The Rev. William Barber II, banned from entering the State Legislative Building after being charged with causing a disruption during public protests there two years ago, can now go into the building like any other citizen, a judge ruled Monday.
Wake County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway granted Barber’s request that the order banning him from the legislative building be lifted while the related trespassing case against him is pending.
“It’s more of a victory for the people than it is for me personally,” Barber said Tuesday by phone from New York. “That building belongs to the people. Our state constitution says we are encouraged and have the right to instruct our legislators. They cannot hide in a building.”
Raleigh attorney John McWilliam said that in arguing against allowing Barber back into the building, Nishma Patel, an assistant Wake County district attorney, asked that the ban at least be kept in place until after the teachers’ rally planned for Raleigh on May 1.
“They didn’t want Rev. Barber to go because he attracts a bigger crowd,” McWilliam said.
The N.C. Association of Educators, which is helping to organize the rally, already is expecting a large crowd; the state’s four largest school districts have announced they will close for the day in anticipation of widespread teacher absences.
Barber began drawing crowds to the legislative building in 2013 to protest actions of the Republican-led legislature. The protests, which became known as Moral Mondays, drew thousands of people opposed to legislation that relaxed environmental protections, cut education funding and unemployment benefits, opted out of Medicaid expansion, restricted abortion and voting rights, and required transgender people to use public restrooms that corresponded with the gender on their birth certificates.
Hundreds of people were arrested as part of the protests over the next several years.
In May 2017, Barber and more than 100 others went to the legislature to push for better health care coverage in the state and nationally, and he and about 30 others were arrested on charges of second-degree trespassing when they refused to leave the hallways outside legislators’ offices. As a condition of their release from jail, a magistrate ordered that they could not go back to the legislative building.
McWilliam said he has represented many of those defendants. Usually, he said, they’re found guilty and ordered to pay court costs. Then he asks that their banishment from the legislative building be lifted, a prosecutor asks that it not be, and a judge lifts it.
McWilliam said that Patel’s argument in court Monday to keep Barber out of the legislative building — at least until May 1 — was the most forceful such request he had heard.
McWilliam said he thinks the prosecutor’s reasoning amounted to targeting Barber as an individual, which the law doesn’t allow.
Paul Coble, the General Assembly’s legislative services officer, could not be reached Tuesday for comment on Barber’s clearance to return to the building.
McWilliam said Barber and others were doing what citizens are supposed to do when they have a grievance with their elected leaders..
“If it’s raucous and inconvenient, good,” he said. “That’s democracy.”
Barber’s case on the trespassing charge is set to go before a jury the week of June 3, he said.
Barber said he and others were told to the leave the legislative building that day in 2017 because they were being loud and disruptive.
“It’s not being disruptive for the sake of being disruptive,” he said. “A lot of times I was praying or quoting the N.C. Constitution or scripture or talking about policy. One person said we were too loud and it kept the legislature from doing their work. But it didn’t. They still passed the bills that we were there to protest.”
Barber said he wants the state to clarify its rules when he goes to court.
“What is the decibel level for the First Amendment?” he asked. “They say you have to talk in a normal voice. What is that? You could be protesting, and someone doesn’t like what you’re saying, and they come out and say, ‘That’s too loud,’ and you can get arrested.”
Barber said it’s ironic that some of the laws that protesters were arguing against, which the legislature eventually passed, have since been found unconstitutional.
“We were trying to tell them,” Barber said.
He plans to attend the May 1 rally, he said.