Tillis' office turns into demonstration scene

May. 28, 2014 @ 09:03 AM

RALEIGH — Fifteen demonstrators seeking a repeal of GOP legislative policies shut themselves in House Speaker Thom Tillis' office for a sit-in Tuesday, but the chamber's top Republican and U.S. Senate nominee did not answer their calls to meet with them.

The group, part of the NAACP-led "Moral Monday" movement, protested as a part of a lobby day as volunteers affiliated with their movement visited other lawmakers' offices seeking repeal of several GOP-backed laws.

Fifteen of the demonstrators staged the sit-in for more than three hours, protesting GOP policies and highlighting new building rules they say strike down freedom of speech and demand legislative repeals. The NAACP said the protesters were fast-food workers and clergy members.

The protesters entered Tillis' office just before the House convened Tuesday afternoon. They gathered around the desk of Tillis' aide, William Morales, voicing discontent with several GOP-backed laws and urging lawmakers to expand Medicaid and reinstate the Earned Income Tax Credit, which the Republican-controlled General Assembly let expire.

Tillis wasn't inside his speaker's office when the sit-in started. He entered from the other side of House chamber before rising onto the speaker's dais.

After the House meeting adjourned, Tillis never returned.

Anna Roberts, a spokeswoman for Tillis, declined to comment on the demonstration within the speaker's office and Tillis didn't respond to a phone message Tuesday evening. Tillis regularly didn't comment last year when demonstrators against Republican policies protested in acts of civil disobedience and hundreds were arrested inside the Legislative Building.

He is in a heated Senate race this year, looking to unseat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. The outcome of North Carolina's seat could decide the majority in the Senate.

The group said they would remain seated and wait for Tillis to return — and they did so for hours, saying they were prepared to stay all night.

Jeff Weaver, chief of the General Assembly Police, said he did not know what would happen to the people inside Tillis' office and had not decided how police would respond.

Dozens of other protesters lined the balcony of the second floor, holding hands and humming along to hymns, but dwindled after about two hours.

"This shows the kind of games that they play," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP. "Last year it was arrest them quick and get out, this year it's game after game after game instead of coming to the table and repealing these laws that are hurting people."

Police initially swarmed the hall in front of Tillis' office, but later dispersed when the House meeting ended. Demonstrators inside along with Barber held an unofficial news conference from Tillis' doorway, as his aide and the Sergeant-at-arms looked on.

In hour four, pizza was delivered and the protesters inside and outside Tillis' office started a chorus of spirituals. A mix of police, press, protesters and General Assembly staff milled about on the second floor of the Legislative Building, waiting, as those inside gave interviews and posed for pictures. Sleeping bags also arrived, along with more food, Bojangles, and cases of soda for protesters and onlookers.

Crystal Price, 27, of Greensboro said she decided to participate because she's is struggling to take care of her family on a minimum wage salary. Price, has cervical cancer and prepares hamburgers at a Wendy's outlet. She says she makes $400 a month and has to decide whether to pay for health care for her two children or herself.

"For them to go to the doctor to get a physical, to go to the dentist ... I have to decide, do I get me done or get them done," she said. And she said she always chooses them, but it's a struggle.

She says she is uninsured and has to pay all of her medical expenses out of pocket, she decided to participate in the sit-in because she wants things to change.

By the evening, the atmosphere in Tillis' office shifted from tense policy confrontation to relaxed chit-chat and laughs. Protesters leaned against tables discussing who would get to use the air mattress, Tillis' aide, Morales leaned back in his chair and chatted along with the demonstrators.

The group marched around the perimeter of the second floor lobby just outside the House floor then prayed at the doorway and chanted, "we shall not be moved."