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Rev. William Barber: Racist Gerrymandering Created a GOP Stronghold in the South. We Must Fight Back

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Longtime civil rights leader Rev. Dr. William Barber joins us to respond to his conviction Thursday for trespassing during a 2017 protest against gerrymandering and attacks on healthcare at the North Carolina Legislature. Barber had refused to leave the General Assembly as ordered, after he organized a sit-in at the legislative building when Republican leaders refused to meet with him about concerns with voter ID requirements and redistricting plans that would weaken the power of the black vote. “We must start connecting systemic racism, most seen through systemic voter suppression and gerrymandering, poverty, the lack of healthcare, environmental devastation and the war economy,” says Barber, the former president of the North Carolina NAACP and a leader of the national Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This Wednesday he will join faith leaders and religious groups in Washington, D.C., for a march to the White House to protest the Trump administration’s attacks on the nation’s most vulnerable communities, and next week he hosts the three-day Poor People’s Campaign Moral Action Congress in Washington, D.C., that will draw hundreds of people from across the country for a presidential forum, where both Republican and Democratic candidates will speak.

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StoryJul 23, 2021Rev. Liz Theoharis of Poor People’s Campaign Arrested in Protest over Voting Rights & Infrastructure
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to longtime civil rights leader Reverend Barber, who was convicted Thursday of trespassing for staging a 2017 protest against gerrymandering and attacks on healthcare at the North Carolina Legislature.

JURY FOREPERSON: We, the jury, by unanimous verdict, find the defendant, William Barber II, to be guilty of second-degree trespass.

AMY GOODMAN: Barber was convicted of a misdemeanor charge by a Wake County jury for not leaving the North Carolina General Assembly as ordered, after he organized a sit-in at the legislative building when Republican leaders refused to meet with him about concerns with voter identification requirements and redistricting plans that would weaken the power of the black vote. Reverend Barber said he took the case to a jury because he and others have a right to protest in the building. Similar arrests took place almost weekly from 2013 until last year during the Moral Monday demonstrations that he organized protesting actions by the Republican-controlled North Carolina Legislature. Hundreds of people were arrested, but many of the charges were later dropped.

This comes as charges were dropped for a separate protest in Georgia against Democratic Senator Nikema Williams and 14 others, who were arrested last November during a protest at the Georgia state Capitol after a closely contested gubernatorial election. While Barber was convicted in North Carolina, their cases were dismissed Thursday in Georgia.

So, for more, we go to Raleigh, North Carolina. We are joined by Reverend Barber, the former president of the North Carolina NAACP, leader of the national Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This Wednesday, he’ll join with faith leaders and religious groups in Washington, D.C., for a march to the White House to protest the Trump administration’s attacks on the nation’s most vulnerable communities.

Reverend Barber, it’s great to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened to you on Thursday. Talk about this verdict and why you were protesting back in 2017, though you’ve had many protests since.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, thank you so much, Amy. You see you got me up early, even as I’m continuing to exercise so we can keep doing the work we’re called to do.

Two years ago, 35—well, about 50 people—doctors, mothers with cancer, mothers who had children who died for their lack of health insurance, preachers and veterans—went in to deliver letters to the speaker of the House and the Senate pro tem leader, who had refused consistently to even meet with us for years. Our Constitution, Article I, Section 12, says we are to instruct our legislators at the General Assembly. We went there, and when they would not let us in the offices—they blocked the offices, said that the offices were locked—we then chanted scripture, like Isaiah 10—”Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights.” We quoted statistics about the 500,000 people in our state being denied healthcare—346,000 white, over 140,000 people of color and 30,000 veterans. We talked about the number of people who were dying. And we read the Constitution. They have some building rules there that say if someone is annoyed by what you’re doing, then they have the right to call the police, the legislative police, and they can remove you from the building. We said that we had a right to be there. The Constitution gave us a right to instruct our legislators. The First Amendment gave us the right to free speech. And we stayed.

We went to court the other day. We were not allowed to argue the Constitution. Our lawyers were not allowed to do that. So we put on the record—I went on the stand—exactly why we were there. After the conviction, we immediately filed for an appeal, and we’re going to take this to an appeal, because we have open up these Southern legislators, and we have to stop, Amy, this work to chill, to literally chill, protest. And I want it to be clear: It wasn’t just me. It was 35 people—white, black, gay, straight, young, old, Latino, people who literally had sickness in their bodies while they were there protesting, one lady whose child died because of the lack of health insurance. And for that, they criminalize democracy. And that is why we cannot stop. We’ve got to continue. And we’ve appealed the case already.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the connection you make between gerrymandering and healthcare, not obvious on the face of it.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: It’s not. And we must start connecting systemic racism, most seen through systemic voter suppression and gerrymandering, poverty, the lack of healthcare, environmental devastation and the war economy.

Let me make the connection. In our state, we just found out the other day that our legislators—while I was being convicted, it came out that they actually lied to a federal court—they lied to a federal court—about their racist redistricting plans, said they could not fix them because the state had already ruled, one court, that our Legislature is unconstitutionally constituted because of racist voter gerrymandering. So they’re in office not because they won, but because they cheated. More people voted for progressives, but because of racist gerrymandering, they’re in office. Now what they do is they use the power that they’ve obtained through racist gerrymandering to deny healthcare to 500,000 people, to deny living wages, to attack women, to attack the gay community. So it’s connected. They would not have the power to do what they’re doing without racist voter suppression and racist gerrymandering.

And in reality now people are saying they are the real trespassers, because they lied to a federal court, because they used racist voter gerrymandering to get in office, and one judge has already said it was surgical racism—actually, the 4th Circuit said that—it was surgical racism, and another judge has said it was—they are a unconstitutionally constituted body that has been passing policies that’s hurting all people, especially poor and low-wealth black, white, brown, Asian and Latino people. We have to understand the connections, Amy. And that’s why we can no longer fight in our silos. We have to fight together.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the North Carolina judge, Stephan Futrell, speaking last week as he sentenced you for trespassing at the North Carolina General Assembly.

JUDGE STEPHAN FUTRELL: It’s hard to find too much reason to punish in this case, and I’m not inclined to do so. I believe this—Ms. Patel would agree that this is not that kind of case. But in order to be consistent, I feel that at least a fine of $200, court costs, a minimum sentence of one day, maximum two, to be suspended, depending on unsupervised probation. Is there an option for community service? Because he would do that in his sleep.

ATTORNEY: I don’t think he knows how to do anything but community service.

JUDGE STEPHAN FUTRELL: I mean, and I don’t—again, don’t mean to make light of it. I’ve pondered that, about: Isn’t his life an example of service, community service?

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the judge. This is Reverend Barber, when he was questioned about the volume of his voice at his protest in 2017, for which he was arrested for trespassing.

ATTORNEY: Is it your testimony that you were not yelling in that video?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: I would never characterize call and response, preaching, reading the Constitution, reading scripture as yelling. Yelling insinuates a whole 'nother type of state of mind, that you are somehow angry or whatnot. I was in a situation where I was using the voice that I've been given, and I was reciting and call and response to Constitution, passages of scripture and statistics about people that are hurting in this state because of denial of healthcare.

ATTORNEY: But your voice is louder than it is right now, wasn’t it?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: My voice? I’m not reciting. Yes, I’m not reciting the Constitution. I’m not engaging—

ATTORNEY: On that day, it was louder than it is right now, correct?


ATTORNEY: But it’s your testimony that you were not yelling in that video.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: I would not characterize yelling.

ATTORNEY: And that perhaps you can make your voice even louder than that.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: I’m not—I don’t know what—how you’re characterizing. I’m a preacher. And in the African-American tradition of preaching, in the evangelical tradition of preaching, in the Pentecostal tradition of preaching, there are ebbs and flows in our voice. That’s all I can share with you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Reverend Barber in court being questioned. Reverend Barber, would you like to—pardon the pun—amplify what you were saying there and also talk about what time the Legislature went into session that day?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Yeah, well, actually, that is interesting, because the Legislature didn’t even go into session until five hours after we were there. We came in in the morning. We had a right to be there. The Constitution says we have a right to instruct our legislators at the General Assembly. Our Constitution says, “Beneficent provision to the poor, the widowed, the orphaned and the unfortunate is the first duty of a civilized and Christian state.” Our Legislature is in violation of all of that. When we got there, they closed the doors, told us that the offices were not open. So there were no one in the offices when we were outside of the offices, according to them. And we asked them, “What decibel level is free speech?” You can’t regulate the decibel level of free speech. We won cases years ago, when they once used to tell us, Amy, we couldn’t even come in the building. When the first people were arrested on Moral Monday, they said we had to stay outside on the side. We went in the building, and the judge ruled, “No, no, you”—in fact, it was a Supreme Court case that pushed it—”you can’t tell people they can’t be in the building and the rotunda.”

So, really, the concern here is not even how loud the voice was. What they were arguing was, if anyone complains—now, listen, to your audience, this is where we are. This is the criminalization of democracy. If anyone complains and says that it bothered them, then they call the police, and the police can remove you. And they can complain anonymously. That is dangerous not only for people that were there with me, but it could be the other side. It could somebody else that’s there for a whole 'nother reason. Free speech has to be free speech, the right to instruct your legislator at the place where they work. They also told us, “Well, you can meet with them by Twitter and email, or you can go out in the community and meet with them.” That's not what the Constitution says. And so, this is a very serious case. And we’re going to have to push these things across, because I understand there are some Southern legislators where they’re making it a felony to be inside of the state capitol. We’re really going to have to open up these state capitols, because so much that’s hurting the poor and the vulnerable and the immigrant and women and children is happening in these closed-off state capitols, particularly through the South.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Barber, we have to break. We’re going to come back, and I want to ask you about the events you have planned for this week and the Poor People’s Campaign next week, and how you’re going to be involved in presidential election politics. Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with the Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach.

I want to ask you about newly surfaced documents that reveal a senior Republican strategist who specialized in gerrymandering was secretly behind the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. When the strategist, Thomas Hofeller, died in August, he left behind a computer hard drive full of his notes and records. His estranged daughter found the documents, among them a 2015 study that concluded that adding the citizenship question to the census would, quote, “be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites” and “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats,” unquote. Can you talk about Thomas Hofeller’s history in your state, North Carolina, Reverend Barber?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: I can. And let me talk about this, Amy, from a Southern perspective. I could talk nationwide, but let me talk from a Southern perspective and speak to why this is so important for the whole nation and for progressive politics. You know, it was Hofeller, and then, you know, Trump also tried to appoint a lawyer from here, Thomas Farr, who in fact was also involved in racist voter suppression and gerrymandering. And actually, the Republicans in Washington, D.C., blocked three black women from even getting a hearing, in order to try to promote somebody who was known to be engaged in white supremacy policy and voter suppression.

When we look at the South particularly, what has happened now is the demographics have shifted. Forty percent of people of color, of black people, are in the South now. If you connect that to progressive whites, Latinos, Asians and Natives, that is a total new voting bloc that can dismantle the solid South and the white Southern strategy. That day is not coming; it’s already here. It has to be organized, it has to be politicized, it has to be mobilized, which is a lot of the work we’re doing in the Poor People’s Campaign, to mobilize and organize and strategize and register and be a power among the poor, because one-third of all the poor people in this country live in the South, and it’s almost evenly split between black and white.

The GOP extremists are afraid. They know they cannot win if the people vote. They cannot win if we have fair districts. And so they are trying to do everything they can to cheat. The census would scare people away, would lower the population, would undermine how many representatives we have in Congress, would actually hurt in terms of the resources that states would receive. But they have such a lust for power, and ill-gotten power that’s rooted in white supremacy, that they would be willing to do that. The census question, they know, would create a false number, a false understanding of the true population of this country.

And, you know, the 14th Amendment says anybody that is here on this soil has a right to equal protection under the law. Any person. The Trump administration disagrees with that. Extremist politicians have long disagreed with that. We have to fight it, because there’s a connection between adding a census question, racist gerrymandering and racist voter suppression. But it’s all centered around this deep fear, because they know that the South can transform this nation’s politics, and the demographics are already there to do so, if we have movements, like the one we’re leading and the one we’re working on, to engage the people and politicize and to register to vote and to build power.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Reverend Dr. William Barber, if you could talk about what you’re doing this week in Washington, on Wednesday, and then next week, the presidential forum, and how the Poor People’s Campaign will be involved in presidential politics? And are candidates going to show up to your forum next week, presidential candidates?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: First, on Moral Witness Wednesday, Repairers of the Breach is joining with the Jewish community, Muslim community, Unitarian community, where clergy are coming to Washington, D.C., to register a prophetic indictment and a moral impeachment based on how the Trump administration—not just him, the administration—and his supporters in Congress have violated our deepest—two of our deepest covenants, our deepest religious values and our deepest constitutional values, each which call us to justice and the concern for all people.

We will march straight down Pennsylvania Avenue in full vestment. We’ve had over 5,000 people of faith and religious leaders to sign on to this letter of indictment and impeachment. We are following a scripture, Jeremiah 22, that says, when things are this bad, go down to the royal palace and tell the leader to stop hurting the poor, stop hurting the women, stop hurting the immigrant and stop murdering people, i.e., stop passing policies that create public violence. When you deny healthcare, people die. When you deny living wages, people die.

And we have to be conspicuous. We can no longer allow the so-called religious right, religious nationalism, to have the stage to themselves, especially when they’re engaging in so much modern theological malpractice and, in many cases, heresy, when they do not even talk about the issues like the poverty, the sick, the immigrants, but they only talk about prayer in the school, abortion and guns and tax cuts. That is so far from our deepest covenant, and we have to have this witness. And we believe our witness will help other people stand up. We’re not Democrat. We’re not Republican. We’re not left. We’re not right. We’re standing in the moral center of our deepest constitutional and religious traditions.

And then, the following week, Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, myself, as the co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign, along with hundreds of people from across the nation, 41 states that have engaged in the Poor People’s Campaign, coming to D.C. for the first national moral—excuse me, Poor People’s Moral Action Congress, three days.

Monday, we will be releasing a moral justice budget. We are going to challenge the lie that there is scarcity. We have plenty if we use it right, when it comes to addressing the problems of 140 million poor people, 43.5% of this nation.

Secondly, we’re going to have a presidential candidate. Ten presidential candidates are coming, not just to talk, but to take questions from poor people, impacted people, coal miners from Kentucky and poor people from Alabama and veterans, to take direct questions from them.

And then, on the following days, we’re having a whole day of training, as we are building power, as we are registering people for the movement and people who vote. And then, on the—

AMY GOODMAN: And what day and where is the presidential forum, where you say 10 of the candidates—

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: On the 17th. On the 17th.

AMY GOODMAN: On the 17th.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Monday the 17th at Trinity.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Biden be there?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Biden will be there. Warren will be there. Booker will be there. Harris will be there. I don’t have all of the names. But they are coming, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Sanders be there?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Sanders will be there. Yes, he will.

AMY GOODMAN: And they’re taking—

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Because what we are saying to them—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: —that they cannot just talk about the middle class and the wealthy. A hundred and forty million people are poor and low-wealth, 43.5%. We have to deal with systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy. And we’re going to have them there to engage.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we thank you, Reverend Dr. William Barber, for joining us, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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