How to Get Arrested on Moral Monday: A North Carolina Minister's Protest

Every Monday for weeks, crowds have descended on the state legislature in Raleigh to demonstrate against a raft of new conservative policies.
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The Rev. Tuck Taylor looks to above as she and her fellow protestors fill the second-floor gallery of the N.C. Legislative Building. (All photos by Nick Pironio)

RALEIGH, N.C. -- For the past seven Mondays, protestors have entered the North Carolina State Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh to voice their concerns about bills introduced by the state's Republican majority. The organized effort, named "Moral Monday," has drawn thousands of people from across North Carolina each week to the building's outdoor Halifax Mall, where they beat on snare drums, wave slogan-filled signs, sing gospel spirituals, and listen to the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, preach about what he describes as injustices proposed by Republican legislative leaders and supported by first-term Republican Governor Pat McCrory.

Barber and other clergy members have led the civil-disobedience demonstrations since April 29, which has drawn comparisons to the clergy-led protests of the civil rights era. The N.C. Council of Churches has provided its support each week by issuing press releases, opinions, and even calls for faith leaders to show up in mass to participate. More than 480 protestors have been arrested since the first demonstration, including Duke Divinity School and Law School professors and those donning their clerical collars.

On Monday, June 17, General Assembly police arrested 84 people who wished to show their disagreement with the state government's plans to -- among other things -- cut unemployment benefits, slash Medicaid assistance, shift taxes toward middle- and lower-income taxpayers, and repeal environmental measures. One of those participating in the non-violent civil disobedience was the Rev. Tuck Taylor, a Duke Divinity School graduate and ordained elder in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. I followed Taylor, the mother of four children and stepmother of two others, from the time she learned "how" to disobey civilly at Christian Faith Baptist Church to the point of her arrest inside the N.C. State Legislative Building.

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The Rev. William Barber organizes protesters before his press conference at Christian Faith Baptist Church.

Monday, June 17, 2013

3:15 p.m.

Each Monday, the NAACP asks people who plan to be arrested to attend a "briefing and information session" at 3:00 p.m. at a local church. Previous locations include Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, known for its role in civil rights demonstrations related to race and sexual orientation during the past few decades, and Martin Street Baptist Church, a historically African-American congregation in southeast Raleigh. Today's session occurs at Christian Faith Baptist Church, another parish in the southeast part of town. Driving from downtown, I realize I've never been in this area despite living in the city for the better part of a decade. Its residents are predominately black, and among other buildings, I pass the Alpha Theta Omega Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

3:25 p.m. All of Christian Faith's parking spaces are full, so I park on the street about a block away from the church's sign declaring, "God is Good ... All the Time." The sanctuary is standing-room only, and a volunteer ushers me into the lobby, behind closed doors, because "members of the media aren't allowed in during the legal part of the session."

Barbara Ulery of Durham, N.C., tears green fabric into strips. Protestors who plan to be arrested will wear the green strips as armbands.

3:47 p.m. "We are shredding the emperor's new clothes," a volunteer says as she cuts a large piece of cheap green fabric into long strips at a side table in the lobby. A green armband signals to the attending police officers that while you don't want to be arrested, you wish to practice civil disobedience.

A rotund man throws open the double doors to the sanctuary. "We need 40 blue ones!" he shouts. The blue fabric armbands are for people who plan to support those wearing the green ones. Some of the "blues" have been arrested previously, or they don't feel comfortable going to jail.

"What are you tearing up?" a new protestor, having just walked into the church, asks the women ripping fabric.

"Armbands, so the police know who to arrest."

"Oh. I thought you were mad at someone!" he responds.

"I am! George Wallace McCrory," she says, likening the governor's recent claim that the protests are the work of people outside of North Carolina to the "outside agitators" language the Alabama governor used 50 years ago.

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Protestors who plan to participate in civil disobedience arrange themselves for cameras at Christian Faith Baptist Church.

4:09 p.m. Barber gathers everyone who plans to be arrested to the front of the sanctuary for photographs and to provide a backdrop as he delivers his message to the press. "All doctors in the front," he says, referring to the medical professionals present to protest the repeal of healthcare measures. Taylor and her husband stand immediately to Barber's left at the podium.

As the press conference begins, Geeta Kapur, an adjunct professor at Campbell University School of Law, asks me for whom I work because she "hasn't seen me here before." I tell her I'm covering the protests for The Atlantic, and she doesn't relent. I finally show her my North Carolina State Bar card, proving I'm a licensed attorney.

"OK. I trust you wouldn't lie to me," Kapur says. "I'm just making sure we don't have any spies."

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A protestor who plans to be arrested ties a green armband.

4:38 p.m. Barber concludes his press conference by shouting, "Forward together!" and attendees respond, "Not one step back!" After three rounds of the chant, the crowd mingles for a few minutes, and people begin departing for the grass and humidity of Halifax Mall.

Taylor and her husband, both wearing green armbands, chat with two women with clerical collars and blue armbands.

"Ask them if you can be cuffed in front. It's much more comfortable," one of the two women advises Taylor. "And you'll get frisked in the Capitol before you go to jail," she adds, meaning to say the Legislative Building.

Taylor turns to me. "We're going to grab a bite to eat, and we'll see you there."

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Protestors gather on the grassy field of Halifax Mall.

5:25 p.m. I park on the street a few blocks away from Halifax Mall. Had I not known what was going on, I may have thought I had stumbled upon a cross between a Motown concert and a Chinese New Year celebration. Amidst the diverse crowd of a soccer mom in a "Carolina Law" T-shirt with a stroller in tow, a Duck Dynasty character look-a-like with a chest-length beard that covers the top of his overalls, and clergy members in every shape, size, and color. Sam Cooke is on the loudspeakers:

I was born by the river in a little tent.

Oh and just like the river I've been running ever since.

It's been a long, a long time coming.

But I know a change gonna come.

Oh yes, it will.

Large masks on wooden poles with flowing fabric stand stagnant in the breezeless air as Barber preaches to the crowd. "We're long distance runners and not sprinters," he bellows.

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The Rev. Tuck Taylor joins the group of other protestors who will be arrested.

5:30 p.m. Today isn't Taylor's first "Moral Monday." She went to a previous one as an observer, but on this afternoon, she "wanted to do more than preach it." I ask her if there was a tipping point that made her decide to get arrested. "I've just been praying and discerning," she says calmly.

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Win Bassett & Nick Pironio

Win Bassett is a writer and lawyer in North Carolina. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Religion & Politics, Publishers Weekly, and INDY Week. Nick Pironio is a photographer in Raleigh. His work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Wired, The New York Times, Elle, Garden & Gun, and other publications.

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