Capital protests make for interesting summer

Jun. 08, 2013 @ 01:28 PM

Watching the weekly arrest of protesters at the General Assembly the past several Monday evenings, I’ve been struck by how many of those going to jail seem to be, well, sort of my age.

Or older.

There’s a heavy streak of gray in the ranks of those who gather by the Legislative Building to air their distress over what’s going on inside this session, and to try to rally public opinion to their point of view.

Indeed, among the first to be arrested several weeks ago were members of the Raging Grannies, a group of senior citizens who often appear at social justice rallies to add their repertoire of protest songs to the cause.

To be sure, many younger people are rallying, in Raleigh and elsewhere, against the legislative tide this year.  And while I’ve not seen any of the “Moral Monday” rallies in person, my sense from television coverage is that the proportion of younger people is increasing as the demonstrations grow larger.

So for those of us who came of age in the 1960s, there’s a certain nostalgia to these weekly events. “We Shall Overcome,” “Venceremos,” and all that.

But what folks are doing on Monday evenings isn’t just reliving a bracing time in many lives. They’re serious, they’re committed and they are, beyond doubt, deeply troubled by what they see as the erosion of public education, the fraying of a social safety net and a shift of support away from and a heavier tax burden on lower-income citizens.

A couple of points, it seems to me, are worth contemplating.

So far, the protest and response have been remarkably civil, almost choreographed. Reasonable people can differ over whether the legislative leadership has been too quick – or too slow – to haul people off to jail.

But the arrests themselves are calm, both police and protesters appear polite, and the arrestees are out of jail several hours later. No objects are hurled from the crowd at the cops, and there are no fire hoses or tear gas in sight.

It is true, as Gov. Pat McCrory and others have complained, that monitoring the protests, arresting protesters and the eventual judicial process are costing the state money. True enough. It costs the state money to handle traffic and crowds when N. C. State and UNC meet in a football game, for that matter.  Robust civic life has costs.

And elections do have consequences. Over the past two legislative election cycles, North Carolina voters have increased conservative power in the General Assembly.  Most of those voters and the legislators they have elected are deeply committed to reframing state government and laying the groundwork for a stronger state economy.

They are unlikely to be swayed by even several thousand protestors.

The audience, though, isn’t really the legislators, or shouldn’t realistically be. Think of a coach yelling at a referee. The ref isn’t going to change the call. But maybe next time, just maybe, he’ll see a play a slight bit differently. And the team will be fired up.

And the growing media coverage of the events is reaching audiences statewide. Will enough voters who may have sat out the last election cycle or so be motivated to show up at the polls to try to change the legislative balance of power? Or will the protests inspire backlash that only helps to further cement the existing balance?

“Moral Monday” protests are likely to continue to grow.  Many Durham pastors are joining a clergy protest Monday to support the rally led by the N. C. NAACP.

It will be an interesting summer.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.