RALEIGH, North Carolina — Groups that have protested conservative policies by the GOP-led Legislature are preparing for a new year of demonstrations undeterred by an election that sent Republicans back to both chambers with veto-proof majorities, the leader of North Carolina's NAACP said.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP chapter, said reversing restrictive policies on voting rights, expanding Medicaid and raising minimum wage remain among the groups' key issues. The groups are planning a gathering at the General Assembly on Jan. 28 and ongoing actions during the legislative session. On Feb. 14, they will hold a march known as the "Mass Moral March on Raleigh/Historic Thousands on Jones Street," which began in 2007 when Democrats led the Legislature.
Barber, who is delivering a keynote address Sunday at Duke University's annual commemoration for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said in an interview that the demonstrations are based on issues, not political parties.
"We don't have any permanent enemies, only permanent issues," he said.
Barber said he wasn't discouraged by elections in November that preserved GOP control of the state House and Senate, citing electoral districts drawn by Republicans.
"Because of the race-based redistricting, we already knew that many of them would still be in office," he said. "Even when you have a veto-proof majority, you cannot veto the voters and veto the right of people to protest and to challenge."
The GOP maintains that the districts are both fair and legal, and they were upheld in December by the State Supreme Court.
Barber said his group's lawyers are also looking at new rules announced for the General Assembly about how the public can gather in the legislative building when either chamber is in session. A memo on the rules from the Legislative Services Office says police can designate separate areas to allow legislators to come and go from the chambers but that the restrictions won't deny free speech rights.
At their peak, the demonstrations that started during the 2013 legislative session drew thousands. Nearly 1,000 demonstrators were arrested in 2013, and about 100 the following year. About half of the people arrested resolved the cases with community service and a fine, and most of the rest were dropped in September by the Wake County prosecutor who cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision on peaceful assembly and protest.
Groups in several other states coordinated with Barber's group last year to hold protests at their state Capitols, and he's expecting that to continue this year.
Barber said people frequently ask whether he expects more arrests this year. He said the coalition's repertoire includes civil disobedience, and they'll tailor their approach in response to the Legislature's policies.
"Whether there will be more arrests depends on them more than us," he said.
On the eve of his speaking engagement honoring King, Barber said that he's reminded that change in the civil rights leader's era required consistent effort.
"Change came when people consistently and morally and constitutionally protested until they changed the political climate," he said.
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