12 arrested at NCGA as Poor Peoples Campaign turns focus to militarism

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The Rev. William Barber (center right) speaks with a NC General Assembly police officer at the entrance to the building. (photo by Jordan Green)

Sandy Irving, a retired statistician at UNC-Chapel Hill, had been warned that she would be placed under arrest if she refused to leave a hallway outside a committee room where members of the state Senate and House were deliberating on the budget. She told the General Assembly police officer she would stay.

Taking stock of Irving’s walker, the officer held off on making the arrest until the police could procure a wheelchair. Irving took advantage of the additional time to keep talking.

“You know, the people in North Carolina need healthcare,” she told the officer. “There’s a lot of veterans that come home from war, and they’re hurt. And they can’t get healthcare because North Carolina has not expanded Medicaid, and people are hurting. And some of you policemen might retire and not be able to afford health insurance. And if Medicaid was expanded, then everybody could have healthcare.

“We don’t like the war economy,” Irving continued. “That is an economic draft that drafts our poor. And when our poor are drafted and they come back and they have healthcare problems, and they can’t get healthcare because North Carolina has not expanded Medicaid. The North Carolina veterans are hurting. They’re committing suicides at enormous rates.”

Irving was the 12th and final person arrested at the North Carolina General Assembly on Tuesday. Some were led out of the committee room with their hands bound in zip ties after disrupting the budget meeting; others were arrested after police said they received “numerous complaints” about chanting and singing in the hallway and ordered them to leave. The civil disobedience in Raleigh was part of a coordinated string of actions in 23 state capitals and the District of Columbia as the third week of the Poor People’s Campaign got underway on Tuesday.

The Poor People’ Campaign is a national effort meant to continue the interracial assault on poverty, racism and militarism conceived by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination 50 years ago in 1968. Each day of the campaign has focused on a theme, and Tuesday’s was “The War Economy: Militarism and the Proliferation of Gun Violence.”

The rally in front of the General Assembly, which drew about 125 people, also served as a homecoming of sorts for the Rev. William Barber, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. As president of the North Carolina NAACP, Barber led the Moral Monday Movement, a progressive coalition that protested the hard-right turn by the Republican-controlled General Assembly week after week during the legislative session in 2013 and onward.

“Dr. King said that to continue to put more money in militarism and weaponization — I might paraphrase — in a nation and in a state is to do nothing but have a tragic death wish that will create moral injury, economic injury and will open the way to authoritarianism,” Barber said. “And some of my Jewish friends are telling me, will open the way for fascism. That’s why we have to connect systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, the proliferation of guns and the false moral narrative.”

In keeping with the theme of the day, Barber focused much of his attention on human needs going unmet because of military spending, and on gun violence, but his speech built to a crescendo when he turned to the issue of immigration policy.

Declaring, “We have now weaponized deportation,” Barber didn’t let President Obama or the Democratic Party off the hook. He said, “It ain’t just Trump’s fault, but Obama didn’t do what he was supposed to either. Now, y’all won’t say ‘amen,’ but we gotta tell the truth.”

His voice quivering and rising in volume, Barber said, “When you have 1,500 children missing that’s afraid to even pick up the phone because of what might happen to them… there’s a scripture that I wish could be read to every politician, to the president, to [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions ’cause they claim they believe, they claim they believe! Maybe they haven’t read that one that said, ‘It would be better for somebody to tie a stone around their neck and to be thrown into the ocean than to offend and hurt these little ones.’

“And it didn’t say, ‘Hurt the black little ones,’” he continued. “Or, ‘Hurt the white little ones.’ Or, ‘Hurt the brown little ones.’ Or, ‘Hurt the Latino little ones.’ Or, ‘Hurt the gay little ones.’ Or, ‘Hurt the straight little ones.’ It said, ‘Any of the little ones.’”

Following Barber’s speech, several people in the audience chanted in appreciation: “Thank you, we love you.”

Two speakers focused their remarks on gun violence.

“When you prioritize a piece of paper and a weapon over human rights, we have a gun problem,” said Lily Levin, a 17-year old student. “Before we go to school, to our sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, loved one and friends we say ‘goodbye,’ knowing that this could be our last goodbye. I stand here in front of you because America has a gun problem.”

Kim Yaman, with Moms Demand Action, recalled helping a group of children practice a Turkish folk dance in a classroom building at the University of Iowa adjacent to a conference room where four researchers were fatally shot by a disgruntled post-doc more than 25 years ago.

“That was 1991 — before Columbine, before Charleston, before Sandy Hook, before Parkland, before any one of hundreds of mass shootings,” Yaman said. “At the time we thought, ‘Oh, this is a once-in-a-lifetime. We’ll get past this. We’ll move on. We’ll get the counseling. It will be okay.’ That’s not what happened…. We deserve better. We can do better than this. So stand up. Do not let them back you down for one moment.”

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