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For some Moral Monday protesters, the law won

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The Moral Monday court hearings are, of course, no pleasure for the accused, but they are also no doubt a headache for judges, bailiffs, court clerks, prosecutors and the like. But justice must be done, even when it resembles watching two seasons of reruns.

Two judges, Joy Hamilton and William Lawton, have been assigned to hear the cases of the 940 demonstrators—I am among them—who were arrested last summer. Considering that number, the judges likely will hear similar testimony and arguments for the rest of the year.

Earlier this month, about a dozen of us Moral Monday defendants who had been arrested on May 13 gathered in the Wake County Courthouse, joined by a half-dozen of the some 120 Triangle-area attorneys who have volunteered to defend the demonstrators pro bono.

I was glad to get into the courtroom, not because I expected justice but because it was 11 degrees outdoors, and my ears were burning from the cold. Having to face the possibility of a fine, and maybe a short jail term, didn't bother me, because I am a tenured N.C. State professor and not much was at stake.

We were all slated to face Judge Hamilton, who, fortunately, is not a foreboding figure in a black robe. She's probably in her early 50s, and by her speech she could easily be a public school principal, even a guidance counselor.

All of us were originally charged with three offenses: display of a sign or placard, failure to disperse on command and second-degree trespass. Saladin Muhammad, a 68-year-old African-American labor organizer from Rocky Mount, had been the first to draw a sentence. In October. Judge Hamilton found him guilty on all three courts. She fined him $100.

But in the intervening weeks, Moral Monday lawyers made shrewd references to Supreme Court cases and North Carolina law, and when our trial opened, the prosecutor, Lawrence Cameron, dismissed the placard and failure-to-disperse charges.

Although Chief Jeff Weaver, the prosecutor and defense attorneys quickly concurred that nobody has the authority to capriciously oust visitors from the Legislature, Weaver and the sergeants at arms of the House and Senate testified that by singing, chanting and clapping, eight of us—six women and two men—had created an unlawful disturbance.

In prior trials the prosecution had alleged that by blocking doorways Moral Monday protesters had created a disturbance. Those of us arrested May 13 had gathered in front of the golden doors of the Senate at about 6 p.m. But the Senate wasn't in session and wouldn't begin its deliberations for an hour, by which we time we were all in custody.

The House did open at about 6 p.m., though its sergeant at arms had locked its front doors. But he blocked those doors, not us. He testified that House members were forced to enter the chamber by a set of rear entrances. Maybe that did create a disturbance: Is still true that in North Carolina, one doesn't send white men to enter through the back?

Under cross-examination, Weaver and the other order-keepers admitted that during our one-hour presence at the rotunda, no member of the House or Senate, nor any employees of the Legislature, had asked police to silence us.

"My routine and my staff were disturbed more than anybody," one of law enforcers said.

The defenders argued that forcing order-keepers to do their jobs is not tantamount to creating an unlawful disturbance.

The case against us came down to simple terms: "This is an unlawful assembly," Chief Weaver had told us. We were supposed to leave. We didn't.

The prosecution had us on videotape, start to finish. Using a bullhorn, Weaver warned that we had five minutes to comply, announced when we had two minutes to comply and again right before the arrests began. He paced in front of our group, each time delivering his announcement more than once. What he said wasn't clearly audible, either in real life or on tape, but we certainly noticed that he was addressing us.

When the prosecution rested, seven of the accused—everybody but me—took the stand. I didn't testify because my lawyer, Stewart Fisher of Durham, discouraged the idea, probably because he suspected I would have said something stupid. He was probably right.

But, one after another, the other seven testified. They said that they'd come to be heard, a couple of them, after they'd been rebuffed in prior attempts to contact their legislators. The sincerity of their voices was persuasive: They believed that Republican politicians might take public opposition into consideration. All seven defendants showed faith in the judicial and political system.

Each of them admitted to clapping, chanting or singing, though the other man, Clayvon Everett, 66, said that he didn't sing very loudly. He voluntarily told the court that he'd been arrested before. "I couldn't believe that I had to march all over again for what I'd marched for as a teenager," he explained. He also testified that he hadn't been able to make out what Chief Weaver was saying. He was standing against the rotunda's wall, behind three or four rows of protesters who didn't go quiet when the bullhorn barked.

The six women who were charged—three white, three black—told the court that they could hear parts of Weaver's warning, "five minutes" or "two minutes" or, in one case, "premises," as in "leave the premises." Leslie Boyd, a woman in from the Asheville area, testified that she had come to protest in memory of her son who had a birth defect and died prematurely because he couldn't find an insurer wiling to take him; nor could the family afford expensive tests. Her presentation so overpowered the courtroom that prosecutor Cameron didn't cross-examine her.

The video showed all of the women, and also a shadowy image of Everett, singing, chanting or clapping. I was pictured several times, always in the same posture. My hands were in the front pockets of my jeans; I was not clapping. I was chewing gum, not singing or chanting. I am 68. I looked like a bemused old man.

My attorney allowed that maybe the video showed me mouthing three words to a song, "be all right." But it was clear, he argued, that I hadn't disturbed anybody.

The prosecution argued that I was "acting in concert" with the group and was therefore guilty of anything it did. That's what I believed, too. But in his summation, Fisher pointed out that the prosecution hadn't shown that I even knew any of the protesters and, in fact, I had met only one of them, nothing more.

Fisher had another card up his sleeve. During a lunch break, he noticed that I was wearing hearing aids. I wear them to teach classes and, now and again, for faculty meetings and funerals. However, I wasn't wearing hearing aids at the demonstration. Fisher argued that the prosecution had not shown that I could have heard, or did hear, Weaver's warnings.

When they closed their cases, all three defense attorneys argued for dismissals that Judge Hamilton refused to grant. I figured that we all were going to be convicted. When they can, all governments persecute their critics. Everybody knows that. Like the others, I believed that I was being tried for demonstrating, not for anything alleged in the charges against us. I felt it my duty to observe, not some piety toward—or fantasy about—the workings of law or the Constitution, but to be faithful to an old adage known to convicts and cops: "Don't the crime if you can't do the time." I was up for that.

When Hamilton began announcing her verdicts, I was the first to be named. She acquitted me. She also freed Everett, the other old-man defendant. However She convicted the six women, essentially of singing.

This article appeared in print with the headline "They fought the law."

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