RALEIGH Thousands of people from across the state marched through downtown Raleigh on Saturday morning to persuade state lawmakers and a new governor to pass laws that make government more inclusive, less protective of the wealthy and better equipped to tackle poverty through greater access to health care and better schools.
The seventh annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street rally drew enough marchers to stretch from one end of downtown Fayetteville Street to the other. They squeezed into the plaza between the state history and natural sciences museums – a space that organizers say holds 10,000 people – to listen to speakers on a stage in front of the state legislative building.
It was an audience displeased with a government that is now firmly in Republican hands with the election of Pat McCrory as governor. They protested a long list of items: a proposed voter ID law that they say would disenfranchise citizens, budget cuts that they say weakened public schools, a constitutional ban on gay marriage, a deep cut in unemployment benefits and a rejection of expanding Medicaid coverage to an additional 500,000 uninsured poor as part of the new federal health-care law.
“They suggest this is how you fix America, this is how you fix North Carolina, this is how you fix poverty. Three things: Give more tax cuts to the wealthy, tell the poor people they need to be more responsible, and get more guns,” said Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP. “That’s a ridiculous kind of rhetoric.”
Jordan Shaw, a spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis, said in a phone interview that Republicans are about rebuilding the economy and providing opportunities for all North Carolinians.
“For every issue we are trying to listen to all stakeholders,” he said. “And we feel that our policies are leading our state in a better direction.”
But a common theme among those attending the march was of being left out, economically and politically.
Mayra Aguilar, 19, of Garner, told the crowd that she came to North Carolina illegally with her parents 15 years ago. She has a 3-year-old daughter and said she wants to build a life here, but her immigration status means she would have to pay out-of-state tuition to attend a university or community college. She is unable to hold a driver’s license, despite a recent federal policy intended to ease restrictions on the children of illegal immigrants while Congress and President Barack Obama develop a new policy that is likely to provide them a path toward citizenship.
“We are asking the nation for a chance and equal opportunities just like other races have,” Aguilar said.
Several attendees said Republican policies have not helped bring down an unemployment rate that has sat at 9 percent or higher throughout the recession. The legislature’s budget cuts eliminated thousands of jobs from state and local government payrolls, which they said had the double-barrel impact of increasing the unemployment rolls while weakening public education, health care and other services.
“It looks like we are going backward instead of forward,” said Rev. Earl C. Johnson, pastor of the Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh.
None of Saturday’s speakers sounded hopeful that their messages and strength in numbers would change lawmakers’ minds. They talked about taking their message out to the towns and cities across the state to educate and motivate voters for the 2014 election.
It was a message that Donnie K. Lewis, 56, an Anson County librarian and NAACP chapter president, thinks people are already hearing, judging by Saturday’s turnout.
“It’s showing that I’m tired of being tired,” Lewis said. “Sitting around isn’t doing us any good.”