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Arrests, police attacks show

Struggle against racist resegregation heats up in North Carolina

Published Jul 23, 2010 8:44 AM

A mass demonstration on July 20 to stop racist attempts to resegregate schools in Wake County, N.C., ended with the arrest of 19 people at a school board meeting.

Activists at the podium inside the school
board hearing before police make arrests.
Photo: Andy Snee

Nearly 2,000 demonstrators filled the streets of downtown Raleigh that morning for a march called by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and endorsed by the national African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The church recently cancelled its winter meeting in Arizona in solidarity with the boycott called against the racist, anti-immigrant Senate Bill 1070.

Members of the faith community played a pivotal role in the demonstration. Black churches from across the state mobilized many members of their congregations, joining members from a number of NAACP chapters and community organizations, as well as civil rights activists and high school students.

The spirited march began at the Convention Center, where the AME Zion Church was holding its national convention, streamed through downtown Raleigh, and ended with a rally at the State Capitol building. There, many spoke out against the attempts of the “Resegregationist Five,” five members of the nine-person school board who want to create a two-tiered system of education and send our schools back into the era of Jim-Crow segregation.

Speakers included high school students and members of NC Heroes Emerging Among Teens; Louis Hunter, president of AME Zion Church’s board of bishops; Richard K. Thompson, head of the eastern N.C. AME Zion district; Al Gwinn of the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church; Michael Curry of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina; the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP; and MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO. All the speakers urged march participants to attend the school board meeting that afternoon.

NC HEAT, a newly formed organization of high school students in Wake County, along with Raleigh Fight Imperialism, Stand Together and various church youth groups, played an important role in mobilizing young people and building youth leadership for the march.

“The overall outcome was impressive. The presence of youth was seen and heard, not only at the march but at the school board meeting as well. Posters at the meeting read ‘Listen to the Students,’ and this is exactly what they will have to do,” said Monse Alvarez, a leader of NC HEAT. “[We are] working on recruiting and organizing students who have come to realize what is going on in our schools and want to stop this before future generations are affected by this unlawful and racist policy.”

Arrests, standoff outside meeting

The school board meeting resembled a prison. Metal barricades lined the sidewalks outside of the Wake County Public School System central offices. Two prison transfer buses waited behind the building in anticipation of mass arrests; cops on horses stood guard in the parking lot, as bike cops wove around the building. At least 40 uniformed cops patrolled inside and outside the building, including the chief of the Raleigh Police Department.

Barber, along with the Rev. Nancy Petty, senior pastor at Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, had earlier declared their intention to attend the July 20 meeting in direct defiance of their being prohibited from entering school property. They and two others were banned after being arrested for civil disobedience at a June 15 school board meeting.

As the two made their way onto the grounds of the central office, a crowd of nearly 150 people flanked them as a line of cops and media approached. Barber read an open letter they had written to school board Chair Ron Margiotta and the rest of the Resegregationist Five, opposing their plans to segregate the schools and protesting the ban prohibiting them from entering school property. Barber and Petty were then arrested, along with the Rev. Gregory Moss, president of the North Carolina General Baptist State Convention.

The rally continued outside the meeting following the arrests, as tensions between the cops and the demonstrators became sharper. After a nearly 30-minute standoff, people made their way into the building to attend the meeting. As the public comment section opened, community members spoke out against the resegregation attempts.

The occasional GOP-planted “supporter” of the Five sang the praises of the board for, among other things, carrying out $25 million in budget cuts to the school system and “putting an end to forced busing,” recalling the rhetoric of segregationist and white supremacist Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.

Refusing to be silent

Near the end of the public comment period the Rev. Michelle Cotton Laws, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro chapter of the NAACP, refused to give up the podium. She was joined by nearly 30 audience members, as chants of “Forward ever; backwards never!” filled the room.

NAACP members, student activists and religious leaders linked arms at the podium, chanting and singing civil rights songs. The board had no choice but to go into recess — because the meeting had been taken over. Nearly two dozen cops, who had been lining the meeting room, moved to the front to break up the demonstration.

Ranging in age from 16 to 60, 16 people were arrested, including NAACP leaders and members; a high school student; youth members of NC HEAT and Raleigh FIST; and religious leaders from around North Carolina.

Chinni Collins, one of the 16 arrested and a member of Raleigh FIST, explained why he took a stand: “I believe that education equity is an important issue and people have to see how important it really is. There’s a saying, ‘There’s no need of standing up for the right unless you’re going to stand up against the wrong,’ and I believe that when you know something is wrong, that is when you stand up for what is right.”

As the arrests were taking place, Keith Sutton, the only African-American school board member, came over to make sure that demonstrators were being treated fairly by the cops. However, he was attacked by three cops, who twisted his arms behind his back as if to arrest him. He demanded an apology from the Raleigh Police Department.

The chief of police responded the following day, saying he would be willing to meet with Sutton “to stress the importance of his not becoming involved with police officers performing their duties.” (WTVD-TV/DT Raleigh-Durham, July 22)

Meanwhile, nearly two dozen people, who had been in two overflow rooms on the fourth floor, made their way to the meeting room during the demonstration. They demanded access to the room, and when the cops closed and locked the doors, they began chanting “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”

A crowd of supporters greeted the 16, arrested on charges of second-degree trespassing and disorderly conduct, as they were released from jail that evening. The three arrested earlier in the day had already been released.

In an open letter following the actions, the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, second vice president of the N.C. NAACP, made clear the need for continued resistance. Gatewood took head-on the claims, leveled by Margiotta, that the protesters were somehow “outside agitators,” saying: “We will continue to mobilize against injustice. ... We will not slow down due to ‘outsider’ labels, arbitrary school meeting changes designed to reduce rather than increase community input, two-faced promises, increased police presence, threats of jail, or if and when other tactics, which are being replayed from the old Jim Crow playbook, are used through efforts to intimidate and/or divide us.”

The July 20 actions were an important step forward for the movement to stop resegregation in Wake County. The powerful unity forged among civil rights activists, the faith community, youth and students, and other community organizations signals a new stage. Every day, more and more people are drawn into this struggle, and if July 20 was any indication, this community fightback will continue to grow.

The writer is a Raleigh FIST organizer who participated in the July 20 march.