Today I had the privilege of trying my first Moral Monday cases. Actually, my seven clients today were arrested not on a Monday but on Wednesday, June 12, 2013 — the 50th anniversary of Medgar Evers’ assassination. My clients, who included two people in wheel chairs, a high school senior, some of his older relatives, a President of a North Carolina NAACP Chapter, entered the Rotunda of the Legislative Building at around lunchtime and began singing. After several warnings from the Chief of Police of the legislative Building to leave, they were arrested.
The crimes that my clients were accused of committing were: Failure to Disperse; Violation of the Legislative Building Rules; and Second Degree Trespass. The first crime requires the likelihood of some violence — the state dismissed this charge. The second crime is very interesting as the Rules can apparently change from day to day and someone other than actual legislators sets them; and, the President of the Senate pro tempore (Phil Berger) and the Speaker of the House (Thom Tilliis) have the authority to waive the rules. The third charge is the classic trespassing law that makes it a crime to remain on the property of another after being told by an authorized person to leave. This was the only charge the State proceeded with today.
After being told that my subpoenas to Messrs Berger and Tillis would be disallowed, we proceeded with the trial. The State called three witnesses to the stand: the Chief of Police, the Sgt at Arms and a Lieutenant. The State also introduced a video showing my clients going into the building and up to the Rotunda where they were ultimately arrested. The Defendants offered no evidence. The DA and I argued. The judge found my clients not guilty. Pretty standard trial.
The trial is not what’s remarkable about this story. What’s remarkable about this story is the people — the commitment, courage, and dignity of my clients and all the Moral Monday arrestees. These are people genuinely concerned about the direction our society is going, and this concern is derived from a deep and abiding love for our country. These people don’t rail against government because it’s fashionable to be antigovernment. These people believe as Lincoln did in the government of the people, by the people, for the people. These people are exactly the kind of citizens Jefferson, Franklin and Paine envisioned when they formed our government. These people are the champions of democracy. Yet these people were labelled as criminals for the very behavior that the founders of this country encouraged – demanded of us, actually.
It is astounding to me that a citizen of this country — the self-styled beacon of freedom around the world — could be arrested for peacefully demonstrating (by singing, chanting, praying and holding signs) in the building especially set aside for the democratic process to take place — the process of deliberation, debate and demonstration. If you can’t go to the government to express your grievances then where do you go? Does our democratic participation end after we leave the ballot box? Are we supposed to sit idly waiting for the next election before we are allowed to participate again?
Obviously not. Ours is the right (and duty) to remain fully involved in – invested in – our democratic process. All the time. And peacefully demonstrating in the publicly-owned building where our elected officials are making the decisions that affect us falls fully within (and might actually be the greatest example of) the democratic process. Forgive me if I’m wrong but I’m pretty sure there’s language in both the Federal and North Carolina constitutions about this. Yet the Moral Monday demonstrators were arrested. And not only arrested, but prosecuted (the DA can dismiss a charge at any time). And not only prosecuted but convicted. Some Moral Monday demonstrators have been found guilty by a judge. Mind-boggling. Disturbing. Frightening really.
Convicted by a lawyer who has sworn to uphold the Constitution and who has become a judge and sworn again to uphold the Constitution. Convicted for singing, chanting, praying and holding signs in the place that is actually set aside for that purpose. There’s no question that if a group of people went to the lobby of IBM and engaged in the same behavior, were told to leave and didn’t that those people would be guilty of trespassing. But the legislative building isn’t IBM. And if it gets a bit noisy in the building where democracy is actually being practiced, then: Good. Democracy is noisy. It’s rambunctious. It’s impassioned. It’s confrontational. These are the things that define democracy. If you take the noise, the passion, the confrontation out of democracy, it’s not democracy any more.
My clients deserve our thanks. It’s courage like theirs that drags us back towards democracy when we find ourselves slipping away from it. It’s commitment like theirs that keeps our process relevant and truly democratic. It’s love like theirs that preserves the country in a way that those geniuses of the Enlightenment would be proud of. My clients are heroes not criminals. My clients are patriots. I am so proud to have been given the opportunity to represent them. And I am honored just to have met them.