Politics & Government

At least 39 arrests Friday during protests at legislature

At least 39 protesters were arrested Friday at the Legislative Building as a group of hundreds chanted slogans blasting a “power grab” by Republican lawmakers.

The arrests came in addition to about 17 arrests Thursday, according to General Assembly Police Chief Martin Brock. Those arrested, who accuse the GOP majority of using Hurricane Matthew victims as pawns in a ploy to seize power from Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, included civic leaders, university staff and faculty, and clergy.

Those arrested on Thursday were charged with second degree trespassing and violating legislative building rules, both misdemeanors. One of them, Leslie Coburn, 66, was also charged with misdemeanor resisting a public officer.

Lawmakers on Wednesday adjourned a special session dealing with disaster relief and called themselves into a new session, in which they approved a pair of bills that would deprive the incoming governor of part of his authority to make appointments, shift some power from the N.C. Supreme Court to the state’s Court of Appeals and reduce Democrats’ power over elections regulation.

Initially, the protesters disrupted a House debate about the changes to election law, chanting and prompting House Speaker Tim Moore to order police to clear the public gallery. The gallery remained closed to the public Friday afternoon, meaning those in the general public who wanted to watch the House proceedings could not do so.

N.C. Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes sent out a statement on Friday, saying he supported the right to free speech but condemned the protesters’ actions, calling them a “small mob.” He called on Cooper to denounce their actions.

“However, when a few hundred people decide to shut down the work of the General Assembly simply because they are against the outcome, we have gone from free speech to mob rule,” Hayes said.

After the ejections from the House gallery, the chants and songs continued outside the chamber. Brock told the group that anyone who led a chant would be arrested, and officers began arresting people who did – including Carrboro Town Alderman Damon Seils and the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, a leader of the state NAACP, which had organized the protest with the liberal advocacy group Progress North Carolina.

Protesters later entered the Senate chamber, which was closed after disruptions there.

After being tossed from the chambers in the morning, protesters stood in a lobby between the two chambers and were told by police to be quiet or be arrested. The group hummed in unison. Occasionally someone spoke up to interject with boos, hissing and chants, and was arrested.

Arrests occurred sporadically for much of the day, and picked up in the afternoon when the crowd was energized by an afternoon speech from NAACP President Rev. William Barber. At one point, Barber was told to lower his voice, but told the crowd that there was “no volume limit” on First Amendment rights.

At about 3:30 p.m. police demanded that the public leave the building, but allowed news media to stay. Some of the protesters, including one dressed like Santa Claus, sat on the floor and were arrested for failing to leave.

Thursday protests

Protesters arrested Thursday included a preacher and faculty from several local universities. Several of the other protesters had been arrested at various previous protests.

A journalist covering the protests for the group N.C. Policy Watch was also arrested Thursday.

All protesters arrested Thursday listed addresses in the Triangle or in nearby places like Pittsboro and Greensboro, according to arrest records.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a preacher at Durham’s St. Johns Missionary Baptist Church and one of the people detained on Thursday. He said he was cuffed after about 5 p.m. and detained in the Legislative Building’s ground floor cafeteria before being transported to the Wake County Public Safety Center’s detention center. He said he was the last to be released, after midnight, and posted a $2,000 bond.

He was charged with violating building rules and second-degree trespassing, according to Wake County records.

Hartgrove said he felt it was morally right to protest, and thinks the legislature is trying to silence people who elected candidates like Cooper and Mike Morgan, whose election to the state Supreme Court last month will give the court a Democratic majority.

“Their efforts are wrong and mean spirited,” he said. “Everyone who voted, I believe, is having their vote invalidated by what they’re doing.”