Why Duke professors went to jail
The Moral Monday protests materialized at the end of April and grew to a nationally recognized political movement in a matter of weeks. North Carolinians spanning all demographics coalesced at Raleigh to protest a comprehensive host of legislation passing through the conservative state house and governor’s mansion, laws which protesters considered dangerous to the state and downright immoral.
The events raised too many questions to answer in one story—Why did this happen? What did it accomplish? What drives respected community leaders to face arrest of their own free will? By examining the protests through the eyes of Duke community members who experienced it firsthand, though, we might get close.
Jay O’Berski, assistant professor of the practice of theater, frequents Durham area stages as an actor and director for his theater troupe, The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. This summer, he played the role of male arrested protester in a larger drama.
When he heard about the protests from a Duke colleague who attended the first one, he looked into it and found something that resonated. As a Duke professor, O’Berski decided he was in a position of security that allowed him to take action. Whereas someone in a different occupation might face repercussions for protesting, O’Berski’s department chair congratulated him.
“All of the legislation that they pushed through targets the little guy,” he said. “If it targets children, brown people and women only and doesn’t affect white guys like me, in an effort to supposedly right the wrongs and make the state work better, then it’s completely corrupt because it’s the privileged who need to sacrifice and the poor who need to benefit. They have it completely topsy-turvy.”
What he found when he got to Raleigh was a piece of theater performed on a grand scale and fueled by grassroots emotion. After a pep talk from state NAACP leader Rev. William Barber, O’Berski and the other protesters who were willing to face arrest donned green arm bands and boarded a bus downtown. Not just any bus—“the most beautiful bus you’ll ever experience in your life,” with plush seats and potent air conditioning. After a mass rally on Halifax Mall, a field overlooked by the legislative building, the crowd of protesters parted to make way for the elite crew who had volunteered to face arrest.
They processed in ranks of two by two, running the gauntlet through supportive onlookers who shouted their thanks, O’Berski recalled.
“It felt like a cross between a gladiator and Fay Ray in King Kong—you feel like you’re going to be this sort of virgin sacrifice,” he said.
Once inside, the core group made its way to the central atrium between the senate and house chambers, where they held hands and sang songs until the legislative policeman with a bullhorn said to disperse or face arrest. They didn’t disperse.
The booking process took a while. A policeman cuffed and read the rights to each of the 84 protesters arrested that week, on June 17. That was the seventh Moral Monday, when the total arrests neared 500. The next step was taking the arrestees down to the legislative cafeteria, from where they boarded prison buses bound for the Wake County Detention Center, just outside of Raleigh.
“It is a sweaty, mesh-windowed prison bus straight out of ‘Cool Hand Luke,’” O’Berski recalled. “When your bus pulls out, the NAACP has organized people chanting, ‘Thank you, we love you,’ screaming through bullhorns. You can’t see them through the mesh. That was completely surreal.”
The protests that burst forth this summer hearken back to North Carolina’s leading role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, said William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin professor of history. He didn’t just write histories of the movement and the Greensboro sit-ins, he saw many of the events first hand. He sees his historical scholarship as running parallel to his interest in social justice. This philosophy sent the former dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences to jail this summer.
When a small group of black youths decided to violate local segregation codes and sit down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. in 1960, they kicked off a series of protests around the nation and led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which became a leading organizer for civil rights actions.
But those North Carolinians also spurred changes within state politics, Chafe said, leading to a recognition that the state needed to treat people of all races and backgrounds more fairly. Former Duke president Terry Sanford, who served as governor from 1961-65, became a voice of this new vision for North Carolina, boosting funds for public education, launching a statewide war on poverty and even sending his son to a desegregated school.
This year, when Chafe saw the legislature voting to reject federal funds for Medica expansion, cut spending for education, cut unemployment insurance and change the tax structure in a way that hurts many but helps a few, he felt he needed to act to preserve the legacy of the state since the sit-ins.
“In effect, to let them get away with this without protest would be almost to sanction going back to the North Carolina of 1900-1960,” Chafe said. “I felt the necessity of making a statement to protest that kind of reactionary politics.”
It remains to be seen, though, how such a statement will change the course of North Carolina politics or whether it will be effective in doing so. The protests cannot change the makeup of the current legislature until it comes up for election in fall 2014. For Chafe, then, the political tactics of the protests—large, visible rallies and hundreds arrested in acts of civil disobedience—play into a long-term electoral strategy.
“You’re not going to change the minds of the radical people enacting this legislation, but you are going to be able to lay the groundwork for voter registration and ‘get out the vote’ campaigns, and for conveying a strong signal that this is not where North Carolina wants to be,” he said. “[Getting arrested] provides very clear evidence of the fact that an awful lot of people are willing to make that sacrifice and take that risk, which in turn encourages others to demonstrate their support.”
Chafe sees evidence that this message is getting through. As the Greensboro sit-ins spread from their point of origin, the current protests have branched out from their metropolitan Raleigh roots with events throughout the state. A rally in Asheville in early August drew an estimated crowd of 10,000, Chafe said, which he called impressive for a town of 84,000. The test now will be whether the rallies can produce a grassroots infrastructure capable of mobilizing widespread turnout more than a year from now, when there won’t be a presidential race to draw voters to the polls.
Gunther Peck, Fred W. Shaffer associate professor of history and public policy, met his wife when they led a movement to organize graduate students at Yale to push for better compensation. Years later, their passion for organizing people to vote led them to Moral Monday, to face arrest side-by-side.
Though he has organized for the Obama campaign, Peck sees the drive to register voters as a nonpartisan ideal—the work of “a radical democrat, with a small ‘d.’”
“We need a democracy in which everyone not only can vote, but that they want to vote and that whatever decisions we come to collectively represent not a slim majority of the people, but ‘the people,’ whatever that is,” he said. “To me, that is a moral issue. I have a naïve, perhaps, belief that if everyone voted, that our democracy is better.”
Peck registered about 2,000 voters since he moved to Durham in 2002 and organized a network to register even more. When he noticed that Duke student voter turnout for the 2008 primary fell well below that of other Triangle-area universities, he pushed to give Duke something the other colleges had: an on-campus voting site. He worked to secure it for the general election and saw voter turnout jump from 11 percent of students registered in North Carolina to 84 percent, with three times more students registered for the general election.
The youth vote turned out to be one of the strongest voter demographics in North Carolina in 2008, and they went overwhelmingly in favor of Barack Obama, Peck said. The Voter ID law passed by the legislature this summer, though, throws up several roadblocks to this group’s ability to vote.
“It’s going to discourage a lot of people who have the right to vote but don’t have the means or the money or transportation or the documentation, or they have a status as students that makes it extremely problematic for them to vote,” he said. “It’s no accident that those are the people who elected Barack Obama. It does feel like payback.”
The law pressures in-state students to vote at home rather than at school or jeopardize their parents’ tax exemption for a dependent child—which can amount to several thousand dollars. This means a student voter will have to change their driver’s license to a college address, vote absentee or travel home to vote on a Tuesday in the middle of the semester, Peck said, all of which are new requirements needed to exercise the right to vote. Non-student voters will need new documentation in order to vote and will have fewer opportunities to vote early, among other changes.
Peck and his wife, Lecturing Fellow in English Faulkner Fox, now have to decide how to deal with the legal ramifications of their arrests. They could plead guilty, which comes with a $180 fine and 25 hours of community service, or they can go to trial to challenge the charges of second-degree trespassing, failure to disperse on command and violating legislative building rules. Peck said he considered doing the community service—“I thought I’d register voters.” But now he’s thinking of protesting the charges.
“We have done nothing wrong,” he said. “We sang spirituals in the legislative building. We sang songs after office hours.”
With a household of several children, including a seven-year-old, they can’t take the risk of going to trial if it could end up with both parents in jail, Peck added. The NAACP has promised free legal protection either way, but the choice belongs to the individuals. Although the summer’s actions may be over, the effects are still coming to bear on the people involved and those who watched them.