Raleigh, N.C. — The Rev. Deborah Cayer arrived at the state Legislature building here Monday night wearing a protest button and toting an umbrella. She had tucked her driver's license into her skirt waistband.
That was all she carried. She had come prepared to spend the night in jail.
Along with 83 other opponents of the Republican-led legislature, Cayer and several fellow clergy members were arrested at a rainy "Moral Monday" protest. Their civil disobedience — they ignored police orders to disperse — was the latest in a growing series of protests over the conservative agenda of North Carolina's Republican-run state government.
"I wanted to be a part of this, and to be heard," Cayer, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Durham, said moments before a police officer gently wrapped plastic flex cuffs on her wrists and led her off to jail. Her button read, "Forward together — not one step back" — a theme of the more than 380 protesters arrested in the six weekly protests held so far.
North Carolina has long portrayed itself as a progressive former Confederate state — a moderate Southern beacon in civil rights and social justice. That image has been challenged since November, when Republicans won the governor's race and took control of both the Legislature and governor's mansion for the first time since Reconstruction.
For the state's Democrats, Barack Obama's narrow victory in North Carolina in the 2008 presidential election — the first by a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 — seems a long, long time ago.
Since November, Republicans have proposed or passed measures to cut unemployment insurance; impose a voter ID law; divert public money to private and religious schools through vouchers; and trim public education budgets. The state has joined at least 12 other states in rejecting billions of dollars in federal Medicaid expansion funding under the Affordable Care Act.
A "North Carolina Defense of Religion Act" proposed this spring would allow a state religion, presumably Christianity. A bill offered in May would outlaw Islamic sharia law and any other "foreign law" in state courts for family law cases. And a February bill proposed banning women's bare breasts in public, except for nursing mothers.
In a move that prompted Cayer to protest on Monday, Republican legislators this month overturned North Carolina's landmark Racial Justice Act. The only such law in the country, the act allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences or convictions on the basis of racial discrimination in jury selection or sentencing. If successful, inmates' death sentences can be reduced to life in prison without parole.
The act was signed in 2009 by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. The repeal is expected to be signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
The Moral Monday protests have been organized by the state chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, but they have attracted protesters of all races and ages. Monday's protest, which drew more than a thousand people, was dominated by clergy members.
"Inequality is more costly than injustice," the Rev. William Turner Jr. told the crowd shortly before he was arrested. "You can't kill the poor. There are too many of us, and the numbers grow every day."
A group of North Carolina rabbis issued a statement supporting "the use of nonviolent civil disobedience to draw attention to the reckless and heartless policies currently passing into law in Raleigh."
One rally protester wore a T-shirt that read: "Jailbirds for Justice." Others carried signs that read "Take back N.C." and "Stop making our state the subject of The Daily Show" — on which comedian Jon Stewart has ridiculed the Legislature.
Many protesters carried posters that read "Governor, we are not outsiders" — a dig at a comment made by McCrory at this month's state GOP convention. "Outsiders are coming in and they're going to try to do to us what they did to [Gov.] Scott Walker in Wisconsin," he had said.
The Raleigh protests have drawn comparisons to larger demonstrations in Madison, Wis., in 2011, in response to Walker's move to strip state workers of collective bargaining rights. But the North Carolina protests target a much broader range of issues, including tax fairness, civil rights and services for the poor and elderly.
The protests have settled into a well-rehearsed drama: On Monday, as before, protesters sang, prayed and refused to disperse. Police officers lined up, coils of white plastic cuffs in hand. Jeff Weaver, chief of the General Assembly police, warned protesters they had five minutes to end their "unlawful assembly."