A shameful morning in more ways than one

Abortion protestIt’s hard to say what’s most outrageous and offensive in and around the North Carolina public policy world these days: the blatant special interest vote buying, the astonishing greed of giant corporations and their hired gun lobbyists, the not-so-thinly veiled racist pandering that oozes out of some of the far right advocacy groups, the raw political ambition that underlies the Phil Berger-Thom Tillis fight or Gov. McCrory’s ongoing impression of The Invisible Man.    

Here’s another leading candidate for today, however: the just plain meanness and nastiness of the folks running things on Jones Street. This has been evident on numerous occasions throughout the year — in the contempt for the democratic process and the right to be heard that’s constantly on display, in the way legislative leaders (particularly Senators like Tom Apodaca and Jerry Tillman) use rude, bullying language and tactics vis a vis their fellow lawmakers and members of the public, and in the dramatically ramped-up presence of law enforcement officers brandishing handcuffs, cameras and snarls on their faces.

This latter phenomenon was in full swing this morning as several hundred frustrated citizens — a large proportion of them moms toting their infant children — gathered in and around the Senate chamber to listen and watch as Senators finished off the dirty and disingenuous deed they commenced last night to make abortion a virtual impossibility in North Carolina. 

As anyone who has been to even a handful of demonstrations could testify, this was not a mean or threatening crowd in any conceivable way. It was a polite, wholesome and remarkably respectful group of average citizens. Half the crowd milling outside the crammed Senate gallery was watching or listening to their smartphones in an effort to follow the proceeding inside.  “Shhhh” was the “word” most frequently heard.

But when the bill finally passed after a couple hours of mostly infuriating debate and people spontaneously broke out in brief chants of “”Shame!” to watch the Capitol police you’d have thought the Legislative Building was under attack by the Taliban. Officers sprang to action, moving in small swarms. Citizens with the temerity to speak above normal conversation-level voices were threatened with arrest and, in the case of one younger woman I saw, apparently arrested.

Another middle-aged African-American woman was forcibly escorted down the stairs from the third floor for shouting “shame!” and “I’m not afraid!” I could not see if she was arrested.

Mind you, all of this was taking place as the crowd was steadily dispersing of its own volition and at the same moment that the Senate was adjourning; there was no further business on the Senate calendar for the day and no important public business that would have been disrupted.

As a practical matter, there was no reason for the officers to even be there at all once the Senate gallery was emptied. As anyone who has ever been to the third floor of the Legislative Building can attest, there are no offices there and literally nothing to disrupt.  The only people hearing protester shouts would have been the protesters themselves and the media.

And yet, in keeping with the new, heavy-handed and just plain mean tenor of North Carolina state government these days, the officers sprang to self-important and intimidating action. All in all, it was an embarrassing overreaction and yet another powerful reminder of the paranoid prism through which the elected officials running our state (and the people they employ) seem to view their fellow citizens.

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