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Seriously, Moral Monday protesters as anarchists?

By Fannie Flono
fflono@charlotteobserver.com

Absurd responses to Moral Monday protests of the N.C. General Assembly’s hurtful and controversial policies this year just keep coming.

Last week, in the first trial of the hundreds of North Carolinians arrested for peacefully gathering at the legislature, the chief of the General Assembly police said protesters were spied upon, and that his department “collected intelligence” on the “anarchists” among them.

Anarchists? Really?

Let’s be clear on what an anarchist is most often defined as: According to Webster’s dictionary, it’s a person who believes government is not necessary, one who rebels against the ruling powers, and one who advocates even through violent means the overthrow of government. Synonyms for anarchist? Subversive, terrorist, revolutionary.

It’s difficult to reconcile that image with the people who gathered on 13 Mondays during the legislative session during the spring and summer. It certainly doesn’t jibe with the image of the 68-year-old factory worker who was the first of many to go on trial for trespassing, failing to disperse and violating building rules at the N.C. Legislative Building during the protests. Saladin Muhammad, a U.S. Army veteran and labor activist, was found guilty of the misdemeanors and sentenced to pay a $100 fine. His lawyers immediately said they’d appeal.

Muhammad, like the other 900-plus arrested for civil disobedience, was a non-violent protester. And as Rev. William Barber, the state NAACP president who coordinated the demonstrations aptly noted, there was little need for spies at the planning meetings because the meetings were open to the public. “It’s not like we were planning a bank heist. Mostly what we did was pray and sing.”

I missed the planning meetings but I was in Raleigh at the Capitol for one of the demonstrations. This was not a group advocating against government, espousing it was unnecessary or advocating its overthrow. These folks were petitioning their government, asking state leaders to listen to their concerns about policies they felt were harmful to the welfare of N.C. residents and the state’s future prosperity. Praying, singing and speeches were the extent of their “anarchy.”

Still, it should not be surprising that General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver might ascribe dastardly motives to the participants. State policymakers had already done so. Gov. Pat McCrory erroneously dubbed them outside agitators fueled by special interests. He told the Associated Press: “Outsiders are coming in (to North Carolina), and they’re going to try to do to us what they did to Scott Walker in Wisconsin” - an allusion to public protests against that Republican governor’s policies that led to a recall effort.

The “outside agitator” appellation has particular resonance here in the South. Civil rights concerns in the 1960s were often shamefully dismissed or ignored by opponents - many of them local and state policymakers and public servants - as promulgated by “outsiders”, people who didn’t live in the South and knew nothing about the issues.

It was untrue then, and it’s untrue about the Moral Monday protesters. But it took data gathered by research foundations and news organizations to finally disavow some N.C. policymakers of the notion.

Still, state lawmakers continued denigrating Moral Monday protesters and attempting to de-legitimize their concerns. Some snickered at them and called them crazy.

So the chief of the lawmakers’ police force could well have been taking his cues about nefarious aims of some in the group from our esteemed leaders’ careless and irresponsible language. Weaver wouldn’t identify the so-called anarchists among the protesters nor how many his department had established were in that category. He also wouldn’t say what kind of intelligence his department collected on those considered “against the government,” or what they now planned to do with their “intelligence” data.

Spying on the protesters’ planning meetings was actually done by the Raleigh police department. Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown said a plain-clothes officer attended two meetings to determine how many people were expecting to be arrested so the department could be prepared. She said the agency wanted to “gauge the sufficiency of logistical support, such as transport vehicles (for those arrested), available at the Legislative Building.” She said when it was determined that accurate information could be attained without attending the meetings, “the officer’s presence was discontinued.”

To maintain safety and order, police are expected to seek and gather information. No one should fault them for doing that. But police should not have carte blanche to spy on citizens under the specious claim of looking for “anarchists” at peaceful protests where demonstrators simply expressed dissatisfaction with state policies and asked for their grievances to be heard.

Unfortunately, tossing out the word “anarchist” is becoming an easy way for some people to stigmatize a person or group with which they disagree. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has even taken to calling tea party members of Congress who’ve forced a government shutdown anarchists.

Can we all just ratchet down the divisive rhetoric a tad please? Such incendiary language is good for a sound bite but little more.

This latest revelation about the Moral Monday protests is another disappointment in how officials handled the matter. I’ve said before that the governor and state lawmakers could have helped ameliorate this situation by advocating for the peaceful protests to proceed without arrests or by setting up a system to deal with any charges outside of court. The protests mostly happened before each day’s legislative sessions and didn’t disturb the legislature’s proceedings. But state leaders were determined to see citizens punished for speaking out, wasting money and time.

Shame on them for that. And double shame for setting the environment for their police department to “collect intelligence” on the protesters and label them “anarchists.”

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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