Durham, N.C. — Tens of thousands of North Carolinians protested and nearly 1,000 were arrested in the summer of 2013, demonstrating against attacks by the right-wing state legislature against teachers, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, voting rights, environmental protections and reproductive rights. (See tinyurl.com/kvl5szv) Moral Monday demonstrations were held every week that the legislature was in session last year.
Since then, the hundreds of individual cases have been winding their way through the courts, with many protesters having to travel to Raleigh for court multiple times. From the beginning, the trials had varied and yielded conflicting results. While Black Workers for Justice leader Saladin Muhammad and others were convicted, some were found not guilty. (tinyurl.com/mjxgpx6)
Lawyers for the protesters have consistently argued that the arrests violated the protesters’ constitutional rights and were unreasonable and overbroad restrictions on free speech. After months of making these arguments and of wide support among the public, in the media and by law professors, a Superior Court judge dismissed several cases on appeal and agreed that the restrictions on free speech were unconstitutional. On Sept. 19, the district attorney agreed to dismiss the charges in most of the remaining cases.
Unfortunately, many demonstrators had already accepted plea bargains, unwilling or unable to miss work to travel to court for repeated appearances. The district attorney is still proceeding in about 50 of the cases from protests in July of 2014, cases in which he claims that it was legal to arrest the protestors in the building because the legislature was not meeting at the time. On July 22, demonstrators gathered to protest the racist Voter ID bill; on July 24, six protesters were arrested at the office of Speaker Thom Tillis, who was rushing the bill to a vote without proper debate or notice.
Lawyers for the remaining defendant demonstrators are optimistic that the same constitutional arguments will prevail in these cases.
Some still face police harassment
Although the long battle with the police and courts is over for many of those arrested, some continue to face police harassment. In May, the Rev. John Mendez, a civil rights activist and Baptist minister from Winston-Salem, N.C., was re-arrested and charged with missing one of his court dates, in April 2014. The court date occurred more than a year after his initial charge, after he had already been to court several times, and after he had been informed by his lawyers that his charges had been dismissed.
On Sept. 11, police came to the home of Naeema Muhammad and Saladin Muhammad and arrested both of them on similar charges of missing a court date. Saladin had already been convicted, and Naeema had been to court five or six times already.
Although both had the same misdemeanor charges, Saladin was given a $500 bond, while Naeema’s was set at $5,000. The magistrate would not tell them why the bonds were different, which court dates they allegedly missed, or why they were now being re-arrested.
Naeema Muhammad, in her role as the interim director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, had recently filed a complaint with the federal government against the state of North Carolina for discrimination in where it allows factory-scale hog farming. She guessed that “my bond was set so much higher because my name was in the news about the Title VI complaint — [there’s] no other explanation for my bail being so much higher for the same charge. It feels like a form of harassment.”
While many in North Carolina are celebrating the dismissals, the fight is not over. Naeema reminds us that “although the cases have been dismissed, things have not gotten any better. People need to stay aware of what is going on in the state of North Carolina. And be prepared to keep standing up.”