(Stella Kirkendale, and her North Carolina colleagues protest the totalitarian tactics of the GOP controlled North Carolina State Legislature before 61 of them were arrested protecting democracy. (photo by Kevin Smith))
(I had the pleasure of working with Stella Kirkendale on Voter Protection and attending rallies supported by the North Carolina NAACP when I was in North Carolina for the four weeks leading up to the Presidential Election of 2016. Stella and 61 of her colleagues were arrested last week while protesting the unconstitutional and totalitarian actions of the GOP controlled NC State Legislature to strip the incoming Democratic Governor, Roy Cooper of his powers. It’s my honor to post Stella’s “Letter from the Wake County Jail,” on my website at www.socialvisionproductions.com, on Medium.com, LinkedIn and Twitter, and all over social media, to inspire others to act in defense of the Constitution and democracy. I know Stella and these good folks who were arrested. They represent the best of humanity.)
By Stella Kirkendale, Raleigh, NC, December 19, 2016
Where to begin? It’s been called the Carolina Coup, an ambush, a legislative power grab, reminiscent of Jim Crow governance, a secret society takeover and more… What you need to know is that this has been in the making for some time, since GOP-led extremists took over the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) four years ago. It is part of our Southern history.
After a drawn-out attempt to contest Democrat Governor-elect Roy Cooper’s win on November 8, Governor Pat McCrory conceded a month later. Then, under the guise of calling a special session on hurricane relief last week, Republican legislators introduced a gamut of new bills (22 total) intended to strip Cooper of his authority. This despite the fact that federal courts deemed the legislative districts illegitimate earlier this year, in the wake of widespread voter suppression and racial gerrymandering that targeted African-American voters “with surgical precision,” mandating a new legislative election in 2017. These bills undermine and manipulate the judicial system, boards of election, public education, and reduce new state hires by our new governor from 1,500 to 425.
When North Carolina’s NAACP, Democracy NC and other coalition partners issued an urgent call to citizens to pack the NCGA last Tuesday, December 13, showed up. Senate and House leaders played games with us through mid-day Wednesday, calling one session after another to order only to recess a few minutes later – after praying for wisdom!
For me personally the last straw was witnessing firsthand the devious trickery of a bunch of desperate, power-hungry white men: sitting in the gallery of the House of Representatives Wednesday, waiting for a 5pm session to begin, I looked down and saw the Democrats seated – a racially and gender-diverse group. We waited and waited and waited, until 6:30pm, when Speaker Tim Moore opened the meeting. I looked down again and was stunned at the display of patriarchy and white supremacy below me. The Democrats, fully aware that the planning for these meetings had been conducted in secret, quickly left to emergency caucus.
On Wednesday, following a NC NAACP press conference, Democrat leaders from the Senate and House spoke to the crowd assembled outside the press room, impressing urgency upon us to organize like never before.
That afternoon, seated in the House again, 17 of us knew what we needed to do. After all, many of us have been involved in the Moral Monday / Forward Together movement led by Reverend Dr. William Barber II since its inception. We stood up in unison to raise our voices in protest and to shine a light on the devious power grab. We sang and chanted, “All political power comes from the people.” I sign interpreted as well, as deafness appeared to be prevalent below. When we refused to leave we were handcuffed and led off one by one.
I must say that we were treated with utmost respect by the Raleigh police officers who were called in to do the dirty work. After a holding period in the cafeteria we were transported to the Wake County Detention Center in the back of inmate transfer vans that hold 8 people. We sang as we pulled out, to let our supporters outside know that our spirits were strong. We also discussed strategic talking points should the media be present for our release.
Our processing in the detention center was different from my last experience in July 2013. We had to remove and relinquish our shoelaces, belts and scarves; sit on a device that screened our backsides for inserted objects and place our chins / cheeks on the top level to check our mouths. I became acutely aware of my white privilege when I saw other inmates being booked, locked in cells and escorted in striped jumpsuits. With few exceptions, the other inmates were young and black or Latino. One young woman in the discharge area shared with us at 10:30pm that she was 22 years old, pregnant, with 4 children. She had been there since 3pm.
We were released at 11pm, into the arms of our NAACP and Moral Monday family. The next morning we were back at the North Carolina General Assembly, to continue to witness and support our fellow citizens attempting to enter the House, resulting in 45 additional arrests, including Santa, a breastfeeding mother, a reporter and senior citizens. By the end of the day Governor McCrory had signed the new legislation.
North Carolina can be viewed simultaneously as a case study of how to organize successfully against oppression and as the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the rest of the nation. We have truth on our side, knowing the illegitimacy of the entire charade. We are a broad and diverse fusion movement for social justice, and we shall overcome. We hope you will join us!
Stella Kirkendale, MPH is an activist and public health professional with over 25 years experience in local and global HIV/AIDS. She has also worked in TB infection control in Africa and Asia, and on the Ebola recovery in Sierra Leone in 2015. She was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone in the early 1980s.