Politics & Government

Rev. Barber convicted of trespassing at General Assembly during 2017 protest

Civil rights leader the Rev. William Barber was convicted Thursday on trespassing charges stemming from his 2017 protest at the General Assembly, ending a trial that pitted civil disobedience against strict enforcement of the law.

It took jurors just 22 minutes to find Barber guilty after four days of testimony that included video footage of his call-and-response chant protesting health care spending deficiencies outside Sen. Phil Berger’s office.

Presiding Judge Stephan Futrell said he worried about “the great political divide that’s hanging over all of this,” but he saw no signs that jurors were swayed by partisanship.

“It’s hard to find too much reason to punish,” he said, “and in this case I’m not inclined to do so.”

Barber received a one-day sentence, suspended, 12 months of unsupervised probation, a $200 fine and 24 hours of community service.

“He could do that in his sleep,” the judge said.

“I don’t think he knows how to do anything else,” said his attorney John McWilliam, adding in earlier remarks, “I guess I just wish the law were different. ... I know that Martin Luther King Jr. had a criminal record, too.”

Earlier Thursday, Barber testified that he organized a sit-in at the General Assembly after its Republican leaders repeatedly refused to meet with him. He told jurors, “I was there because the Constitution gives you the right.”

“My motivation was believing that the Constitution of North Carolina says that everything you do in government should be done for the good of the whole,” Barber said, “... that I have the right to instruct the General Assembly at the legislature.”

Barber, the only witness called by his attorneys, said he led roughly 50 people into the General Assembly on a Tuesday morning, having spoken and met with legislators dozens of times throughout his turn as president of the NAACP of North Carolina.

He said he and protesters wished to present letters and address grievances over the Republican-led effort to thwart the Affordable Care Act, which he said denied health care for hundreds of thousands statewide. Barber said he had requests for a meeting go unanswered.

Police for the General Assembly testified that the substance of the protest had no bearing on Barber being arrested with two dozen others outside Berger’s office. Assistant District Attorney Nishma Patel repeatedly drew testimony away from the Constitution and back to the rules of the General Assembly building, which prohibit disruptions.

Patel: “Your voice was quite loud, wasn’t it?”

Barber: “I don’t know your characterization of loud.”

Patel: “It was loud.”

Barber: “It was my preaching voice.”

Patel told jurors during her closing arguments that the political undercurrent to the case, given Barber’s long association with civil rights protest and the Moral Monday movement, could make it seem difficult. But in the end, she said, it was simple. Barber could have chosen a lawful way to object.

“This entire trial has been about enforcing the law as it’s written and should have nothing to do with the defendant’s beliefs,” Patel said.

The civil rights leader often stood in the witness box Thursday because of arthritis issues that have long plagued him, and he spoke in a subdued voice that contrasts with his Moral Monday tenor and his Sunday preaching.

He vowed to appeal the case to a higher court, where he said the greatest civil rights victories have been won. Jurors, he said, were “boxed in” by being unable to consider the larger Constitutional issues behind his misdemeanor.

“This is much bigger than me,” he said after the trial. “This is literally about opening up Southern legislatures to the light of day and to the people’s voice and to the people’s protests.”

During sentencing, the judge noted that Barber had six prior convictions in his life, including one for speeding and two for fishing without a license.

“I didn’t have any money for a lawyer that day,” Barber said. “I didn’t catch any fish, either.”

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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.