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Grassroots protest movement takes aim at North Carolina's 'bathroom bill'

Moral Monday activists are hardly through with North Carolina's so-called “bathroom bill." And they're insisting it's about much more than bathrooms.
An opponent of a new state law that restricts transgender bathroom use and pre-empts local governments from creating their own related policies with a sign at a rally (Photo by Ray Whitehouse/The New York Times/Redux)
An opponent of a new state law that restricts transgender bathroom use and pre-empts local governments from creating their own related policies with a sign at a counter-rally, across the street from a rally for proponents of the law, outside the the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, April 11, 2016. 

North Carolina’s “Moral Monday” movement — a coalition of grassroots activists known for staging high-profile acts of civil disobedience in response to a raft of Republican-backed legislation — has a new target in its crosshairs: House Bill 2.

Fifty-four members of the coalition were arrested April 25 on charges of trespassing, violating fire code and refusing to leave the Legislative Building during a protest to mark the three-year anniversary of the Moral Monday movement. The protest also coincided with the return of the legislature for the first time since it passed the state’s controversial Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, otherwise known as HB 2, a measure which nullified all local nondiscrimination ordinances and banned transgender people from using government building bathrooms in accordance with their gender identities.

Yet Moral Monday activists are hardly through with the so-called “bathroom bill,” said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and the movement’s most visible leader. Quite the contrary — they’re as fired up as ever.

RELATED: NCAA goes soft on North Carolina after House Bill 2

“We are planning on coming back. Because we have to,” Barber told reporters gathered inside the Martin Street Baptist Church, about a mile away from the General Assembly, during a press conference in Raleigh Tuesday. “You cannot allow this kind of hate, this kind of a merging together of racism, homophobia, sexism, classism to go unchallenged.”

Standing alongside several North Carolinians who were arrested the week prior, Barber announced another Moral Monday event would take place on May 16. In true Moral Monday fashion, he gave few details about what the next protest would look like. However, he did not rule out the possibility of more arrests.

“Remember, now, that’s our house. That’s the people’s house,” Barber said of the Legislative Building. “We don’t go to be arrested; we go to exercise our constitutional right to instruct our legislature. If we go in a person’s office to sit in there and wait to meet with them and they chose to arrest us, really, they have the problem.”

The Moral Monday protests began in the spring of 2013 — the first year that Republicans held total control of North Carolina’s government since 1896. Traditionally, the Tar Heel state had been a rare bastion of moderation in the otherwise reliably conservative South. But with Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in office and a GOP supermajority in the legislature, North Carolina underwent a hard-right shift ushered in by legislation that cut education funding, rejected Obamacare, restricted abortion access, and made it more difficult for people to vote.

At its peak, the Moral Monday movement staged almost weekly protests and rallies at the General Assembly with hundreds of people arrested. Still, Republicans were able to hold onto their majorities in the state legislature during the 2014 midterm elections.

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For many, HB 2 — a measure that was passed in a one-day special session last March and quickly provoked a national corporate backlash — may have been a bridge too far.

“I’m a 54-year-old straight, white, married woman, who had never protested anything before,” said Lisa Leonard, a Raleigh native, during Tuesday’s press conference. “But this legislation and the way it was passed was for me, the last straw.”

Because of the number and nature of seats up for election in 2016, not to mention the fact that North Carolina is one the most-gerrymandered states in the country, Democrats have essentially no shot at taking control of either the state Senate or the state House of Representatives come November. But they could win a crucial prize in the governor’s race, where McCrory has taken a major hit in the polls since the passage of HB 2.

Not that electing a Democratic governor is Barber's main objective. Rather, he insists the Moral Monday movement is strictly nonpartisan. At the press conference Tuesday, Barber made a point of stressing that everyone — regardless of race, gender, or party affiliation — was welcome to join the movement's efforts. Frequently, he and other activists tied the current push to roll back LGBT rights in North Carolina to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when activists faced similar arguments that racial segregation was necessary to protect women and girls. He also highlighted HB 2’s lesser-known repercussions — namely, that the law prevents municipalities from setting a minimum wage higher than the state’s.

“This is not a bathroom bill,” Barber said, seeking to frame the issue in a larger context. “This is an anti-civil rights, anti-human rights, anti-worker, anti-family, anti-children piece of legislation.”