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N.C. Opinions: Greensboro

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The Moral Monday mess

From an editorial Friday in the (Greensboro) News & Record:

The General Assembly police arrested crowds of people at last year’s Moral Monday demonstrations but didn’t gather evidence that all of those individuals broke the law.

Confusing? Maybe. But this much was clarified in Wake County District Court Tuesday: People can’t be convicted for being part of a crowd. Charges must be proven against each one.

Five protesters on trial Tuesday were acquitted because the prosecution’s witness, General Assembly police Chief Jeff Weaver, could only recall generalities about the demonstration last May 20. He could not give specific testimony about the actions of the five defendants.

Wednesday, the Wake County District Attorney’s Office dismissed charges against the 52 other people arrested May 20.

This has been bungled from the start. Demonstrators who gathered in the second-floor lobby of the Legislative Building on Monday evenings last year never should have been arrested. They were expressing their disapproval of Republican policies but did not impede legislators from going about their business.

Instead, over the course of the General Assembly session, 945 people were taken into custody and charged with trespassing, failing to disperse and violating building rules.

Outcomes have been mixed: 26 people were convicted on some or all of the charges against them; 31 were acquitted; a few dozen agreed to perform community service and pay court costs in exchange for having the charges dropped. Most cases have yet to be called.

It’s time to call them off. The judge who’s handled most of the cases has found some of the building rules vague and others – such as prohibiting signs – unconstitutional. But she has found some defendants guilty where Weaver could provide testimony about individual actions. One of those convicted was the Rev. William Barber II, president of the state chapter of the NAACP and the leader of the Moral Monday movement.

All convictions are being appealed, as they should be. Citizens have a right to assemble peaceably as long as they don’t interfere with business.

In the meantime, the next legislative session is in May. It might bring more protests. General Assembly police should first adopt sensible building rules that respect constitutional rights, and they must come up with protocols for handling potential demonstrations without making mass, unnecessary arrests.

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