CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The HKonJ protest this past weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina, may have been the largest such event, but it wasn’t the first time that thousands, with causes as diverse as the citizen-marchers themselves, showed up. For 11 years, with messages for both Republicans and Democrats, the faithful gathering at Historic Thousands on Jones Street have persisted.
There is a lesson for the dissatisfied, new to activism, who are now crowding town halls and filling the streets: Victories may never come, or may be incremental, at best. Each goal accomplished could be followed by a setback.
Are the protesters of 2017 in it for the long haul?
Inspiring the opposition
The Trump administration is certainly giving opposition movements incentives to keep going, from turmoil throughout its national security team to a clump of advisers with white nationalist ties skulking around the Oval Office or surfacing on talk shows to repeat falsehoods about “illegal” voters skewing election totals.
At their recent congressional forum in Baltimore, Democrats, reeling from losses and hoping to exploit GOP problems and harness the energy of Trump opposition for party gains, were presented with different strategies from some of those running for Democratic National Committee chair.
In North Carolina, what has been called the “Moral Movement” already has a face, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, head of the state NAACP chapter, which estimated Saturday’s Raleigh crowd at about 80,000.
The issues that get people in the streets once focused on broadening voting rights, and have come to also embrace health care availability, environmental justice, immigration and criminal justice reform, reproductive freedom, racial equality, redistricting and more.
Before the weekend march, Barber said, as reported in The News & Observer: “A loud majority is outraged and the whole world is in turmoil asking what can we do. Well, we know we’ve got a hard fight ahead, but we know how to win.”
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, affirmed the marchers’ right to protest, but countered their effectiveness by saying that “the agenda items they support have been soundly rejected at the ballot box by the people of North Carolina.”
He has a point. Trump, helped by numerous rallies by the candidate, surrogates, family members and friends, won North Carolina on Election Day, despite visits from Hillary Clinton and her own team of supporters. Voters returned Richard Burr to the U.S. Senate and Republican majorities to the state legislature. However, GOP incumbent governor Pat McCrory was defeated by Democratic challenger Roy Cooper. While McCrory’s support for an unpopular toll road project and HB2, the controversial bill over LGBT rights, certainly hurt him, political engagement from a persistent opposition no doubt also played a part.
When he delivered a thundering address at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia last year, Barber’s national prominence rose. He has followed up with columns and TV appearances. But North Carolina’s activism was never just about his leadership, in the same way that the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s was not only the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., despite efforts since his death to elevate him to not just iconic but superhuman status.
While Barber’s visibility has made him both an admired and vilified figure, he will not hesitate to form an unlikely alliance if it could advance a cause. For example, the NAACP joined with Adam O’Neal, the Republican mayor of Belhaven, North Carolina, in a so-far unsuccessful fight to re-open the town’s local hospital, which was shut down after state lawmakers decided not to expand Medicaid coverage. All the while, the movement is working to register voters and fight laws it considers unjust in the courts — small steps, perhaps, but significant ones.
That’s what those who oppose policies embodied by the Republican Party and Trump administration should see in their future — long hard work in the states, with results that are not always successful or easy to see.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.