On June third, I was arrested and charged with second degree trespassing and failure to disperse at a Moral Monday protest at the NC General Assembly. Tomorrow morning is my first court appearance. After several days of consideration, I’ve decided to accept the District Attorney’s plea agreement rather than plead ‘not guilty’. The agreement involves paying $180 in court costs and serving twenty-five hours of community service. Accepting it was not an easy decision, and most of those who are aware of my arrest will likely be disappointed in my choice. So, I’m going to try and explain my rationale.
First, why did I get arrested in the first place? For me that is easy. What was happening behind the closed doors of the General Assembly was in my view unconscionable, yet the majority of voters were ignorant of the policies that were being enacted in their name. The Democratic legislators in the minority were powerless, and so the NAACP, joined by a cross-section of citizens, committed civil disobedience week after week by refusing to leave the General Assembly rotunda when directed to do so. The resulting nine hundred plus arrests made news week after week. And citizens in their living rooms across the state, indeed across the nation began to ask why. The answer to that question required an airing of the specifics of the myriad of horrific bills that had been passed. And that exposure caused an increasing number of people to question the actions of their legislators, so that in time more people approved of the Moral Monday protestors, than approved of their legislators. So far, the movement has been a remarkable success.
Fast forward to September, and decision time for me. I lay out the pros and cons of accepting the plea agreement, versus continuing the protest by pleading ‘not guilty’ and forcing the case to trial. I attempted to divide the argument into how my choice would affect me personally, and how it would affect the overall goal of the protest. Personally, foregoing the plea deal is less risky for me than for many. As a retiree, I have time. I live within sixty miles of the courthouse, and I can afford a larger fine if that is the result. That said, I do not want to invest large amounts of time, or money, and I certainly do not relish the thought of actual jail time. However, I feel strongly about the issues that drove me to protest. If I didn’t have serious concerns about the wisdom of an ongoing number of Moral Monday-related trials, I honestly feel I would stand my ground. But I’m not. Because I think pursuing this further is a bad strategy when it comes to achieving our goals. I’ll try to articulate why.
The protest was about legislation involving voting rights, educational cuts, regressive tax rates, etc. It was not about access to the rotunda. In that sense, I have a hard time pleading ‘not guilty’ to the charge of trespassing. I knew the law. Frankly, I was not there to protest the law I was accused of violating. But I violated that law, and I am willing to pay the price demanded. Yes, as these cases proceed through the courts, that law will be challenged, and it may or may not be eventually overturned. But the attention of the public will be on the burden on the court system, not on the law itself, and most importantly not on the horrific legislation I was there to protest. If that particular trespassing law needs to be challenged, then a single case will have the same impact as nine hundred cases; the law will stand or it will fall. And a single case will not burden the court system and the taxpayers further. In addition, this situation is not analogous to the the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s or the Campaign for Southern Equality protests of today. Those protests directly challenge an unjust status quo, and each and every case reminds the public of that specific injustice directly. In our case, most people outside the movement would fail to connect the dots; while watching news coverage of a trespassing trial, they’re unlikely to ponder cuts to early voting.
Let me be clear. I am proud to have been arrested as part of this movement, and am not re-thinking the wisdom of that decision. Because I am firmly convinced that those protests achieved their goal – the enlightenment of many North Carolinians who would otherwise have remained ignorant about cuts to their school budgets, about steps taken to suppress future voting, about additional abortion restrictions, etc. The publicity surrounding those weeks of protest accomplished that goal. But the question I asked myself was: “What would the publicity surrounding months of Moral Monday trials accomplish?” Would it improve the public’s understanding of the new regressive tax structure? Would it highlight taxpayer money diverted from public education to private education? Would it explain the gutting of the state’s key environmental oversight commissions? I expect not. I don’t think that it will educate the voters. It will simply showcase taxpayer money being spent on trials of people like myself, who deliberately got ourselves arrested. I believe that many largely apolitical voters, feeling that these trials could have been avoided, will lose sympathy for our efforts. In short, I think continuing this process could backfire. And I believe it is time to declare victory and focus our energies on voter registration and education, so that we can overturn the acts of this past legislative session.
Finally, I fully realize that my position is somewhat heretical among people, zealots like myself, who feel strongly about the righteousness of the Moral Monday protests. But if our goal is repeal of these laws, then that must happen at the ballot box. And to win at the ballot box, we must convince large numbers of non-zealots of the wisdom of our efforts. We did just that with this summer’s rallies, and with the exposure generated by our arrests. I am proud to be associated with those who feel the need to continue along this path. But I do not believe that we will repeat our previous success by pursuing this avenue.