On Tuesday night, over the cries of hundreds of protesters, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina overrode the Democratic governor’s veto to enact an unpopular 12-week abortion ban, a bill that they refused to debate in a public hearing.
Republicans now enjoy more power in the state Capitol than they’ve had in years, after a Democratic lawmaker switched parties to give the GOP a veto-proof majority in both chambers. And it could get worse after they gerrymander election districts later this year, enabled by a conservative-controlled state Supreme Court. That new GOP majority on the court recently reversed course on democracy to sanction gerrymandering and voter suppression. This could lead to more new laws that hurt schools, trans people, workers, and so many more, in addition to giving Republicans near-total control over government in a state that has split evenly and twice elected a Democratic governor in recent years.
But hope is not lost. North Carolina has been here before. From 2013 through 2018, Republicans had a veto-proof supermajority in the Legislature. They engaged in a series of power grabs, but some of their most brazen abuses of power faltered after massive protests at the Capitol. Despite Tuesday’s abhorrent circumvention of the democratic process, North Carolina’s citizens can rally to save the state’s democracy once again.
Ten years ago, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, North Carolina lawmakers passed a sprawling voter suppression bill that included a draconian voter ID mandate and several other provisions that made it harder to vote. This brazen attack on democracy led to fierce protests in Raleigh. Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets to protest this bill and others. Hundreds of them were arrested, including 64 people at an abortion rights protest.
The Rev. William Barber, who was head of the state NAACP, helped launch the “Moral Mondays” protest movement that April. Barber said that he began this work after the Legislature’s “mean-spirited quadruple attack” on poor people: raising taxes on working-class families, cutting unemployment benefits, rejecting Medicaid expansion, and slashing education funding.
The intersectional movement that Barber led unified young people, labor organizers, civil rights activists, and progressive religious leaders in their opposition to the Legislature’s extreme agenda. As lawmakers’ list of targets grew, so did the movement. When legislators targeted trans people with a “bathroom bill,” they generated an enormous backlash, boycotts, and the loss of beloved college basketball tournaments in the state. Ultimately, a compromise was struck that significantly softened the initial anti-trans legislation.
The Moral Mondays protesters were inspired by Barber’s fiery rhetoric that called out lawmakers for their immoral agenda. He was fond of quoting a Bible verse, “Woe unto those who make unjust laws that rob the rights of the poor.” In his booming preacher’s voice, Barber would call out the movement’s slogan: “Forward together!” And the crowd would thunder in response: “Not one step back!”
The movement helped stop some blatant power grabs. In 2016, after voters elected a new progressive majority to the state Supreme Court, conservatives responded by suggesting that legislators pack the court. The idea was to expand the court and allow the lame-duck Republican governor, who’d just been defeated, the power to fill the two new seats. They had already passed bills to slash the incoming governor’s authority.
Protesters filled the halls of power. And just like the abortion protesters on Tuesday, they loudly chanted “Shame!” at lawmakers. The demonstration led to nationwide attention and critical commentary in the media. In the end, Republicans didn’t pack the court, even though they had the numbers to do it.
The rallies continued in 2017 and 2018, as lawmakers tried to gerrymander local judicial elections, and their effort was drastically scaled back. The pressure worked. All it took was one Republican to refuse to support it, which is again the case until at least the next election.
Voters also defied lawmakers at the ballot box. They twice elected a Democratic governor. And in 2018, they rejected lawmakers’ effort to amend the constitution to give themselves the power to pack the high court and the state elections board. In the same election, voters elected enough Democrats to break the GOP’s veto-proof supermajority. They also put Justice Anita Earls—a civil rights attorney who had defeated lawmakers before—on the state Supreme Court, defying lawmakers’ repeated attempts to handicap her campaign.
Last month, Barber held a “recommitment rally” in Raleigh on the 10-year anniversary of the first Moral Monday. He listed examples of lawmakers targeting the poor and called on the crowd to demand change: “We can’t, we won’t, be silenced anymore!” The crowd heard from people impacted by the Legislature’s actions, such as low-income workers who need a higher minimum wage. Barber promised that the movement would soon return to the Capitol.
No matter how bleak things look in Raleigh, North Carolinians must follow Barber’s example and continue to fight for our democracy. We must vocally oppose new attacks on abortion rights and bills that target women, trans people, the poor, or Black voters.
A gerrymandered Legislature can still be held accountable. Citizens should flood the Capitol when lawmakers gerrymander the districts and anytime they target a marginalized group of people. And they must fight new efforts to pack the courts or give the GOP more control over them.
Barber said in a recent interview that the Moral Mondays movement “taught people how to fight for what you believe in when you are in the minority politically. Because too many people, if they’re in the minority politically, they just feel like you go home and just sit and wait till the next election.” The movement said to those people, “No, you have work to do. You still have to keep raising dissent. You have to raise the moral critique.”
We must also demand accountability for our state Supreme Court, which is elected in statewide elections that can’t be gerrymandered. In March, hundreds gathered outside the court as it heard arguments about whether to reverse course in the gerrymandering and voter ID cases. The protest could be heard inside the courtroom. The court, it should be said, went ahead with its reversal to the great harm of North Carolina’s voters.
But the people should keep showing up at the court and demanding that justices honor their rights under the North Carolina Constitution. The GOP justices will likely rule to limit the rights of voters, workers, pregnant people, and those accused of crimes. Most of the Republican justices are either ex-prosecutors or former corporate attorneys, whom studies show tend to favor corporate litigants. Only one justice, Earls, has experience representing workers or voters. Even this court, though, can hopefully still be shamed from countenancing the worst abuses of power likely to come before them.
Finally, voters must show up to defeat Republicans at the ballot box. There are crucial elections next year for governor and Supreme Court. Voters will have to keep two Democrats on the court in 2024 and 2026 if they want the chance to elect a pro-democracy majority in 2028.
They can gerrymander elections, but they cannot silence our voices. Tar Heels must show up at the Capitol and demand accountability for all elected officials who undermine democracy.
We’ve done it before. And we’ve shown that, despite Republicans’ complete control of the lawmaking process, lawmakers can still be bound by the state constitution’s creed that “all political power … originates from the people.” We can do it again.