Conservative crackdown on protests would label North Carolina dissenters “economic terrorists”

Repression is on the march in the home of the “Moral Mondays” movement.

A “Moral Mondays” protester is arrested at the North Carolina capitol in 2013. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File
A “Moral Mondays” protester is arrested at the North Carolina capitol in 2013. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File

In North Carolina, protesting your government could soon open you up to charges of “economic terrorism” under a measure proposed Thursday by two Republican lawmakers.

The bill would create a new felony charge applied to any criminal offense that leads to at least $1,000 in economic harm to any business, if the offender intended to intimidate the government or the public. Separate language in the proposal would make it illegal to block traffic as part of a protest or demonstration.

The proposal is so broad it could potentially be used to ensnare people like the Rev. William Barber II, a key leader of the state’s Moral Mondays protests.

“Many of these extremist legislators cannot stand protest because it doesn’t allow them to do in the dark the work they’re doing that’s hurting so many people,” Barber told ThinkProgress. “This is an old game. It is an attempt to malign movements that work and that challenge what the system is doing.”

The mass meetings Barber helps convene are rigorously peaceful, but numerous participants have been arrested for acts of civil disobedience or at the request of legislators. Such arrests could, under the broad language of the bill, be construed as felonies if a prosecutor linked the protest in question to an economically harmful boycott or street closure.

The proposal from state Reps. John Torbett (R-Gaston County) and John Faircloth (R-Guilford County) is the latest in a string of state-level proposals to roll back protester rights and raise the legal stakes of public dissent in the era of President Donald Trump.

“No matter what your politics are, everyone should be concerned anytime that lawmakers seek to curb our fundamental constitutional right to not only protest, but to criticize our government,” American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina spokesman Mike Meno said in an interview. “This is one bill in a wave of legislation that we’ve seen across the country designed to criminalize peaceful protest and really have a chilling effect on our First Amendment rights.”

Washington state is weighing a similar “economic terrorism” measure. Arizona lawmakers want to treat protest organizers like mobsters. Minnesota legislators are pushing for the right to sue protesters to recoup the costs of police overtime incurred by demonstrations. At least four states have moved to criminalize roadway protests in recent months.

All these laws constraint protests in various ways, primarily by exposing demonstrators to new financial or criminal consequences.

“Any time tyrants try to stifle the voice of the people, it always backfires.”

But the North Carolina law also recasts a longstanding American right as a sinister usurpation of public order. Where the Constitution protects citizens’ rights to group together in public to dissent from its government’s actions, Torbett’s bill targets efforts to “[i]ntimidate the civilian population at large, or an identifiable group…[or i]nfluence, through intimidation, the conduct or activities of the government of the United States, a state, or any unit of local government.”

The law offers no detail on how officials would distinguish persuasion from intimidation when responding to protest activity. The state already has statutes on the books to punish rioting. Any law that requires cops and prosecutors to discern people’s intent creates a murky psychological task within a seemingly precise criminal procedure.

The language about protesters’ intentions struck Meno as particularly ironic, he said, since Torbett and Faircloth’s bill itself “seems designed to intimidate people who would want to protest their government.”

Police and civic leaders would not have to divine protesters’ inner thoughts in all cases under Torbett’s crackdown, however. The second a protest moves onto a roadway, for example, everyone involved becomes a criminal under the proposal. Blocking roads would be as serious a misdemeanor as crimes like sexual battery or assaulting a public official. Public officials would be automatically required to dispatch police to clear a roadway, by force if necessary, once “at least 10 persons obstruct vehicular traffic.”

The choice to single out traffic obstruction as a new and special offense is not random. Protests tied to the broad Movement for Black Lives have frequently targeted high-traffic roads and highways, gumming up a city’s normal flow as a means of calling the whole community’s attention to police abuse that would otherwise be easy for the white populace to ignore. (Roads are convenient targets, but also historically appropriate ones for racial justice movements in particular.)

The bill is unlikely to become law with Democrat Roy Cooper in the governor’s mansion, though Republicans do hold a veto-proof majority. Regardless, this will likely not be the last time lawmakers try to smear protesters.

“If thousands of people are marching to protest voter suppression laws, the people who passed those laws will say they’re disturbing the peace,” said Barber. “Even what happened in Charlotte, the people who wanted to use that as a scapegoat took the actions of a few people to try to malign the whole. That’s not new. That happened in [the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee] just before Dr. King was killed.”

While Charlotte’s brief-but-cinematic rage last September captured great public attention, North Carolina is also serving as incubator to a more sustainable, less flashy form of populist dissent — one that could nonetheless run afoul of the broad criminalization of protest activity which Torbett proposes.

For nearly 4 years now, thousands of North Carolinians have regularly rallied at the state capitol for “Moral Mondays,” a movement anchored by Rev. Barber’s call to revive working-class solidarity in the face of economic and social inequality.

The movement has opted for rigorous state and local focus rather than the nation-wide activism of the Fight for $15 protests. It has rarely made the national headlines that often greet police protests. But it is rooted in an all-of-the-above moral urgency that links those two fights with dozens of other local and national causes — a broad, ambitious, and positively articulated vision of American social and political change that seems poised to blossom from statewide success to national significance.

Moral Mondays are so studiously lawful — despite hundreds of arrests that have been thrown out of court — that Torbett and Faircloth’s bill would seem not to immediately target its activities. But it doesn’t take much imagination to envision how an ideologically motivated prosecutor might seek to link peaceful civil disobedience to lost revenue for a business owner who runs afoul of protesters — and then depict dissenters as “economic terrorists” using the bill’s language.

Barber, who is confident the proposal would be struck down in court if it ever became law, welcomed the hamfisted attempt at chilling protest activity.

“What they will do with attempting to pass things like this is grow the movement. There is no fear. People are not gonna stand down,” said Barber.

“Any time tyrants try to stifle the voice of the people, it always backfires.”

This article has been updated.