RALEIGH Harry Payne, a former chairman of the state Employment Security Commission and former state labor commissioner, stood with several others outside the N.C. State Legislative Building on Monday behind a row of larger-than-life cardboard cutouts. The number 170,000 was written on the front of the silhouettes.
Payne and several others hoisted elbow signs with the word “unemployed” above the faceless images.
Like many attending the ninth Moral Monday demonstration, Payne and his group were trying to remind lawmakers of the 170,000 out-of-work North Carolinians who stand to lose more than $700 million in Emergency Unemployment Compensation by the end of the year.
The protest at the legislature coincided with changes to unemployment law that took effect over the weekend. Because the state cut benefits for out-of-work North Carolinians who file new claims, it is the first state to be disqualified from a federal compensation program for the long-term jobless.
“Having worked in that field for several years and to know personally and to have seen the heartbreak among the people getting benefits, this is just cruel,” Payne said.
The new law was a legislative response to the more than $2 billion the state owes the federal government, money that was borrowed to cover state-funded unemployment benefits after unemployment soared beginning in 2008. Republicans argued that scaling back unemployment benefits will accelerate paying off the debt, which triggered higher federal unemployment taxes for businesses.
By redirecting money that was going to unemployment benefits, the state no longer provided the minimum needed to qualify for federal benefits.
“This is a slap in the face,” the Rev. Earl Johnson, pastor of Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh, told the crowd gathered on the drenched Halifax Mall outside the buildings where lawmakers were about to go into session. “What people need are jobs and not jabs and personal insults.”
In what has become a Monday routine, nearly 80 people were arrested outside the General Assembly chambers. On a day when many Triangle towns were cleaning up after heavy rains and flooding, throngs gathered to protest the Republican agenda that has made North Carolina a battleground where two very different visions of government are being fiercely fought.
The Republican leaders who have yet to respond to the demonstrators who gather outside their chambers and offices argue that they are pushing political agendas that won them historic victories in North Carolina.
But the protesters, some of whom voted for Republicans, counter that the agenda being pushed is far more extreme than any campaign platforms revealed.
Though much of the focus on Monday was about the unemployment cuts that just went into effect, the protesters’ list of grievances is diverse. They have been critical of education spending that routes more public money to private schools, of voter ID bills, the elimination of the estate tax and what they describe as an assault on women’s rights.
On Monday, lawyers, professors and religious leaders who were among the first to get arrested were in Wake County District Court. Since their arrests in early May, the crowds have grown from several dozen to several thousand. The total arrests is nearing 700 people.
Concerned about mounting court costs, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby has encouraged General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver to consider issuing citations rather than arresting the protesters.
Weaver said on Monday that he planned to continue with arrests for several reasons.
Treating the demonstrators consistently was one reason. Another, he said, is that arresting them gives law enforcement officers a way to disperse the crowd.
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