More Moral Monday protesters will have their cases heard in court today.
Earlier this year, more than 900 people were arrested for protesting at the North Carolina legislature. The Wake County District Attorney’s office has given them the choice of paying a fine and performing community service or facing a judge. Many of them have chosen to go to court. And while they’ve been charged with the same crimes under similar circumstances, they’re getting different outcomes.
Vicki Ryder and Saladin Muhammad have a lot in common. They’re both grandparents, and they’ve both been active in the civil rights and social justice movements. They also had similar experiences back in May, when they were arrested at the legislature on successive Mondays.
Ryder and Muhammad say they "walked into the legislative building, walked up it to the rotunda, where we gathered. We were chanting, we were raising our issues. We were told that if we didn’t leave we would be arrested. Police came, and stood right in front of me. I would say 6-8 inches in front of me, in my face. And so we stayed until I was told I had to put my hands behind my back because I was being arrested and put in handcuffs and taken away."
Both Ryder and Muhammad decided to go to court to fight the trespassing charges leveled against them. But although their pattern of protest was similar, their verdicts were not. Mohammad, who’s African-American, was found guilty. Ryder, who’s white, was found innocent.
"Nobody was more surprised than we were. We were part of the same movement, we were doing the same things," said Ryder. "When I was found guilty, I think that was to set the tone," said Muhammad.
Muhammad was the first defendant to be tried by a judge in district court, who doesn’t usually make decisions about free speech and other constitutional issues. It’s not clear whether she was trying to set any kind of tone. But it is clear that the growing number of differing verdicts points toward a lack of agreement over what protesters were doing at the legislature in the first place. Al McSurely is Saladin Muhammad’s attorney.
"Obviously, if Saladin were convicted, let’s say, and then the next week people were convicted, and it became a pattern and it was clear that whatever happened over there was sufficient to have some kind of criminal activity there, then that would be possible."
McSurely thinks prosecutors would love to paint his clients and the other defendants as common criminals. But he says the judges handing down the verdicts aren’t doing that.
"What we have, we have the courts themselves say no, they’re individualizing the cases," said McSurely.
Different judges might take into account where a protester was standing and what they were shouting in determining whether someone is guilty or not. Back when protesters first started getting arrested, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby suggested it’d be easier to hand out citations rather than pursue the cases in court. He’s since changed his tune- now he says the only options were to go forward with the cases or dismiss them entirely.
"I’m also concerned that you know in most civil disobedience, the people that participate in the disobedience recognize that there’s to be some consequence," says Willoughby. "I mean, that goes back to the sixties and Dr. King, I mean, those folks came to court and pled guilty and accepted responsibility for what they’ve done. These folks don’t really seem to want to accept responsibility for anything, and it’s um- makes it difficult to manage the cases."
Willoughby has complained that the number of Moral Monday cases are clogging up the system. But it’s also his decision to go forward with them. A recent survey by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling says 51 percent of voters in the state want the charges against Moral Monday protesters to be dropped, compared to 33 percent who think they should be prosecuted. In the meantime, lawyers for the Moral Mondays defendants say they’re determined to see these cases through. Attorney Scott Holmes says the cases are about the First Amendment.
"Where can we go as citizens to make our voices heard. And if the answer to that is not the capital of our city, and our country, and our state, then where can we go? The concern I have is that if we’re going to arrest people who go to the center of our government, then there’s no environment for protest to occur," says Holmes.
The assistant district attorney overseeing the cases has argued that people aren’t allowed into every part of every public forum. Attorneys for the defendants, including Holmes, say that argument shouldn’t apply. And the protesters themselves remain convinced of their cause. Saladin Muhammad, the protester who was found guilty, says his experience in court won’t deter him from protesting in the future:
"I felt like that was an important statement, an important expression, and would be prepared to do it again."
This is expected to be a big day at the Wake County Courthouse. The case of the NAACP’s state chapter president, William Barber, is on the docket, along with the cases of Reverend Curtis Gatewood and author Timothy Tyson.