Rev. Barber is on trial over a health care protest he led 2 years ago

Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani

Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani Senior Editor, ThinkProgress

Rev. Dr. William Barber is on trial in North Carolina for leading a protest calling for Medicaid expansion in the state’s legislative building two years ago.

Barber, then-head of the state NAACP chapter and leader of the progressive grassroots movement “Moral Monday,” was arrested on May 30, 2017, after he led a group of more than 30 people to the legislative building in Raleigh to to discuss health care with lawmakers. Barber and others in the group were later charged with second-degree trespassing — a Class 3 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 20 days in jail and a $200 fine — for refusing to leave the building when they were told to do so by General Assembly Police.

The trial began Tuesday, and Barber’s legal team is arguing in court that the case is fundamentally about the right to free speech and the access that people have to their legislators.

Barber told ThinkProgress that on the day of the protest two years ago, a coalition of groups — including the NAACP, health advocates, and others — went to speak to legislators and deliver letters on “the damage they were doing by denying health care in North Carolina.”

North Carolina still has not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, which would allow people earning less than 138% of the federal poverty level to get health care.

There remains a wide coverage gap in the state, involving an estimated 500,000 peoplewho currently make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but are too poor to qualify for ACA premium tax credits. Nine percent of people stuck in such coverage gaps nationwide reside in North Carolina, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Barber said that when he and other activists went to the legislature to discuss this issue, they were told there were no lawmakers with whom they could speak.

“When we get there of course, they close the door. They locked — they closed the offices. And they tell us nobody’s in the office, nobody’s there. It’s not open for businesses. And some of the officers are actually standing in the door, and of course we can’t push through the door because if we do that that would be assault. And so, we decided to read the Constitution, that’s what they call chanting. We were chanting the Constitution, chanting the statistics about health care and chanting scripture, and chanting that people needed health care, and they told us that we were too loud.”

“So we asked, ‘What is the level of disturbance? What is the decibel level for free speech?’ They said, ‘We can’t tell you that, all we can tell you is somebody complained.'”

At the trial on Wednesday, General Assembly Police Chief Martin Brock again insisted that Barber was being too loud.

“What was being said was not the issue,” Brock said, according to The State. “The issue was the volume at which it was being said.”

Phil King, the politically appointed sergeant-at-arms for the state Senate at the time of Barber’s arrest, also testified on Tuesday that several people called his office to complain about the protest, according to WRAL. He added that the group made it difficult for people to move through the hallway, and the chief of the General Assembly Police repeatedly warned protesters to be quiet or leave the building, or they would be arrested.

Barber pushed back on King’s characterization of the protest.

“We were in an isolated area… We didn’t go in front of the offices where people were in, you know, we didn’t do any of that,” he told ThinkProgress on Tuesday. “He was trying to suggest that protesters were pushing his people and pushed the secretary trying to get into office. But if that had taken place, those protesters would have been arrested for assault.”

“His argument was that I was on the second floor by [Speaker Pro Tem Phil Berger’s office] where we were, he was all the way in the back and that my voice was so powerful that it literally shut down the business of the legislature. For two hours.”

“Well the record will show they did business that day,” Barber added. “The legislature wasn’t even in session until 4 o’clock that evening. We were there in the morning. So business was fine, business was great,” he said.

“What this is, is that in these Southern legislatures, they want to shut people down and shut people up and hide out in the people’s houses and pass these extreme bills and not have to face the people and only face the people they like.”

Barber also noted that in the trial on Tuesday, the activists were repeatedly referred to as members of the NAACP.

“They kept saying, ‘Reverend Barber and the NAACP.’ Well in the South, that’s a way of saying it was just black people. It wasn’t just black people… They didn’t say the NAACP and this group and this group, because we were a whole bunch of groups and it was a very diverse group of people that were there.”

According to a local WRAL reporter, some at the trial on Tuesday came with signs which made reference to such things as pre-existing conditions, hoping to remind those in attendance that the original protest concerned the expansion of affordable health care to needy North Carolinians.

But from Barber’s point of view, there are even more fundamental matters at stake: free speech, the right of people to instruct their legislators, and the importance of transforming statehouses in the South.

The North Carolina state legislature is based on illegally gerrymandered maps — which is why Barber calls it an “unconstitutionally constituted” legislature. In May 2017, just a few days before Barber’s protest in Raleigh, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision that many of North Carolina’s legislative districts were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The battle over congressional redistricting also goes hand in hand with local vote-rigging and voter suppression, with rollbacks of early voting and purging of voter rolls.

“This group of legislators got into office through racist gerrymandering and racist voter suppression, and once they got in office, they have an all white Republican caucus that has been extremist,” Barber said, adding that the majority of people in the ACA’s coverage gap in North Carolina are also white.

“When they’re running for office, they will talk to everybody. When they get into office, they want to hide inside these buildings and pass all this horrendous voter suppression, denying health care, denying living wages, denying immigrant [rights], denying LGBT rights, denying women’s rights, behind closed doors,” Barber said.

“Then they will say things like, ‘Well you can send them all emails.’ But that’s not the Constitution. You don’t need to give me an alternative way that you decide I can instruct you. ‘Well you can tweet ’em, you can go on Twitter.’ No, no, no. You may choose to do that. But you can’t deny the right of us to physically go in an office and instruct our legislators, especially those who are trying to hide.”

Barber says this case is more about the state trying to find ways to chill protest and activism. That’s why after the initial arrest, he and other activists were banned from returning to the state legislature as a condition of their release.

Assistant Wake County District Attorney Nishma Patel argued that the ban should be kept in place until after a teacher’s rally in Raleigh on May 1, since Barber would attract a bigger crowd. A judge lifted the ban in April, nearly two years after his arrest. (Barber did end up attending the rally, which saw thousands of teachers marching through the capital.)

“We have to stand up on this one. If citizens can’t go in a legislative building during office hours and raise a protest to people who otherwise would not hear them, and if they’re going to get arrested because they stood in front of closed office space, where they’re being told no one’s in the office, and you’re going to get arrested because somebody — you don’t know who — said, ‘Well I think they’re too loud. I think they’re too loud.’ Or, ‘It’s making me nervous, I’m nervous.’ And therefore, they don’t have a right to free speech. Or an emergency could happen — mind you, no emergency did happen, but their argument is an emergency could happen, and therefore they need to be removed during office hours… Well that means not only for people who agree with me, but for other people who want to protest and don’t agree with me, they should be just as concerned about this because that means all you can do is get an anonymous complaint.”

Restricting the access of ordinary citizens to their lawmakers — especially after those lawmakers have come to power due to racial gerrymandering and voter suppression — has serious implications.

In this regard, the matter crosses North Carolina’s border. In a 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to pass federal scrutiny for any proposed changes in voting procedures. Since then, there has been a rapid increase in restrictive voting laws across the country, which played a big part in the 2018 midterm elections.

“The transformation of this country’s politics ultimately lies in the South,” Barber said. “Because if you can lock up the 13 former Confederate states — from Virginia to Texas — through racist voter suppression, you control almost 170 electoral votes in a race to 270. And you control 26 members of the United States Senate and over 30% of the United States House of Representatives. So in the country right now, the demographics are showing us that the South is ripe for fundamental transformation.”

He added, “After this Shelby decision [a lot of these legislatures have] gone all out… not just to suppress the vote, but to suppress the kinds of public policies that would make people want to vote, because they would see how voting impacts their lives. If people got health care, they would then say, ‘Wait a minute: It really does depends on who’s in office whether or not my children have health care. Whether my child with pre-existing conditions can have health care. Whether women can get health care. Whether poor working people can get health care.’ That issue crosses all racial lines.”

“The great fear of extremist Southern politicians is a mass moral fusion coalition where people come together regardless of race, color, creed, and sexuality,” Barber said. “That’s why I think they’re so focused on trying to stop us on this movement.”

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