Arrests mount as NC legislative session nears end
Nearly 700 people have been arrested while protesting at the General Assembly over the past 10 weeks of the legislative session, nearly all charged with disorderly conduct, trespassing and violating building rules.
But what behavior constitutes a violation under those broad statutes is largely at the discretion of the legislature's in-house police force.
Observers say some of those handcuffed and charged with the misdemeanors in recent weeks were exercising their First Amendment rights, behaving no differently than protesters from past years who were not arrested. That has raised concerns about whether Republican leaders who took control of North Carolina's General Assembly in 2010 are directing more aggressive enforcement against citizens who disagree with their conservative agenda.
House Democratic Leader Larry Hall said last week that many were handcuffed for "petty citations" and shouldn't have been sent to jail.
"I believe we have a great police force here," said Rep. Hall, a lawyer from Durham. "Now, who do they work for? They work for whoever is in the majority in the House and the Senate, who are responsible for the messages sent to them from the top."
General Assembly police Chief Jeff Weaver said he was offended by suggestions that his officers' actions are influenced by partisanship. He said he had received no instructions from House Speaker Thom Tillis or Senate leader Phil Berger on interpreting or enforcing the laws mandating decorum from visitors.
"We have never had the disruptions at this facility that we have had this year, and the amount of people in these disruptions," said Weaver, who has policed the legislature the past dozen years. "The building rules clearly indicate about disturbances. When you're blocking ingress and egress, clapping and singing, that's disruptive."
Often referred to as "The People's House," the legislative building has always been open and accommodating to the public. On an average day during the session, schoolchildren and Boy Scouts freely roam the halls alongside legislators, staffers and lobbyists.
The bulk of this year's arrests have occurred during "Moral Monday" demonstrations called by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP to spotlight GOP-backed legislation rejecting the expansion of Medicaid to the working poor, slashing benefits to the unemployed, eliminating jobs in public education, and placing restrictions on voting.
Among the first arrested in March was the group's president, the Rev. William J. Barber. Before each Monday protest, Barber leads planning meetings at a church where participants essentially volunteer to be arrested.
After a large outdoor rally, dozens stream inside to stand before the doors of the House and Senate as the session is scheduled to begin. Each week, Weaver uses a bullhorn to give protesters five minutes to disperse or face arrest for what he declares is an unlawful assembly. Those who choose not to leave typically sing hymns or chant as they wait to be arrested.
The spokesman for GOP speaker Tillis, Jordan Shaw, declined to comment for this story. Senate leader Berger's spokeswoman couldn't immediately be reached.
In recent statements, Republican officials have typically been dismissive of the protests. Gov. Pat McCrory called the protesters "outsiders," though records show nearly all come from North Carolina. Last month, Sen. Thom Goolsby derided the protests as "Moron Monday" and said participants are "clowns" and "mostly white, angry, aged former hippies."
There has been criticism that the mass arrests are counterproductive even from those who agree with Barber politically. But he makes no apologies for a strategy of nonviolent confrontation that has made what's happening inside the state legislature national news.
What started as small protests three months ago has grown into a spectacle involving thousands. Other groups — including teachers, doctors, clergy and members of the Occupy movement — have joined.
More than 500 people, mostly women, showed up Wednesday after the Senate voted along party lines to move ahead with restrictions on abortion with no advance public notice or hearings. They filled the gallery overlooking the Senate chamber, and 100 more packed the atrium outside.
Among them was Jennifer Hesse of Cary, who held up a plastic clothes hanger — a symbol of the back-alley abortions she said would result from the restrictions. As she spoke with a reporter, two General Assembly police officers approached, one snatching the hanger from her hand.
"Ma'am, you can't have that here," Officer Frank Flores said.
Pressed on what law Hesse violated, Flores said it was "building rules" — an amorphous statute that includes prohibitions against littering, damaging decorative plants, possessing weapons, or carrying signs and placards of more than 25 square inches.
Moments later, officers approached 30-year-old Katina Gad of Raleigh, who had been ejected from the Senate gallery after yelling "Shame on you!" as Republicans voted to send the anti-abortion bill to the House. As photographers and cameramen tried to capture images of Gad being handcuffed on a disorderly conduct charge, officers swarmed around.
When a cameraman tried to angle his shot around the blockade, an officer shoved him and knocked him back several steps. A member of the sergeant-at-arms' staff assisting police drew back an aluminum cane over his head, threatening to whack those observing.
Last month, officers arrested a Charlotte Observer reporter who was interviewing those being arrested.
Protests are nothing new at the legislative building. Before the GOP takeover two years ago, conservative activists held mass rallies. In July 2001, about 700 showed up at the "Tar Heel Tea Party" to protest a proposed tax increase. According to an Associated Press account, protesters in the House gallery chanted "No new taxes!" and threw tea bags onto the chamber floor. One protester was escorted from the gallery. None were arrested.
Officials in Wake County and Raleigh say the hundreds of arrests this year are straining local resources, from the jail to the city officers working overtime to help the legislature's police. District Attorney Colon Willoughby, a Democrat, suggested he may not have enough prosecutors to take all the cases to court.
The NACCP and other groups are calling for thousands of protesters to descend on the legislature Monday evening. Dozens more arrests are expected.
Chief Weaver said his officers will continue to do what they see as necessary to maintain order and enforce building rules.