Experts question effectiveness of NAACP protests
RALEIGH — Nearly 50 protesters working with the state NAACP have been arrested at the General Assembly over the past two weeks in what the civil rights group says is the start of a larger campaign to combat what it calls an extremist agenda in a Republican-held state legislature.
Some political observers, however, have raised questions about whether the effort will pay off. They say the demonstrations may help keep Democratic voters engaged through the 2014 midterm elections, but won't do much to change the dynamics in a state with Republican supermajorities in the General Assembly and a GOP governor.
"I think in many ways it's a fundraising strategy, though that may be a crass way to think about it," said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh. "It's good political drama — not necessarily in the short term, but in the long run it raises money and keeps their supporters fired up through 2014 or 2016."
Chapter president, the Rev. William Barber, and the group's supporters have rallied for two consecutive Mondays, railing against Republicans for decisions to limit social programs and restrict voting. They also compare the leaders to the segregationists of the 1960s and former President Richard Nixon, who stoked racist sentiment to win votes as part of his so-called Southern strategy.
Republicans have dismissed the protests as sour grapes from opponents who aren't used to life out of power, and they said the tone of the protests won't sit well with voters. The GOP captured the Legislature in 2010 for the first time in more than a century.
"I don't feel their content is justified," said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake and the House Speaker Pro Tem. "It is so vitriolic that it's discounted by most people."
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has to begin laying the groundwork of highlighting potential overreach from the GOP, but the group risks going too far with its rhetoric, said Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College in Salisbury.
"North Carolina is a center-right state. It's not a liberal bastion, so on both sides they have to be careful of going too far to one side or the other because that's just not where the middle of North Carolina is," he said.
Barber said the protests will continue every week into the "foreseeable future." He said the ideas championed by Republicans, such as raising sales taxes to help lower those for corporations and individual income, cut across all political lines.
"It's not about the Democratic base," he said. "It's about the base of our democracy. It's about fundamental human rights."
Many still view civil disobedience as a noble cause, but highlighting injustices carries greater resonance when people can connect the reason for an arrest, said Linda Callahan, a communication professor at North Carolina A&T University.
In the heyday of the civil rights movement, that meant seeing images of people fighting separate-but-equal laws by openly flouting them. The protests in the General Assembly end with misdemeanor charges that aren't related to the policies in question, she said.
"It is not the same thing to be arrested for violating an unjust law and being arrested for something such as trespassing," she said.
Bitzer said the state chapter of the NAACP should become more active on social media.
"I've found it surprising that they haven't embraced the technology that so many candidates, so many campaigns, so many special interest groups are trying to do," he said. "Why don't they have their own hash tag kind of thing? It's good to call upon the techniques of the past, but you've got to realize you're in the 21st century as well if you want your message to filter out beyond Raleigh."
Barber noted part of their social media strategy has included videos that have received more than 500,000 views, part of a multi-faceted campaign. The group has built a diverse coalition all while planning a legal strategy to challenge legislation on constitutional grounds. An organizational strategy will come later with a 25-county tour and voter registration drives, he said.
"When they see the NAACP, they tend to look at it out of the lens they've been taught rather than what's actually happening," he said. "We've got young people, professional people, (and) historians standing right along everyday people."
To doubters, Barber points to a Wake County School Board fight three years ago over a Republican-endorsed school assignment policy that critics called de-facto segregation. The NAACP vigorously fought that proposal with a similarly broad strategy, beat back the policy, and then helped usher in a Democratic board, Barber said.
"All of that together produced a win when people thought it was entrenched," he said. "And what did the other side do? They dismissed us, and because of that they lost."