Several Duke professors have been arrested for acts of civil disobedience.
Photo Illustration by Tori Powers
Several Duke professors have been arrested for acts of civil disobedience.

Duke professors who teach civil rights and civil disobedience have chosen to lead by example.

On April 29, professors hailing from different fields joined members of the NAACP and other activists to protest policies put forth by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. That day, the movement ended in thirty arrests, but the acts of civil disobedience have only grown as students and local residents joined the movement to protest legislation that will have major effects for North Carolina residents. Referred to as “Moral Mondays,” the civil disobedience campaigns will continue throughout the month of June.

Among the original crop of protestors was William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of history, who served as dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences and vice provost for undergraduate education from 1995 to 2004. Chafe was arrested for his participation in the campaign on Apr. 29 at 5:30 pm and was not released until 2 am.

“We saw ourselves as really speaking as people who have worked hard on both documenting and creating the history of North Carolina that this legislature is now trying to dismantle,” he said. “We wanted to set an example of how people with established reputations were willing to demonstrate their conviction that the legislature is pursuing a totally wrong direction.”

Lawmakers in the General Assembly have proposed cutting unemployment benefits, money for pre-school education and Medicaid funding, among other wide-ranging policy changes, all of which have served as the impetus for the civil disobedience campaigns, Chafe said.

“This was all cruel and malicious,” he said. “It was designed to hurt people.... We are protecting against this determination to hurt people and destroy the common good.”

Far-reaching policy changes

The civil disobedience campaigns were born out of a need to protest harmful legislation that undercuts economic and social progress, said Bob Korstad, professor of public policy and history, who was arrested at the May 6 protest.

“The primary policy that the Republicans are putting in place is a policy of austerity—that the government should be as small as possible, taxes as low as possible and that a disengaged government is one that provides the most freedom for citizens and, in their view, the best opportunity for economic growth and development,” he said. “From a historical viewpoint, I think that is an inaccurate understanding of how economic growth and development take place in a complicated capitalistic society such as ours.”

In April, North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature rejected expanding Medicaid to cover 500,000 uninsured people in the state, Chafe said, adding that the cut endangers many people when it would not cost the state a penny for the first two years it went into effect.

“There was no logical reason for them to do that,” Bruce Orenstein, a professor at the Center for Documentary Studies who was arrested Monday for protesting, said of the Medicaid cuts. “That is something that really violates my values.”

Chafe added that denying benefits to the unemployed punishes those who may have gotten laid off for reasons outside of their control. The cut reduced unemployment insurance benefits from $535 per week to $350 in late March.

In addition to health care cuts and restrictions to unemployment benefits, legislators are also looking to make radical changes to education, Orenstein said. He emphasized the issues with a voucher program—House Bill 944—that would spend $90 million of taxpayer money to subsidize private school tuition. The bill will take money away from the public school systems that need it more than private schools, he said.

“Every legitimate independent study that has been done on whether vouchers work show that they do not make a difference and yet the General Assembly is moving forward with a plan that will hurt funding for public schools,” he said. 

The House of Representatives also gave preliminary approval to new income limits for the preschool program in early May. Chafe referred to such cuts as “insane.”

“If you’ve ever learned anything about cognitive development, the first five years of a child’s life is more important for being successful,” Chafe said.

Korstad also raised particular concern with a bill that could require voters to show photo identification before going to the polls. He noted that such a bill, along with potential restrictions that could limit the length of time people can vote, are “mean spirited” and heavily impact low-income North Carolina residents.

The array of changes encouraged the professors to take a role in the Monday civil disobedience campaigns, and many more have either participated already or plan on doing so.

“They are going in the totally wrong direction,” Korstad said of the General Assembly. “It will take them a long time to get the ship going back in the right direction.” 

Under arrest

All of the professors who have participated in Moral Mondays have been arrested for second degree trespass and failure to disperse on command. 

Chafe referred to his short incarceration as a “great time” that allowed the protestors to make new friendships and have wide-ranging conversations. Additionally, the protestors all sang together throughout their eight to 10-hour stays in prison. 

Korstad, however, did not recall the experience as fondly.

“It was not fun,” he said. “I spent two hours with these plastic bracelets that they use to tie your hands behind your back, and they were tightened up so badly I have bruises around my wrists.”

The protestors were very diverse across race, sex, age and socioeconomic status, Korstad said. He noted that such diversity is indicative of the wide array of support behind the cause.

Police officers treated the protestors with respect and were very friendly, Orenstein noted. Orenstein recalled one black officer thanking him because he “would not be here” if it weren’t for civil disobedience. Another female police officer then chimed in and said the same.

“I’m not one to go out and get arrested, nor are many of the people who did,” Orenstein said. “But that’s the only path forward that seems to be left.”