Youth Propel Moral Mondays Movement in North Carolina
Tyler Swanson stood at the front of a line of youth, an 8 ½ x 11 picture of the A&T Four between his fingertips, listening as North Carolina NAACP President William Barber explained how they would approach the state legislature. A white hat shielded Swanson’s face from the June sun while his sunglasses hung from his collar, and he waited.
Since the demonstrations began, Swanson has traveled for over an hour from Greensboro to Raleigh to join the weekly “Moral Monday” actions against regressive legislation pouring out of the North Carolina General Assembly. Swanson, a rising junior at historically Black NC A&T State University, is one of the young people energizing the movement that has already seen hundreds of people arrested for civil disobedience.
Having grown up outside of Greensboro, Swanson knows the story behind the picture of the four men that he held at the recent youth-led action at the legislature; in 1960, four young students from NC A&T inspired the sit-in movement after taking seats at a downtown Woolworth’s counter and demanding equal service.
“If you look back in history, you see that young people played a really pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement,” Swanson said, referencing the A&T Four and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “Young people, I mean, we have so much power that we don’t know that we have.”
Though he’s a political science major and the president of the school’s political science society, Swanson hasn’t been politically active for very long. He learned about proposed state legislation that would undo decades of civil rights victories like a highly controversial voter ID bill. Swanson stepped up his relatively dormant membership in the school’s NAACP chapter, initiating a march in Greensboro against voter ID. Soon after, he joined a silent protest at the legislature with other students to highlight the bill’s potential to make it harder for people — including students — to vote.
It wasn’t long before the state NAACP called for the weekly Moral Monday protests to build a movement and raise awareness around a barrage of bills defunding unemployment, slashing healthcare, making it harder to vote, enshrining right-to-work laws and countless budget items that opponents say only serve to enrich the wealthy and further marginalize large segments of the state.
Once the arrests began, Swanson knew he wanted to be one of the “justice jailbirds.”
His political science professor went with him. Swanson and Derick Smith were arrested together.
“I think it was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made in my life,” Swanson said. “I knew I couldn’t just sit back and watch it happen.”
Other students throughout the state also recognize the importance of statewide political mobilization, especially as student debt rates and public university tuition continue to rise. Initially formed to fight tuition hikes in 2012, the North Carolina Student Power Union assembled a large May Day protest this year at the legislature and five students were purposefully arrested. Members continue to organize students around local and state issues, including call outs for Moral Mondays.
Focusing on the state legislature makes sense, Student Power member Sanyu Gichie explained, because new reactionary laws disproportionately affect working class families like hers and illustrate how different struggles can coalesce.
“The one thing that I’ve grown to understand is it doesn’t take just one protest or one march to change power and yield it away from an elite group of people,” she said.
Ana Maria Reichenbach, a recent UNC Chapel Hill graduate and an organizer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee union, also said the protests are important to her because of the intersection of issues. She participated in civil disobedience at a Moral Monday protest.
“I think we’re at a breaking point,” Reichenbach said. “It’s like [Naomi Klein’s] Shock Doctrine. In the past two months before I was arrested they were just bombarding us. It’s a concerted effort to demobilize folks.”
Reichenbach, 24, and Gichie, 20, are already organizing the next wave. Gichie, who grew up in southeast Raleigh after emigrating from Jamaica, is an organizer at the Youth Organizing Institute, where she develops curricula for high school aged youth to learn about issues like the school-to-prison pipeline and dealing with homophobia. Reichenbach, who was raised in Ecuador, is still active with the NC Student Power Union despite the fact that she works 80 hours a week.
Like Swanson, they have plans to sink their hands further into uniting students at public universities in the fall. Gichie said it’s hard to tell what the next year will hold, but Student Power has several summer retreats for planning. While Swanson’s eye is on voter registration, education and turnout at A&T, Reichenbach said Student Power needs to focus on constructing a broad base for a mass student movement.
Student Power is still in the early stages, but a large-scale action like a strike may come sooner than some anticipate, Gichie said, citing the extreme nature of the state legislature’s actions. Smaller, youth-driven actions like the May Day march and a more recent youth march on the capitol are already building towards something bigger, Gichie said.
Moral Monday is new, too. Gichie is excited about the possibility of the Moral Monday actions spreading to other states as long as the same principles, like fighting for poor and working class people, are upheld.
“The movement’s going to take more than one state to [win],” she said.
Reichenbach agreed, saying that people in other parts of the country could emulate aspects of the protests, particularly prolonged mobilization.
“I would love for folks to draw from Moral Monday and create the same kind of resistance and action in their state,” she said. “The need for sustained mobilization is there.”