THE BLOG
06/11/2013 09:00 am ET | Updated Aug 11, 2013

Why I Got Arrested in Raleigh: The States Are the New Front Line

Because North Carolina refused the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, I ended up in handcuffs in the Wake County Detention Center. That was my trigger, anyway. Statistically, next year more than two thousand people in the state will die who would have lived if North Carolina had accepted federal money to give health insurance to low-income families. (That's our share of an estimated 19,000 preventable deaths nationwide in the 14 states that have rejected the expansion.) Because the state legislature was doing that in my name, I decided I needed to stand in front of it, at least until they took me away.

Just to be clear, getting arrested was never going to be my jam. I don't like chanting, marching, or rubbing my chafed wrists in a holding cell. I don't like the way disagreement gets simplified. I don't like being on the wrong side of the law. But sometimes it's worth swallowing these things.

For that matter, I don't really like throwing around the language of morality in public, but I had to swallow that, too. I got arrested at a Moral Monday, the name the state NAACP and a coalition of unions and churches have given to their peaceful demonstrations in Raleigh, aimed at drawing attention to the state's Tea Party legislative agenda.

It's important not just for North Carolina, but for the country. The issues that progressives mobilized around in 2012 haven't gone away. They've just moved to the states. Places like Raleigh are the next front line in US politics.

Rejecting Medicaid expansion is a state-level extension of the House Republicans' aim to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The North Carolina legislature is also trying to replay - and influence -- presidential elections by requiring voter ID, cutting back on early voting, eliminating same-day voter registration, and making it harder for former felons to recover voting rights. There's even a proposal to slap a tax penalty on the parents of college students who vote where they go to school, rather than at home - a naked attempt to suppress youth turnout. The legislature wants to make it hard enough for the young, the poor, and minorities to vote that it will be years before a repeat of 2008, when Barack Obama barely carried the state.

The politics of the 47 percent, the 1 percent, and the 99 percent is also getting replayed in the states. North Carolina's legislature is working to shift the state's tax burden in a regressive direction, cutting income taxes, especially on the wealthy, and expanding the state's sales tax.

The same goes for climate change and other environmental issues. Seemingly agreeing with Mitt Romney that trying to do something about climate change is just human arrogance, North Carolina has adopted a law that effectively bans acknowledging climate science, requiring all official projections of sea-level rise to be based on historical data (most from before serious warming began) rather than scientific forecasts. The legislature is working to fast-track fracking and embrace offshore oil drilling. It's also looking to repeal state support for renewable energy -- oh, and to impose an extra tax on hybrid-car drivers because they don't consume enough gasoline. (Will bicycle commuters and walkers be next?)

Abortion rights, so important in 2012, are also on the block in state politics. North Carolina has already required a waiting period before an abortion and mandated ultrasound viewings during pre-abortion counseling. Now it's considering the kinds of burdensome rules that are intended to make abortion clinics impossible to operate, like requiring doctors to remain with the patient throughout her recovery period, and restricting the distance from their home hospitals where doctors can perform abortions.

So here we are, with the 2012 election being replayed in a formerly sleepy Southern state - and in states all over the country. It's important for progressives to tune in to this. Because North Carolina legislators have joined their Tea Party compatriots in proposing some batshit-crazy legislation, like a bill announcing that the First Amendment allows official state religions, it's easy to imagine that this is just the South being ignorant and amusing.

But that's almost all wrong. Most of what's happening here is a symptom of the nationalization of state politics. Voter mobilization grew much more intense between 2004 and now, first with two waves of Democratic movement that flipped states like North Carolina (which voted for Obama in 2008 after not going Democratic since 1976) and Virginia (Obama twice, after voting for Republicans since 1964), then in the Tea Party counter-mobilization. North Carolina's legislature turned Republican in 2010, the first time since 1870, after a very smart and effective political investment by right-wing businessman Art Pope, who injected tactical strikes into sleepy districts, booting both moderate Republicans and long-serving Democrats. The legislature got right down to work on Pope's national right-wing agenda, pausing only to gerrymander state districts so that Republicans don't have to win anything like a majority of the popular vote (though they did, narrowly, in 2012) to hold onto power.

There's a lot to regret in this change, and not just because my side is losing right now. North Carolina, like some other states, used to have a halfway sensible political culture. Republicans and Democrats worked on a public-financing scheme for judicial elections that drained out most of the special-interest money. In 2009, the state passed a first-in-the-nation law to commute the death penalty (into life imprisonment) for convicts who could show that the criminal justice system where they were tried was racially skewed. (Both laws are now on their way out.)

More basically, pro-business Republicans and culturally moderate Democrats maintained a system of decent compromise where a good idea could get a hearing.

Now there's nothing to do but counter-mobilize, taking the energy that progressives have marshaled in national elections down to the state level. Progressives, though, should hope to be smarter about this than the right has been. States like North Carolina don't need every local issue turned into a doppelganger for a national ideological split. They need renewed progressive energy around agendas that are actually about local issues, are more than symbolic, and have some of the pragmatism and spirit of mutual engagement that used to mark state politics.

I don't know what that will look like, and it's not my decision to make, but the Moral Monday protests are all about fumbling toward some answers. The rallies outside the capitol have been chances to explain how the Tea Party agenda adds up to a vision of society - a libertarian, privatized, yet punitively moralistic one - and to articulate a progressive alternative, committed to equality, tolerance, and mutual care. These are first steps toward defining what's at stake the next time North Carolina goes to the polls.

Maybe these state efforts will feed back up into national politics, reversing the flow that nationalized state elections. Lots of progressives know the feeling that, in 2012, we were mostly on the defensive, trying to stop something bad from happening. Many of us realize, belatedly, that we put too much stock in the intelligence, good intentions, and charisma of Barack Obama, and not enough in building movements, institutions, and concrete ideas of where we want to go. Maybe figuring out how to do this locally, in the many places where the 2012 fight continues, will be productive for the whole country.

I hope so. For my part, I'm banned from the capitol grounds until August, a condition of my release without bond. It's a little bit of a relief, since, as I said, getting handcuffed isn't really my jam. I will miss the rallies, though - the kids holding their parents' hands, the sweet gray-haired Unitarians, the old civil-rights activists, and the anarchist kids giving away apples from a little red wagon.

Henry David Thoreau, another privileged white guy who spent a night in jail with good company and pleasant jailors (mine were uniformly polite, and some were friendly), reported in "Civil Disobedience" that by resisting the law he hoped to make an appeal from the people - the present majority that was accepting slavery and the Mexican-American War - to themselves, that is, to their higher consciences. That's why civil disobedience makes sense, and why it's part of the compact a civilized country makes with itself. Submitting peacefully to arrest is a way citizens tell one another that an issue is very important, that it might be worth real attention and thought. In a noisy time, it's a way of trying to start serious conversations.

Thoreau also reported that, when he got out of the Concord jail, he headed to a nearby hilltop to lead a huckleberry-gathering expedition. I think he meant that, whatever you do in politics, you need to stay connected to your own real sources. The wild blueberries aren't ripe yet in the Grayson Highlands, a few hours away, but delicious wild mustard greens are everywhere, and chanterelle mushrooms are beginning to come up in the woods near Chapel Hill. They aren't illegal, yet, and I'll be scouting for them later today.