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Jailed for Justice

By Mary Beth Powell on August 15th, 2014

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made.” – Oscar Wilde

In the last year and a half, nearly 1,000 demonstrators have chosen to be arrested to protest unjust laws that have been enacted by the current North Carolina state legislature. I’m one of them. I didn’t accept this calling lightly since, at the time, I was a state employee and was worried about whether I might lose my job or suffer other consequences as a result of my decision to break the law. That fear quickly took a back seat to outrage, however, when I knew that disabled veterans, the unemployed, women and children, immigrants, underpaid teachers and many others were being affected by major cuts to social programs, being denied their voting rights and losing health care subsidies. All of this was a result of the regressive policies enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly. The marginalized people of North Carolina, the ones whose voices needed to be heard the most but whose inability to participate because of their circumstances and lack of political clout, deserve better.

First launched in April 2013 by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, thousands of disgruntled citizens have participated in “Moral Monday” rallies held each Monday at the state capital in Raleigh and throughout the state. The movement has since spread to other southern states including Georgia and, by January 2014, to South Carolina where a similar grassroots movement is called “Truthful Tuesday.”

MoralMondayMBI’ve been told that the type of civil disobedience I participated in is “integrity-based”—disobeying a law which one feels is immoral. Having spent years advocating for progressive environmental, land use planning and active transportation legislation, how could I sit by idly as those hard fought policy battles were overturned by policy makers whose motivation is to provide tax breaks to the wealthy, weaken environmental regulations, restrict voting rights and cut unemployment benefits?

Policy advocacy, a cornerstone of the work we did with the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grantees, was essential for achieving the policy, systems and environmental changes required to make their communities healthier. The policy wins and successes these grantees achieved to promote active environments and provide better access to healthy foods were not easy accomplishments. They required the skills of politically savvy neighborhood residents who engaged their communities and supported elected officials who championed their causes. Often, their wins required the courage to stand up and be heard, to work long and thankless hours, and take bold positions that may not have been popular, but were the right thing to do. The moral thing to do.

It’s been more than a year since I was arrested and spent the evening in jail with other aging hippies who admitted they hadn’t been this moved and politically active since their Vietnam protest days. It may take years for all of our cases to be heard, and the court system has certainly been overtaxed with the enormous caseload. The media attention our collective action has spawned, however, has awakened the electorate and hopefully jolted it out of its complacency. Sometimes taking a public stand, despite the risk involved, is required to achieve true social change. Gandhi said it best: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Are you actively engaged in the democratic process in your community, state or country? If not, please exercise your rights to be heard and to make a difference.

Mary Beth Powell

Environmental advocate, and die-hard Carolina basketball fan. Former Senior Project Officer at Healthy Places by Design (then Active Living By Design).