DURHAM, N.C. ― North Carolina has been in an almost constant state of protest for the last year.
It started in March 2016, when former Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed HB 2, a measure preventing local governments from passing anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, into law. Thousands of protesters responded by storming the state Capitol. In late September, six consecutive nights of protest rocked Charlotte after a police officer fatally shot 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott. In October, the state chapter of the NAACP sued several counties over an alleged voter suppression attempt. Protesters again swarmed the capital, Raleigh, in December to stand against GOP-backed measures to limit the powers of the newly elected Gov. Roy Cooper (D).
Now many activists are coalescing around another shared concern: President Donald Trump.
Progressives see North Carolina as a breeding ground of possibility, as recent liberal activism has begun to show what’s possible when organizers take aim at a common threat. This is especially true in the Triangle area of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, where more than 20 colleges and universities house plenty of aggravated liberals. Liberal Tar Heels want to use their energy to turn the state solidly blue by 2020, when a number of key political offices will be up for grabs.
Avid Trump supporter Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who has been very critical of the current wave of protests, will be up for re-election in 2020. So will Cooper. And Democrats are aiming to take control of the state legislature ― Republicans currently hold 74 state House seats, compared to Democrats’ 46, and 35 state Senate seats, compared to Democrats’ 15.
Although these activists will have to contend with the state’s racial gerrymandering ― the general assembly drew new district lines in 2014 and 2016 that put a high number of voters of color into certain districts in order to dilute their voting power ― North Carolina’s status as a purple state makes progressives optimistic.
Many people assume North Carolina is a Republican state, but the state Senate was under Democratic control from 1992 to 2011. Democrats also controlled the state House from 1992 to 1994, and again from 1999 to 2010. Only three Republican governors have led the state in the last 50 years, and North Carolina went blue for former President Barack Obama in 2008. But that was the first time since 1976 that the state had voted for a Democratic presidential nominee, and it went for Republicans Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Last year’s election was very close, however: Trump beat Hillary Clinton by just 3.6 percent.
Activists say they hope flipping North Carolina can cause a ripple effect across the 14 states that constitute the South. Republicans below the Mason-Dixon Line currently control 24 Senate seats, 110 House seats and 180 Electoral College votes (167 of which went to Trump in November).
“If you fundamentally shift any of those states ― and they begin to vote in more progressive ways ― then you fundamentally change the American democracy and the landscape,” Rev. William Barber, the president of North Carolina’s NAACP, told reporters last year.
North Carolina has a strong, influential history of political protest. On Feb. 1, 1960, four black students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University refused to move from a lunch counter in downtown Greensboro after being denied service. By Feb. 5, the Greensboro sit-ins had grown to include approximately 300 students.
Extensive television media coverage of the sit-ins helped the anti-segregation movement circulate through southern and northern college towns; students began peacefully protesting segregated libraries, beaches, hotels and other businesses. By the end of March, protests were underway in at least 55 cities in 13 states. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a youth organization that played an integral role in the civil rights movement, was founded a month later at Shaw University.
Real policy change followed: Eateries throughout the South began integrating by the end of that summer.
That fight was similar to the current battle against Trump, said Marcus Bass, an organizing member of Charlotte-based activist group The Tribe.
“North Carolina’s civil rights history has been embedded in this political fight ― so much so that it makes sense for us to have a lot of this mobility around organizing,” he said.
In addition to fighting police violence, which has garnered a significant amount of media attention, black activities have been deeply involved in advocating for LGBTQ, immigrant and women’s rights in North Carolina. They are also key figures in the Moral Mondays protests, a movement launched in April 2013 to object against Republican legislative policies. Moral Monday protesters began meeting every Monday at the state Capitol to protest the actions McCrory and the Republican legislature had taken against voting and abortion rights, the environment and racial justice. Like the Greensboro sit-ins, the movement ignited activists in other states, including Georgia, South Carolina, New Mexico, Illinois and Massachusetts.
“It’s provided a catalyst on a state level and on a local level for folks to begin to get engaged,” Bass said of Moral Mondays.
An estimated 80,000 people participated in the 11th annual Forward Together Moral March on Feb. 11, which Barber led. This year’s march focused on the duty of participants to stand against the Trump administration and its policies ― such as repealing the Affordable Care Act ― as well as race-based gerrymandering and HB 2.
“We march not as a spontaneous action but as a movement that stands upon deep foundations of organizing that have gone on for years, setting the groundwork for times such as this,” Barber said to the crowd at the march. “Four years later we realize we have been preparing all along for such a time as this.”
Moral Mondays also laid the groundwork for other protests ― nearly 17,000 people participated in Raleigh’s Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration. And more than 1,500 protesters flooded the state’s airports after Trump issued the first version of his executive order banning immigrants from a group of predominantly Muslim countries on Jan. 27.
There was a strong protest movement in North Carolina before Trump, but his candidacy and election also worked to galvanize new activists. His election inspired Kelly Garvy, a 29-year-old employee at Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship, to start the activist group Protecting Progress in Durham. Most of the group’s members weren’t involved in politics prior to the election.
“Many people feel a moral duty to get more involved,” Garvy said. “Trump has scared a lot of people.”
Many people feel a moral duty to get more involved. Trump has scared a lot of people. Kelly Garvy, Protecting Progress in Durham founder
Christopher Butler, 36, started out phone banking for the N.C. Democratic Party last fall and housing people who were working for Clinton’s campaign ― something he said he never would have done before Trump. Catherine Caprio, 50, became chair of Durham’s 25th Precinct after volunteering on Clinton’s campaign and registering voters in rural parts of the county. Cherry Foreman, a 42-year-old Democrat, said she started going door to door and helping people register to vote last fall.
These activists ― new and seasoned alike ― are laying groundwork they say can help elect more Democrats in 2018 and 2020.
Mandy Carter, a 69-year-old activist involved in several local and national organizations, is identifying rallying causes, such as education, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and the environment. She’s also paying attention to demographic changes and watching individual precincts for opportunities to elect progressives.
“All politics is local,” she said. “On Nov. 9, when I woke up that morning, besides being traumatized, nothing changed for me. My city council and my county commissioners have more control of my day-to-day life than what happens in D.C.”
Alyssa Canty, the HBCU outreach coordinator for Common Cause NC, is working to institutionalize voting at North Carolina’s historically black colleges and universities and increase turnout among millennial voters, while also supporting and raising money for black candidates.
Protecting Progress in Durham is focusing its efforts on rectifying voting laws that disproportionately hurt black voters, like vague voter registration forms and limited early voting opportunities, and getting the state’s gerrymandered district lines redrawn more fairly. The group is also working to boost grassroots organizing in rural areas in order to win back the nine counties that voted for Obama in 2008 but went to Trump in November.
“North Carolina goes blue, it changes the game in a lot of different ways,” Garvy said. “The work that we’re doing here can’t be understated.”