hoops, but in some cases to have to come out of pocket to vote, which will further make them feel that voting is not something they should take the time to do,” he added.
But during the public comment portion Olufemi Lewis, a local activist, talked about the cynicism many have about the political system.
“How can I go out to my community in Hillcrest and get other individuals excited or inform them about how important it is to vote when we don’t have an accountability system in place for the legislators, and the senators and the governors we’re voting to put in office?”
“I don’t have an answer,” she noted. “I agree that regardless of our individual beliefs, we all should unite to fight in this. We all want to eat, we all want houses, we all want to live in North Carolina together.”
Others talked about the recent closure of the Femcare abortion clinic, cuts in social services, and concerns about money in politics.
Some local political figures also spoke. Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith, who’s running for re-election, said that Asheville’s local government was heading in the right direction, that the city “believes in equal opportunity,” and was opposed by the state government.
“In the middle of this comes the general assembly,” hampering the city’s “efforts on affordability and efforts to strip the city of its assets.”
Mayoral candidate Martin Ramsey also weighed in, asking “where are the young people?”
“The question is: when will we stop just fighting for what we had 10 years ago?” he said. “When will we start moving in a direction that empowers young people, that offers them a voice in their work place and offers them something more than a polluted and impoverished future.”
Republican state Rep. Nathan Ramsey (no relation) also attended, talking to attendees afterwards, and, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times, questioning if the event was really non-partisan.
As the event ended, Lawrence said she hope to create a “justice league” network of groups across the region fighting for similar causes, joking that “we’ll provide the capes if you provide the superpowers.”