Opinion: Daily Journal

Let’s Have Teachable Tuesdays

The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP is spearheading a weekly series of protests called “Moral Mondays” directed against Republican-supported legislation such as tax reform and voter ID. Might I respectfully suggest that the participants agree to a weekly series of instructional sessions about free speech in a constitutional republic? Let’s call them “Teachable Tuesdays.”

The need for remedial education in the principles of self-government became apparent during the May 13 protest. One participant held up a sign stating “This is what Democracy looks like!” And Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP chapter, remarked that the state capitol police “should not be arresting us. You should thank us for having the courage to tell it like it is.”

These statements represent a sad commentary on the quality of public discourse. In fact, while robust political debate and colorful protests are just fine, attempting to block elected state lawmakers from entering their chambers to conduct legislative business — which is how the Monday protests conclude before the police move in — is precisely the opposite of democracy.

Some participants argue that North Carolina’s Republican-led state legislature is illegitimate because of gerrymandering, so blocking its operation isn’t undemocratic. Sorry, that won’t wash. Most North Carolinians voted for GOP candidates for legislature in 2012. The resulting majorities were clearly exaggerated by the tilt of the legislative districts, but Republican control of the General Assembly was a democratic outcome.

By contrast, there really were periods during both the Hunt administration of the 1990s and the Easley administration of the 2000s when Democrats controlled legislative chambers despite the fact that Republican candidates had received more votes. Sometimes the culprit was gerrymandering. Sometimes it was criminal activity (e.g. bribery by former House Speaker Jim Black, now a convicted felon).

Did any of the university scholars, professional agitators, and liberal wonks that populate today’s “Moral Mondays” conduct similar demonstrations against these past outrages? Did they seek to block the policies that resulted — tax hikes, Medicaid expansions, new social programs, etc. — as fruits from a poison tree?

Of course not. They liked what the Democrats were doing back then. They don’t like what the Republicans are doing now. The protests are not about process. They are ideological and partisan, period.

As to Rev. Barber’s point about arresting the demonstrators: I like him personally and respect his right to speak. I would have interpreted his comments as an innocuous attempt at humor, except that some of his allies have also seriously argued that protesters disrupting the General Assembly’s business shouldn’t be arrested.

Such sentiments are inconsistent with civil disobedience as originally conceived. Gandhi urged his supporters to call attention to injustice “by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment.” Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

To use your body to obstruct the operation of state government, and then to object when the police arrest and charge you for the crime, is to engage in uncivil disobedience. It is to hold yourself above your fellow citizens as a self-appointed moral arbiter. It is contemptuous, not persuasive.

Arrest and prosecution are indispensable to effective civil disobedience. First, they generate media coverage. Over the years, I’ve witnessed and sometimes participated in large public demonstrations at the General Assembly — involving crowds in the 1,000 range or larger — that got only a small fraction of the attention the relatively paltry “Moral Monday” turnouts have received. The difference is that other protests didn’t involve criminal trespass and arrest.

Second, the general public may come to agree with protestors about a particular controversy, and express their newfound beliefs at the ballot box. But the public will never sanction lawlessness or attacks on the basic principles of self-government. They’ll never accept the idea that a few activists have the right to shut down the General Assembly without taking legal responsibility for their actions.

In their own interest, the protestors ought to take me up on my “Teachable Tuesday” offer, refreshments included.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.