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The ripple effect: NAACP's Barber and civil disobedience in Raleigh

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He starts with a prayer. The Rev. William Barber may say it, or he may call on a fellow pastor. The state NAACP president, Barber likes to cite the Christian teaching that we'll be judged by how we treat the poor—as Jesus said, "the least of these."

After the prayer, Barber leads his flock into the Legislative Building and to the second-floor rotunda between the golden doors of the Senate and House chambers. In the rotunda, those who intend to be arrested gather in front of the Senate door, singing, chanting and holding protest signs. Everyone else, including those previously arrested who are already facing charges, fans out to clap and cheer.

The police close in. Those blocking the door must leave, General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver shouts through a bullhorn, or they'll be arrested for trespassing, failing to disperse on command and displaying signs, which violates a General Assembly rule.

Last Monday, 17 protesters, including Barber, were handcuffed and taken to jail. They were released the next morning, with a court date in June. About 50 people had marched into the building.

This Monday, 30 more were taken into custody. The number of protesters had swelled to 120.

In between, five others were arrested Wednesday in front of the Legislative Building after a march by the N.C. Student Power Union, a group of college-aged activists.

And it's only the beginning.

Barber is calling for "a nonviolent volunteer army of love" to stand against the escalating Republican assault in Raleigh on progressive programs, especially those aiding the poor and needy.

"We hope that, through civil disobedience, they will change, they will repent, they will turn around," he says of the Republicans. "But if they don't, we will assure that what they do will not be done in the dark."

Will his army materialize? With every new Republican outrage—and they are coming fast and furious—Barber's band of clergy, students, activists and folks spurred to action is growing.

Barber's allies plan to hold more Monday demonstrations in Raleigh, along with other protests and meetings around the state. Check the N.C. NAACP website for the latest.

People are asking me three questions about the protests: Are they justified? Will they help or hurt the cause? And is Barber the best leader?

Yes, the protests are justified. The Republicans have unleashed a savage attack on the unemployed and the working poor, the latter by denying them Medicaid and cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit. They are attacking higher education, the K–12 public school system, pre-K programs for at-risk kids, women's reproductive rights, gay rights, environmental protections—the list goes on. They're privatizing public programs so shamelessly—putting businesses in charge while putting their hands out for campaign contributions—it would make Huey Long blush.

As destructive as the Republicans' agenda is, their disdain for the basic requirements of democracy is even more appalling. They disdain evidence, treat public hearings as a joke, and when caught making up "facts" to support their positions, they couldn't care less.

There isn't a shred of evidence, for example, that people try to vote in North Carolina using another registered voter's name. Still, the Republicans carry on about "voter fraud" and the need for photo IDs at the polls. The real reason for their outcry isn't the integrity of ballots, it's that requiring photo IDs will disqualify more Democratic than Republican voters.

Integrity? This week a Senate committee "approved" a bill dismantling renewable energy even though a majority of the members opposed it. Ignoring calls for a roll call, which would have given an exact count, the committee chair blithely ruled after a voice vote that the ayes had it. "North Carolina is not a banana republic," said Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake.

Maybe, but reasoning with the Republicans is futile. I'm sure there are some moderates who recoil at the sight of people—and by people, I mean black people—protesting and getting arrested. And Barber is black, as are many of his allies, though just as many are white, Latino and other ethnicities.

But many more moderates and progressives only skim the daily news, and frankly, most of the mainstream TV and print media in our state are too even-handed to go beyond "Democrats say, but Republicans say"—let alone add that the Republicans are willing to say almost anything.

So it takes the drama of people getting arrested to alert the public to the news that the Republicans aren't just passing some controversial, one-off bills.

As for Barber, if there's someone better at—his phrase—"using the moral framework of the Scriptures and our Constitution" to expose the GOP, I haven't heard her or him. For blacks and whites—and a progressive coalition can't win in North Carolina without a strong turnout of both—Barber's powerful voice and intellect evoke good memories of Dr. Martin Luther King.

With Barber at the helm, the protests are becoming national news, with Raleigh bidding to be in 2013 what Madison, Wis., was in 2011—the epicenter of the national struggle for the soul of state governments across the country.

The national attention, in turn, creates a feedback loop to energize progressive forces here.

William Chafe, the distinguished Duke University historian, was among the protesters arrested Monday. Chafe recalled that the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960 began with four students one day, 23 the next, then 66, then 100, then 1,000.

Chafe quoted Robert F. Kennedy, speaking in South Africa in 1966 against the apartheid regime: "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

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