Politics & Government

Testimony in Barber’s trespassing trial begins with focus on how loud protesters were

The Rev. William Barber led a crowd of at least 20 people in chants and song so loud the day he was arrested at the N.C. Legislative Building in 2017 that some staff complained they couldn’t work, the former sergeant-at-arms of the state Senate testified Tuesday.

It was so loud, Philip King told a Wake County Superior Court jury, that he could hear from near his office on the other side of the building when Barber and his followers came through the front door.

So loud, King said, that when he was standing amid the crowd after they moved upstairs, he couldn’t carry on a conversation with people an arm’s length away.

When Wake County Assistant District Attorney Nishma Patel asked him to try to quantify the volume of the crowd being led by Barber, King said, “He has a very loud voice and was using it in a loud manner.”

The Rev. William Barber speaks during “Moral Monday” protests on Halifax Mall in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, July 22, 2013. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

King, who retired in January, was the first witness called by the state in Barber’s trial on one count of 2nd-degree trespass stemming from the 2017 incident, in which he and others went to the legislative building to push for better health care for the poor. Barber and others went to the building’s second floor, toward the office of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, with whom some said they hoped to meet.

King said he heard Barber tell a crowd of about 20 people to take a seat, and that many sat down in the floor in the corridor near Berger’s office. Their presence made it difficult to navigate the corridor, King said, and his office received calls from staff members in the building who said the songs and chants were distracting and they were worried that if a staffer had a medical emergency, first responders could not reach them in time.

King said officers from the N.C. General Assembly Police told members of the group they needed to leave, and warned that if they didn’t, they would be subject to arrest. Officers then went through the crowd telling people individually that if they did not leave they would be arrested.

King said he could not hear the entire exchange, but that an officer told Barber that if he didn’t leave, he would be arrested. The officer asked Barber if he was going to leave, King said, and King could see the pastor-activist shake his head no.

Barber was arrested, and like others who were cuffed that morning, was taken before a magistrate who banned them from returning to the building as a condition of their release. Barber was allowed back at the legislative complex in April, pending his trial on the trespass charge.

Barber is fighting the misdemeanor charge because, he says, his arrest violated his state and federal constitutional rights. He opted for a jury trial.

He does not dispute that he remained in the building after being ordered to leave. He has said he is not guilty of trespassing because he was in the building during business hours exercising his right — and what he sees as his obligation under the state constitution— to instruct his political leaders.

On Tuesday morning, presiding Judge Stephan Futrell ruled that he would not allow Barber’s attorney, John McWilliam of Raleigh, to “confuse” the jury with talk about whether a citizen going into the legislative building during business hours to try to talk about issues with elected leaders can be treated as trespassing. He was willing to allow McWilliam a bit more latitude, he said, in discussing First Amendment rights in front of jurors.

During jury selection Tuesday morning, Patel moved to dismiss a black woman who said in response to questions that she wasn’t entirely sure she could put aside personal misgivings she had about the truthfulness of police officers for the course of the trial.

After court was recessed for the day, Barber noted that Patel did not move to dismiss another potential juror, who said he was not sure he could set aside hard feelings he still has about a defendant who trespassed and killed the juror’s uncle. Patel said she was satisfied with the juror. Barber’s attorney asked to dismiss him.

“He said he couldn’t be fair to me, but she did not ask the judge to disqualify him,” Barber said. “That should be of concern to everybody. The moment he said he could not be fair, she should not have left him up there just because he would be favorable to her case.

“The role of the DA is to find the truth.”

Testimony is set to continue Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. at the Wake County Justice Center.

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.