RALEIGH The Rev. William Barber II had just been convicted of two misdemeanors related to a spring protest inside the North Carolina Legislative Building when he walked across a Wake County courtroom with his right arm outstretched.
Awaiting his handshake were Jeff Weaver, chief of the General Assembly police force, and Mary Elizabeth Wilson, a Wake County assistant district attorney.
Bob Zellner, a former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who lives in Wilson, joined Barber, the head of the state NAACP and architect of the so-called “Moral Monday” protests, in shaking hands as the crowded courtroom emptied.
“That’s part of the nonviolent tradition,” Zellner explained later, “to approach the people on the other side. We think that’s very important.”
The men also reiterated – as did the 10 other demonstrators on trial with them in Wake County District Court this week – that they think their criminal convictions highlight what they consider important moral convictions.
Barber, Zellner and others tried Wednesday, Tuesday and one day in late October were convicted of violating a Legislative Building rule and second-degree trespass. They were ordered to pay a $100 fine and court costs of $180, but all immediately appealed their convictions.
The charges were related to one of the demonstrations that drew thousands of protesters on Monday evenings throughout the summer to Raleigh.
More than 920 people were arrested between April and August outside the General Assembly chambers, the epicenter for a new legislative agenda that demonstrators contended was taking North Carolina, long considered one of the least conservative Southern states, on a wide swing to the right.
In the early demonstrations, such as the one on April 29 that resulted in the arrest of Barber, the gathered crowds decried a host of issues.
As the protests grew larger, their list of grievances grew longer.
They criticized public-school job cuts, private-school vouchers, voter ID laws and tax-reform proposals that they said protected the wealthy while cutting benefits for the poor. They spoke out against decisions by the Republican-led General Assembly to scale back unemployment benefits for the chronically out-of-work and the refusal to expand Medicaid benefits as part of the new federal health law.
‘We’re going to be back’
“We today have been convicted for our convictions,” Barber said after the trial. “We may be convicted for our convictions, but our convictions stand. So what are we going to do? We’re going to go back and mobilize and continue to mobilize.”
As media trained TV cameras on Barber and his co-defendants, the NAACP leader spoke about a protest planned for later this month and a large rally scheduled in February that he hopes will draw thousands to Raleigh.
“We’re going to be back,” Barber said.
As the demonstrators mapped out their plans for future rallies, the defense attorneys who fought against their criminal convictions noted what they considered some of the more telling details of the protracted trial.
Scott Holmes and Irv Joyner, defense attorneys from Durham, argued that the protesters had been wrongly charged, that they were exercising rights to free speech and to petition their lawmakers. The defense attorneys also sought to have the charges dismissed on the basis that the building rules were so overly broad and vague that they were unconstitutional.
Joy Hamilton, a former Wake County district judge, who was appointed by the state Administrative Office of the Courts to preside over the bulk of the misdemeanor trials heard so far, agreed, but said one of those rules “governing visitors” on the second-floor of the building was specific enough to warrant a conviction of the dozen protesters before her.
The rule states that visitors may enter the “Legislative Complex” at any time the buildings are open to the public and may move about freely “with the exceptions limiting visits on the second floor of the State Legislative Building … so long as they do not disturb the General Assembly, one of its houses, or its committees, members, or staff in the performance of their duties.”
The state’s case
Philip King, sergeant-at-arms of the N.C. Senate, testified on Tuesday that the protesters gathered outside the tall, gilded doors to the N.C. Senate chamber, had made it difficult for his staff to carry out their duties as they typically did.
On that day, King said, some of his staff were posted in places they typically would not have been to make sure the protesters did not enter the Senate chambers. He also testified that some of his staff had not been able to have a meal or snack in the break room at the start of their shifts because of the General Assembly police plans for mass arrest that night.
Hamilton explained that she reached the guilty verdict, in part, by agreeing with the prosecutor that the defendants had acted “in concert” to disrupt the lawmakers.
Before that, Hamilton threw out a charge accusing the 12 of failing to disperse on command because there has to be a threat of violence coupled with that accusation, and she said there was insufficient evidence of that.
The convictions on Wednesday continue the varied results of the trials related to the summer protests.
Though most of the hundreds arrested have opted for trials, nearly two dozen accepted plea deals from Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby in which they could perform 25 hours of community service, pay $180 in court costs and have the charges dismissed.
Others had their cases dismissed. Some were found not guilty, and some were found guilty of all the charges and have filed appeals.
Demonstrators who have yet to go to trial, the defense attorneys say, will benefit from what comes out in each trial.
For example, Hamilton had deemed regulations governing the posting or display of signs or placards unconstitutional because of their vagueness.
Weaver, the chief who arrested people with signs, testified on Tuesday that he found that rule difficult. He said he considered messages on the signs when determining whether the people holding them “were expressing support for or opposition to an issue” and therefore subject to sign limits.
Though Weaver initially testified that he would not consider Bible quotes unlawful, he conceded when pushed that he considered some of the signs using biblical verse to underscore a political stance fell under such regulations.
“I actually feel sorry for Chief Weaver,” Barber said after the trial. “He didn’t make the rules.”
Zellner, the protester who made a point to shake the chief's hand after his conviction, offered a similar sentiment.
“He’s been very good as a police person,” Zellner said. “He’s been very honest and helpful to us.”
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1
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