Elizabeth Ananat, associate professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, was arrested in mid-December for protesting at the North Carolina General Assembly. The Chronicle’s Bre Bradham sat down with Ananat to discuss the experience. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Chronicle: What drew you to the general assembly on December 16?

Elizabeth Ananat: What drove me to the General Assembly that week was reports that were coming out that they were going to undermine the vote from the election, and that they were going to court-pack. That was the big rumor beforehand. They were going to respond to the election of Mike Morgan, which was going to give a relatively liberal majority to the court, by appointing two conservative justices and thereby undermine what the voters had done. Court-packing is very high on the list of things that researchers who study the demise of democracies and the fall of republics point to as a warning sign. It is a way of getting rid of the independence of the judiciary from the political system and a way of undermining voters and breaking down institutional norms.

The only way to keep democratic norms from being eroded is to make your voice heard when there are threats to it, and that is through direct action. So I went down there, and a lot of people went down there, to observe and make it clear that we didn’t want democratic norms eroded. I said to a colleague that I wanted my protest sign to say “stop eroding democratic norms," but I feel like that is not very catchy. But we went down there. They never did admit exactly that they were intending to court-pack, but [Governor Pat] McCrory actually took credit for convincing them to not court-pack. So despite the fact that they were not intending to, he also says that he stopped them from it. So I think they were intending to, and I also think that he is not exactly the one that stopped them. I think that all the witnesses stopped that. So they backed down from the most egregious thing that they were intending to do, but continued on with several other questionable things that were similar in spirit but not as egregious as court-packing.

They changed the composition of the election boards—which is another of the big warning signs that political scientists who study the fall of democracies point to when you start having political interference in elections. They also changed the powers of the governor. Specifically, there were a lot of people who were career civil servants who, under McCrory, gave him the power to make them political appointees. Then they were in the position to switch those back, and that was one of their bills—to switch those appointees back to the civil service so that political appointees have civil service protections. Basically, it got rid of all the civil servants, replaced them with appointees and then made the political appointees so that the check on political appointees—which is that the voters can get rid of them—is removed. That politicizing of the administration of government also removes a check on democracy.

So those actions, the election boards and the civil servants, the partisanship that they created there by removing the checks that are provided to voters were very frightening. They are not quite as obvious as court-packing, but they are also very frightening. So that’s why I went down. I think that the work of political scientists who study these issues suggest that when democratic norms are threatened, you have to sort of change your approach from your approach when democratic norms are working like usual.

TC: What was your experience on that Friday like?

EA: It was very peaceful. Everyone was very respectful of the officers who were maintaining order. They moved the guard line multiple times. On the first day they were like, "Okay, stand behind here." Then they moved them back, like they wanted us in a smaller space. Everybody was like, "Tell me exactly where to stand and I’ll stand right there." We were singing, we were chanting. We were having a very positive experience. 

The chief of the State Capitol Police had apparently gotten directions—it was not entirely clear what rule change had occurred—but the things that had been understood by everybody to be allowed, which are singing and chanting in the rotunda and not the galleries, were changed. We had been completely cleared from the galleries after a couple of people violated what the speaker said. The speaker can clear the galleries whenever, so the president of the Senate ordered the galleries to be cleared. 

The purpose of being in there was to observe what was happening. On the pretext of a couple people doing things, they cleared the galleries not just of the people who were disruptive, but of everyone. Then, there was not any video feed of what is actually happening in there. So you cannot observe, but you can listen. There is audio feed, but it sometimes breaks up and it is difficult. Of course, if they do anything by voice vote, you can’t actually tell who did what. But in the rotunda you can still express yourself through singing and chanting—and that is something that has always been allowed. Basically, they told us that they were going to arrest us if we sang and chanted. People didn’t feel great about that. People felt frustrated by that, but were still very respectful and very peaceful. People expressed their frustrations by putting tape over their mouths, by holding up their signs. At times, people did choose to chant. When they did, the Capitol Police would come and arrest them.

TC: What do you think the actions taken by the legislature mean for the future of North Carolina politics?

EA: I think that the good news is that a lot of people who hadn’t been paying attention to the day-to-day workings of the legislature have become much more aware and are realizing the ways that their lives are affected. A lot of people, for example, were upset about HB2 and maybe hadn’t thought before about how state legislature district lines are drawn. Now they are aware of gerrymandering and of the court decision that gerrymandering is unconstitutionally racially biased. They are aware that special elections are coming up.

All of this overreach that has occurred has made people much more aware about how what happens in the state capitol matters in their lives. HB2 is, of course, not just a bathroom bill—it does discriminate against the transgender community, but it also prevents communities from making the minimum wage and from having anti-discrimination laws around race and gender, all sorts of things. I think a lot of people have been impacted by HB2 and the boycott of HB2, and then they have seen the ways that this legislature has not only not repealed that law, as they said they would before the holidays, but also have done all these other things—like trying to change the courts and the election board—in order to protect HB2 and similar legislation. I think that the awareness of that, and understanding of all the decisions that went before it that made it possible, has really increased, and I think that people are very activated now.

TC: What was your take-away from the experience? Did it affect your view of political participation or how you plan to be politically involved in the future?

EA: I would say that it is sometimes easy to get cynical when you study politics and government all day long. I was amazed by the power that we had by coming together to protest this. The attention that we got at the local, state and even national level, the support that came and the fact that we were able to call attention to things and prevent some of the worst things from happening despite the fact that this is a group of people that has a supermajority in the legislature—there were things they didn’t do.

I would like to think that North Carolina can take a little of the credit for what happened with the Congressional Ethics Office, because that was a similar situation where they had the votes and thought that they could do this when no one was looking, and they could in terms of the number of votes. There was so much attention and so many people witnessing, saying that we see what you’re doing and it is wrong, that it stopped them. I think that people are starting to realize that is something they can do if they pay attention to policy and politics—that just their voices make a difference.

Another thing that I think is very inspiring, and what everyone at Sanford and everyone who believes in democracy wants to believe, and sometimes it is easy to become jaded, but I think what happened yesterday and what happened last month really show the power of an engaged citizenry even outside of the ballot box and the electoral cycle—just through watching it and speaking their minds.