RALEIGH -- The governor's administration was unable to keep demonstrators off state Capitol grounds on Monday despite an attempt to deny the group a permit to assemble there.
Judge Allen Baddour presided over a Wake County Superior Court hearing on Monday in which he overturned an administrative decision to confine the demonstrators to Halifax Mall, a big grassy area enclosed by state office and legislative buildings.
The hearing was held hours before an evening rally organized by the NAACP state chapter president Rev. William Barber II and others opposed to new policies and laws adopted this summer by the Republican-led General Assembly.
The NAACP and other groups have asked Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, to convene a special legislative session to rescind 2013 decisions to reject a federally funded Medicaid expansion and cut programs for North Carolina's poor.
To underscore the argument, Barber brought hundreds of protesters to Halifax Mall. An NAACP spokesman put the count as high as 2,500; State Capitol Police estimated that about 500 people took part.
The crowd gathered under a blanket of clouds that didn't so much threaten rain as continuously dump it, the protesters a growing cluster of umbrellas around Barber's peaked white tent.
The first "Moral Monday" event held in Raleigh since the summer offered Barber a chance to rekindle the movement. He promised that 2014 would be a fighting year, and he outlined plans to legally challenge state government, document the effects of new policies on individual people, and push McCrory further on a few issues.
"If you think we fought in 2013, you ought to see how we fight in an election year ... you haven't seen a fight," he said.
As gray skies darkened, the crowd left the mall in a line two, three and four people wide. The line eventually stretched almost a half-mile from the legislative lawn to the Christmas tree near the steps of the old N.C. State Capitol.
There Barber and other speakers led the crowd in hymns and gave Christmas-themed sermons on state politics before the huge, brilliantly decorated tree. It was "hypocrisy," Barber said by megaphone, for McCrory to have lit the tree weeks earlier while enacting "unmerciful" policies.
'The people's space'
Besides becoming a point in Barber's speech, McCrory's tree lighting also was part of the court argument that won the NAACP its right to assemble on the grounds. In court on Monday morning, Scott Holmes, a longtime Durham-based and director of The Civil Litigation Law Clinic at N.C. Central University, told the judge that people have long gathered at the state capitol for a variety of activities.
"The state cannot stand up and say, in good faith, that hundreds of people cannot gather," Holmes argued to Baddour. "If the people of North Carolina cannot go to the state Capitol after work to pray, where can they go? ... It is the people's space, it is a public space, and therefore we have a right to go there."
Donald Teeter Sr., a special deputy attorney general, argued that the administration needed some discretion in deciding which permits to issue. Typically, Teeter said, the administration works to limit gatherings on the capitol grounds to a paved area that accommodates about 100 people.
As part of the permit application process, the administration seeks information from groups about their plans for the grounds.
On rainy days, Teeter added, a large crowd could leave behind a sloshy mess.
Baddour asked what would happen if a group stated it planned to have 100 people at a rally or demonstration and more showed up.
Teeter had no quick response.
Baddour pointed out that Halifax Mall, like the Capitol grounds, is a grassy area that also could become a muddy mess on a rainy day. He added that whether the group that was gathered had a permit or not, the damage likely would be the same.
"It's the actions that control how the grounds are used, and not the speech," Baddour said. "The difference here is speech. A concern the court has is whether that's discretionary."
Administration decries protest
McCrory spokesman Rick Martinez on Monday criticized the protesters and said that the administration offered a better chance for the impoverished.
"These are the same left-wing political groups that are wanting to keep the failed policies of the past that put people out of work," Martinez told Associated Press.
"Instead, Gov.McCrory is working to strengthen the economy so more North Carolinians can earn a paycheck instead of hoping for a government check," he said.
McCrory had been invited to join the crowd, Barber said, but was not seen. Those who did attend, though, included a mix of Moral Monday fixtures and first-time attendees.
The "Raging Grannies," who were a regular sight over the summer protests, were out again in their floral hats. They knew they'd come, but some weren't so sure about the rest of the crowd.
"I was thinking, oh, maybe the rain will keep people home. ... I was just hoping it would pick up where we left off," said Christine Carlson, 71, a retired bus driver living in Carrboro.
"The rain doesn't usually keep people from Christmas shopping. This is just as important to us," said Ruth Gibson, 66, a retired minister living in Chapel Hill.
Casey Aldridge, 19, made the trip from UNC-Charlotte. He'd attended a Monday protest there, but he'd long waited to get to Raleigh. "You weren't at the seat of power (in Charlotte)," said the political science major, who came with the N.C. Student Power Union.
Ruth Wood, 64, also was a first-timer. The North Carolina native watched the movement from New Mexico through social media, her son and the national news.
"We were so proud," she said, to see her son arrested for civil disobedience.
For Natalie Bullock Brown, 44, the return of "Moral Monday" to Raleigh opened another outlet for her growing advocacy.
"I've always had an activist instinct, but I've not always known exactly what to do with it," said Brown, who teaches film at Saint Augustine's University.
In the coming weeks, the NAACP will look for a lot more people like her. It has renamed its signature Raleigh event, the Historic Thousands on Jones Street march, to include the words "Moral Monday" in its title. The march will return to Raleigh in February.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1