Politics & Government

General Assembly police: Arresting Barber had ‘absolutely no bearing’ on politics

Arresting the Rev. William Barber for his 2017 protest had “absolutely no bearing” on his politics or the content of his speech, the police chief for the General Assembly testified Wednesday.

“It would have been improper and illegal if it did,” Chief Martin Brock said.

Brock’s statement came on the second day of testimony in the trial of the civil rights leader, who is charged with trespassing after a demonstration outside Sen. Phil Berger’s office. Video footage of the arrest shown to jurors Wednesday displayed Barber leading roughly 20 people in a call-and-reponse chant in the corridor, then having his hands bound with zip-tie handcuffs when he refused to leave.

Brock said he had advice notice of the event being billed on social media as a moral sit-in for health care, and that he believed in advance it would end in arrests. The civil rights leader was loud enough to drown out a bullhorn, Brock said, and fellow demonstrators had drawn complaints.

“What was being said was not the issue,” said the chief. “The issue was the volume at which it was being said.”

Though these are misdemeanor charges, issues of First Amendment rights loom around the edges of the case. Barber is fighting the misdemeanor charge because, he says, his arrest violated his state and federal constitutional rights. He opted for a jury trial.

Barber 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.

Outside the jury’s presence, Barber lawyer John McWilliam argued that the state had “opened the door” to free speech issues by asking Brock whether the content of Barber’s chanting affected his arrest. He laid a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution on the table, seemingly for emphasis.

In the video shown to jurors Wednesday, former Senate Sergeant-At-Arms Philip King can be seen standing in the doorway of Berger’s office, blocking it as a protester attempted to enter.

“We are quoting the Constitution,” Barber said during a break in the trial. “We are telling the facts. We are telling them numbers. They’re blocking the doors, telling us they’re open, but not for us.”

He noted that some of his earlier, larger Moral Monday protests at the General Assembly were louder, and that General Assembly members did not object to meeting with state teachers after their massive march down Fayetteville Street last month.

“There is no decibel level on free speech,” Barber said. “We wanted to be heard. They would not hear us.”

During his testimony, Brock noted that the General Assembly was open to the public during Barber’s Tuesday-morning protest, and that visitors are free to access it as long as they do not make a disturbance. At one point during testimony, Assistant District Attorney Nishma Patel produced a deed to the West Jones Street building.

“Does the name William J. Barber II appear anywhere on there as owning the property?” she asked. Hearing “No” from Brock, she followed with, “This may seem like a silly question. But does the defendant live in that building? Does he rent space in that building?”

Testimony continues Thursday.

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.