By KATELYN FERRAL
RALEIGH, NC (AP) _ A new round of legislative protests started Monday not with mass arrests, but with taped mouths and a silent march challenging the Republican reins of power in Raleigh.
About 1,500 people gathered to resurrect the weekly “Moral Monday” protests at the Legislative Building with a rally, communal bread-breaking and vows to loudly fight for the repeal of new laws passed last year by the GOP-dominated General Assembly.
The group gathered at Bicentennial Mall in front of the Legislative Building and walked into the building, up red stairs to the House and Senate galleries, then out the back entrance to Halifax Mall, led by supporters with physical disabilities and the Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP.
Protesters did not speak once they entered the building, instead putting tape over their mouths to show how they have been silenced by new Legislative Building rules adopted last week.
“We’re not complicit with their law, we’re exposing how crazy it is,” Barber said.
Nancy Brown ripped pieces of black duct tape to cover people’s mouths Monday and said GOP attempts to stifle the group will only strengthen their cause.
“They were trying to pre-empt us. We didn’t go away,” said Brown, who lives in Chatham County. “We have to keep shining the light on what’s happening to regular people. … We have to keep saying, `People are suffering from what you did.”’
“Moral Monday” goals are much the same as last year. Protesters are calling for a host of repeals on Republican-written laws, including a measure restructuring teacher pay and another trimming unemployment insurance. They also want Medicaid expanded and the Dan River cleaned up following a coal ash spill earlier this year.
Bread was delivered to Sen. Phil Berger’s and House Speaker Thom Tillis’ offices and many kinds were passed throughout the crowd to share with each other in what they called a “love feast,” a historically Moravian church tradition and show of unity to honor the inauguration of the protests.
“The idea is that we come to the table together, we celebrate together, and it’s to signify our community,” said Janet Xiao, a Duke Divinity School student, carrying a French brioche to share.
More than 930 people were arrested during mass demonstrations at the North Carolina Capitol last year, and Barber alluded to the possibility of more arrests in the future as demonstrators openly oppose the new rules that prohibit people from causing an “imminent disturbance” in the Legislative Building.
“Speaker Tillis is gonna enjoy this. This is the first and last time I’m gonna ever be told I have to speak a certain way in the people’s house,” Barber said.
He also called on the crowd to help register people to vote and bring friends to a lobbying day, which he said will not be a silent event.
As protesters filed into the demonstration area, a conservative advocacy group staged a small counter-protest attempting to highlight the good things they say the Republican agenda has produced.
Tax and unemployment insurance changes since 2011, when GOP lawmakers first took over the legislature, have helped reduce unemployment from more than 10 percent to 6.2 percent this April, said Carolina Rising President Dallas Woodhouse.
The protests began in April 2013, three months after Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s swearing-in gave Republicans simultaneous control of the executive and legislative branches for the first time in 140 years.