RALEIGH — As the N.C. General Assembly reconvened for their fourth special legislative session of 2016, and the Republican super-majorities proposed legislation to reassert the body’s constitutional authority over myriad issues, word was spread through left-leaning activist groups calling the lawmakers’ actions nefarious and aimed at illegally reducing the power of the Democrat Governor-elect Roy Cooper.
Over the course of the week, the call to action resulted in chamber galleries with standing room only, as hundreds of protesters flooded the legislature in a bid to disrupt legislative proceedings they were politically opposed to.
Orchestrated disruptions erupted in chamber galleries at least three times, requiring the legislature’s Sergeant-at-arms and police to clear the chambers. As activists were forced into the third floor rotunda between the two chambers, chants of “Who’s House?! Our House!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” became deafening to the point of further delaying resumption of lawmakers’ business.
Armed with signs and disobedience training, more than two dozen protesters were arrested in the latter part of the week for refusing police orders. Those arrested protesters were cheered by the crowd, who chanted “Thank you! We love you!” as they were marched by police out of the building toward waiting police vans in zip-ties.
The commotion received national press in outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and NPR.
Governor-elect Roy Cooper joined in, holding a press conference and encouraging the legislature to adjourn and come back next year to reach compromises with his administration that would benefit the everyday North Carolinian.
“Major changes in the way state government operates should be done deliberately, with input from all parties, particularly something as important as elections and making sure people have the opportunity to vote,” said Cooper. “They shouldn’t be pushed through in the dark of night.
“The Cooper campaign also circulated a petition to tell the lawmakers to go home, stating “Republican legislators are taking unprecedented action — and it goes beyond just their normal partisan games. This could hurt North Carolinians for years to come.
“Through out the protests against the Republicans’ actions, from activists and Democrat legislators alike, Republican lawmakers iterated and reiterated that their proposals were not only constitutional, but good governance on behalf of the constituents who elected them to represent their interests in Raleigh. Republicans have been elected to majorities in the state legislature since 2010.
Much of the action of the fourth special session of the General Assembly is typical of transitional periods in which the constitutional balance of powers between the respective branches of government is reasserted in the wake of election results.
Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) called it “just good ol’ politics.
“For instance, Sen. Harry Brown (R-Jacksonville) spoke during floor debate of the 1988 election of Lt. Governor Jim Gardner. Before North Carolina’s first Republican lieutenant governor took office, the then-Democrat controlled legislature transferred much of the position’s authority to the Senate President Pro Tempore, effectively neutering the essential powers of that office.
The Republican lawmakers also lamented the level of disruption caused by protesters, arguing that it infringed upon the right of other citizens to witness legislative process.
North Carolina House majority leader Rep. John Bell (R-Wayne) feels, that while the protesters can and should engage in the process, their actions went too far.
“These protesters have every right to protest under our First Amendment rights. However, some protesters have left trash all over the building, destroyed property of members, and have consistently disrespected the rules of the House and Senate chamber,” Bell said in a statement provided to the North State Journal.
“I’m disappointed in the Minority Leader and the Democratic Caucus for not condemning this type of behavior. This is the House of the people and these protesters have taken away the rights of everyday citizens, including the 4th graders who were scheduled to visit the North Carolina General Assembly today.
“I want to personally thank the Sergeant-at-arms and the police for their quick response. I appreciate them keeping our citizens, staff and legislators safe,” concluded Bell.
Some legislators reported problems accessing the chamber for floor votes due to fervent crowds of protesters. Others confirmed that multiple elementary school groups, on field trips to visit the State’s capital and witness the legislative process, were turned away as the protest atmosphere made simple observance infeasible.
While the fourth special session of 2016 has now concluded, lawmakers will return in January to write a biennial budget, redraw legislative districts, and face court-mandated elections in the fall. The 2017 legislative calendar is ripe with opportunities for partisanship, and thus more high profile conflicts with the Governor-elect, and active political opposition, likely assure further activist inundations to come.