How not to respond to peaceful protesters: Lessons from North Carolina politicians

In their sixth week now, the Moral Monday protests against the North Carolina General Assembly's far-right agenda show no signs of stopping any time soon -- and in fact, the demonstrations have expanded to a second day of the week.

This Monday's protest, led by clergy from various faiths, drew hundreds of people to the capitol grounds despite stormy weather, and 84 were arrested for engaging in civil disobedience by refusing to disperse from inside the legislature when ordered to do so by police. Participants are opposing a controversial Republican program that includes restricting voting rights, restarting the death penalty, ending extended unemployment benefits, rejecting expanded health care access for the uninsured, and cutting taxes for corporations while raising them on poor and working people.

Monday's action brought the total number of people arrested since the protests began on April 29 to over 350.* And this week the protest movement, organized by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, added what it's calling "Witness Wednesday" honoring those who've served the civil, human and labor rights movements. The first Witness Wednesday, held in memory of Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers' assassination 50 years ago today, led to seven more arrests, including those of a Durham city councilman and a Guilford County commissioner, according to WTVD News. The N.C. NAACP has also launched a voter registration campaign that will run through the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 28.

So far, the participants have offered a textbook example of how to conduct nonviolent civil disobedience, behaving respectfully and cooperating with arresting officers. But some elected officials have responded to the protests in less-than-respectful ways. They have included:

1. Trivializing the protests with college sports comparisons. State Rep. John Blust is a Republican who represents Greensboro, the North Carolina city where four African-American college students sat down at a whites-only Woolworth lunch counter in 1960 and launched what was to become the sit-in movement against segregation across the South. Surely Blust is familiar with that history and the dignified comportment of the nonviolent protesters, which is one reason why his trivializing response to the Moral Monday protesters was surprising. "I think of it like Carolina playing at Duke," Blust told The News & Observer. "I'm not going to let the Cameron Crazies throw me off my game, " he said, referring to Duke University's student basketball section, which is known for blue face paint and crude cheers.

2. Name-calling. State Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican from Wilmington and an investments adviser, penned an op-ed about the protests that ran last week in the Chatham Journal. Its title? "Moron Monday shows the radical Left just doesn't get it." He likened the protests to a "circus … complete with clowns, a carnival barker and a sideshow." He called the protesters "mostly white, angry, aged former hippies" and the "Loony Left." When North Carolinians took to Goolsby's Facebook page to take issue with his characterizations, Goolsby continued with the name-calling, dismissing one critic as a "typical liberal cry baby." He later deleted most of the comments.

3. Engaging in religious mockery. In his "Moron Monday" op-ed, Goolsby also said that state NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber -- pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church Disciples of Christ in Goldsboro, N.C., a mainline Protestant denomination -- was "decked out like a prelate of the Church of Rome … complete with stole and cassock. All he was missing was a miter and the ensemble would have been complete." Goolsby threw in a parenthetical "no insult is meant to Catholics." But if someone doesn't wanat to insult Catholics, why would he poke fun at someone by likening their vestments to those of Catholic religious leaders?

4. Blaming their disengagement from constituents on the First Lady. Before the start of this Monday's protest at the legislature, a group of schoolchildren and public education advocates led by Bob Etheridge, former congressman and state superintendent of public instruction, visited N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory's office to deliver a petition of 16,000 signatures opposing education budget cuts. They asked to see the governor and were told he was in a meeting. But just minutes later, passersby snapped photos of McCrory outside playing catch. When asked about it, a McCrory spokesperson dismissed the petition as the work of political opponents, adding, "Taking the advice of First Lady Michelle Obama, the governor each day attempts to get some exercise, yesterday throwing the baseball and today walking from NC State's campus back to the Capitol."

5. Sounding like Gov. George Wallace. Speaking over the weekend to the state Republican Party convention in Charlotte, Gov. McCrory dismissed the protests as the work of people from somewhere other than North Carolina. "Outsiders are coming in and they're going to try to do to us what they did to Scott Walker in Wisconsin," McCrory said, referring to that state's governor and the mass protests there over a 2011 law that took away state workers' collective bargaining rights. State Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, repeated McCrory's talking point this week, saying it was his "understanding that a lot of these people are from out of state." But their claim is incorrect, as a WRAL analysis of police records found that 98 percent of those arrested at the protests are from North Carolina. In addition, McCrory's and Brown's language calls to mind the words of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who 50 years ago this month, facing growing protests over segregation, sent a telegram to his state's congressional delegation in which he said that Birmingham had been "set upon by outside agitators who have done everything within their power to create internal strife and turmoil."

Is that really the chapter of Southern history North Carolina Republicans want to evoke right now?

* Among those who have been arrested is Facing South Publisher and Institute for Southern Studies Executive Director Chris Kromm.