Locals participating in Raleigh protests say 'It's a moral thing'

Jun. 26, 2013 @ 05:03 AM

As weekly Moral Monday protests in Raleigh have grown, opposing Republican-sponsored bills in the General Assembly, Lee County activists have also increased their presence at the demonstrations.

Ann McCracken, president of the Lee County Democratic Party, said she attended one of the early gatherings on her own, and the passion she saw there convinced her to bring others to future protests. She went with a half-dozen others to the protest this past Monday, which Raleigh law enforcement officials reported was the largest yet, with 2,500 to 3,000 protesters — 120 of whom were arrested. Neither McCracken nor her compatriots set out to be arrested for civil disobedience Monday, but she said she respects those who did and expects their number to grow.

"You don't have to stay [in custody] long, but just to do that is amazing to me," she said Tuesday.

A group typically leaves from the Democratic Party headquarters in downtown Sanford, and McCracken said anyone who wants to attend is welcome. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — the group whose North Carolina branch started the protests — also runs a van to Raleigh from Blandonia Presbyterian Church, McCracken said, although neither Lee County NAACP President Ervin Fox nor Blandonia representatives could be reached for confirmation.

Unlike McCracken, Sanford resident Phil Gurkin has been arrested at a Moral Monday event, having chosen to stand in the lobby of the General Assembly with fellow protesters in early June and ignore police commands to disperse. He said he has gone several times but only volunteered once because a second arrest could lead to jail time.

He said he faces a variety of charges related to trespassing and causing a disturbance, and his court date is in a few months. And while Gurkin, who is retired but spent 20 years teaching imprisoned adults and youth, said he thinks it's silly to label the protesters as criminals, he added that law enforcement has at least been courteous.

Gurkin also said he thinks the protesters represent the common man far better than the Republican politicians who control both chambers of the General Assembly.

"... (The protesters) represent the people who are being impacted by the immoral laws that are being passed by our General Assembly: The elderly, teachers... those who would benefit, and do benefit, from some of the safety net features of our social policies," he said.

Lee County Republican Party Chairman Charles Staley didn't respond to a message seeking his thoughts on the Moral Monday protests, but the state's head Republican, Claude Pope Jr., expressed his view in opinion piece published in a Raleigh news outlet Sunday.

"The North Carolina Republican Party supports peaceful and lawful demonstrations as guaranteed by our Constitution," Pope wrote. "However, deliberately breaking the law, preventing the business of state government to proceed and proclaiming to have God's favor in the process is wrong."

McCracken noted that many of the speakers at the protests are Christian preachers, but that organizers seem to try to include people of all faiths and that the speakers focus more on policy than on religion.

"It's a moral thing," she said. "People are there because they believe what's being done in the legislature, I don't know if they've used the word immoral, but, it's not right. I know there are always two sides to a story, but it just seems devastating to do some of these things in this economy."

McCracken said she's not optimistic that these protests will change the minds or votes of any Republican officials in this legislative session, but that they will have longer-term effects such as increasing awareness and voter turnout. Gurkin also said he doesn't think he was arrested in vain.

"A lot of critics are saying, 'Oh this is a waste of time' and all this," Gurkin said. "But I do think it's making a point that will make a difference in our state legislature."