Dr. John Mendez, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, became one of the first local pastors to take a stand against what many are calling regressive legislation that is being handed down by the Republican-controlled North Carolina Legislature.
“Dr. Barber and I are good friends and we knew from day one once this Republican General Assembly came together that their top intention would be to take us back and introduce legislation based on prejudices and conservative ideology, and that’s what’s happened,” Mendez said. “I’m as good a follower as I am a leader. I’m in it for the long run because we have a very powerful leader in the person of Dr. Barber and he can’t do it by himself. He needs our support, he needs our help.”
Mendez was among 17 men and women who were arrested and detained last week, following a staged protest at the North Carolina General Assembly led by the North Carolina
NAACP. The group gathered outside the General Assembly chambers on April 29 to sing and pray for legislators, who have garnered attention across the state and the nation for what the NAACP has dubbed “an avalanche of extremist policies” that the organization says threaten healthcare and voting rights, especially for the poor, African Americans, Latinos, women, seniors and students. The protest was led by clergy but supported by a broad cross-section of the North Carolinians, according to Rob Stephens, field secretary for the NC NAACP.
“That was definitely a goal to highlight the moral center of the movement, the moral high ground,” said Stephens, a city native. “It was very effective; it was a very powerful thing.”
“When you add it all up, it really pricked my conscience. Based on all of the public policies that have been passed in recent months, there was no way in the world I could sit back and not say anything or do anything. We had to bring attention to this because I think a lot of North Carolinians are not aware of what they’re imposing,” Mendez said. “I think it’s important that we protest this and see if we can appeal to the conscience of these legislators because they’re just ignoring what people are feeling, what people are saying. I know we have their attention, it’s just a matter of how stubborn they’re going to be, whether they respond or not.”
Mendez said he joined the protest in part because he believes it is his duty as a Christian.
“For me, it is being Christian; I cannot see how we can be Christian and not be concerned about the political and social realities that we have to live in. This is what Jesus did; he was constantly involved with the lives of the people. Half of the New Testament was written from a prison cell,” he said. “To me, that represents the ethical aspect of faith, that we have to stand up for the needs of people.”
Though he wasn’t happy about the prospect of being arrested, Mendez said lending his support to the movement was an empowering experience.
“It’s not something that you want to do, but when your back’s against the wall, you feel like you don’t have a choice,” he said. “I felt a sense of gratification, knowing that I was doing something to speak to the situation and to expose it … and then working through a strategy that hopefully will bring some results. We were getting more and more energized; there’s a sense of presence that one feels that you’ve got the moral authority, but also there’s a spiritual power with what you’re doing.”
The protestors were arrested around 7 p.m. that evening and detained until after 2 a.m. the next morning. Some, including Mendez, have speculated that they were held for an unnecessarily long time on purpose, but the protestors made good use of their lengthy detainment.
“We started singing like Paul and Silas in detention,” he related. “We had both a teaching and singing. It was a good fellowship.”
State Sen. Earline Parmon believes the protest was well received in the General Assembly.
“Everybody was really in support of the protestors,” commented Parmon, who represents the 32nd District. “It’s really hard to describe because it was such a reverence, seeing them standing there, the ministers and other people, praying and singing. It was almost like something from the past when the civil rights marches were going on.”
Parmon, who has been among the most outspoken dissenters of legislation that has been passed since the GOP supermajority gained power in the state, described the protestors’ mood as “determined and resolved to make their voices heard on behalf of the people of North Carolina.” The senator said she was encouraged by the actions of Barber and the protestors, but she is doubtful that the protests will make a difference in lawmakers’ approach to governance.
“We are seeing a reaction to the draconian Republican-led legislation,” Parmon said. “…I think people are just seeing we can’t just sit back and hope they do what’s right. We’ve got to get involved and make sure they do what’s right.”
The North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus has also lent its support to the effort.
“Legislative tactics being used by these Tea-Party Republicans speaks volumes as to their desire to segment our great state all over again. It has prompted the return of ‘60s style protests by citizens because they feel this is the only way to redress the wrongs being inflicted upon them,” Rep. Garland E. Pierce, Chairman of NCLBC, said in a May 1 statement. “To say that this General Assembly continues to traumatize and victimize our citizens is understatement.”
Protestors returned to the General Assembly on Monday for the second installment of Moral Monday demonstrations, which Stephens says will continue indefinitely. Thirty people were arrested before a crowd of more than 100 supporters, whom Stephens said ranged in age from 22-83.
“All sorts of people are coming out; what they’re doing is bringing people together and that’s a powerful thing,” he said. “It’s a radically diverse group of people who aren’t just getting together to be diverse, they’re getting together to do something – it’s people power.”
Though he knows it will be an uphill battle, Stephens said he is confident the protests, which have garnered national attention, could be successful in maintaining what the NAACP is calling the third Reconstruction, the post-Obama era.
“I think we’re already seeing a little bit of movement. You never know where it’s going to go,” he said. “…We have hope that things are going to change. Nothing’s set in stone.”
For more information about Moral Mondays or to get involved as a protestor or supporter, contact the NC NAACP at 866-626-2227 or visit www.naacpnc.org.