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First ‘Moral Monday’ protester convicted

October 11, 2013

Published here on October 9, 2013.

The first organizer to face trial after being arrested during  the Moral Monday protests at the North Carolina legislature was found guilty on all charges Friday.

According to WRAL, Wake County District Court Judge Joy Hamilton found Saladin Muammad, 68, guilty of misdemeanor charges for trespassing, failing to disperse and violating building rules at a May 13 protest.

Muammad’s lawyer, Al McSurely, gave immediate notice of plans to request an appeal.  In accordance with state law, Muammad will now have the option of having his case heard in Superior Court before a jury of 12 people, according to WRAL.

Police arrested more than 940 people during the 2013 legislative session. The North Carolina NAACP organized the Moral Monday protests, which included several left-leaning groups that opposed several Republican-backed bills that they said they saw as damaging to working people, low income families, public education and the environment.

Barbara Zelter, a clinical assistant professor in the department of social work, was one of the original 17 people arrested on April 29. Her court date is set for Oct. 25, and she will be represented by Irving Joyner, a professor of law at North Carolina Central University.

“I am ready to pay any cost involved in this civil disobedience direct action,” Zelter said. “Whatever the cost, it is nothing compared to the moral imperative to speak out against the extremist policies unrolled during this past legislative session.”

Zelter said she faces spending 28 days in jail, but she doesn’t think the court wants more than 900 people to fill the Wake County Detention center, especially because some of those facing charges are seniors or people with cancer.

Molly McDonough, a sophomore in women’s and gender studies, was also arrested April 29 and was charged with second degree trespassing, failure to disperse upon command and displaying or posting a sign or placard.

“As a student, I couldn’t stand to see my campus community negatively affected by these laws, and as a native North Carolinian, I couldn’t sit back and watch other communities have their rights stripped away from them on the basis of race and socioeconomic class,” McDonough said. “My age, race and class made it so that I was able to be arrested without negatively impacting my future, and so I wanted to take that risk for all the people who can’t.”

Zelter said in her first court appearance, Joyner claimed that her charges should be dropped because she was exercising her First Amendment rights of free speech and her North Carolina Constitutional rights to bring concerns to legislators.

“Clearly the judge in Saladin’s trial rejected constitutional arguments,” Zelter said.

According to The News & Observer, McSurely told Hamilton to recuse herself from his next cases stemming from the same demonstration. McSurely said the evidence in those cases would be virtually the same as in Friday’s case, making it difficult for a different outcome.

“You have apparently already made a very important and factual decision,” McSurely told The N&O.

Zelter said she is waiting to see if the strategy will change for her court case now that the first ruling has returned. It appears that she and other protesters may only get a $100 court cost charge, in addition to the convictions on three Misdemeanor 2 offenses.

“Part of the legal defense has been that we did not do anything wrong, and that our offenses are merely arbitrary policy by the NCGA police,” Zelter said.

Zelter described her arrest on April 29 in a statement for the Wake County District Court as tedious and delayed. She joined a group of protesters at the Legislative Building downtown, singing freedom songs and praying in the building lobby. After about 90 minutes, North Carolina General Assembly police asked the group to disperse. When Zelter and the others did not, police announced they would be arrested.

“They took us one by one, handcuffing us and leading us to an area of the building that had been set up for original booking,” Zelter said in her statement. “Each of us kept singing until taken.”

Zelter said she and the other 16 protesters who were arrested, were processed, loaded onto a bus and taken to the Hammond Road Detention Center. While there, an NCGA officer explained that due to her arrest, Zelter would not be allowed into the Legislative Building except under special circumstances.

“I was very disturbed by this prior restraint, and I’m glad that our attorneys will deal with this tamping on our free expression rights in order to create a chilling effect on our civic voice,” Zelter said in her statement.

Zelter was released the next day.

McDonough said that her arrest was both exhausting and inspiring. To pass the time, she and other protesters talked and sang old spiritual songs.

“There were moments where I was upset and nervous, but the majority of the time, as well as the five months since, I have felt very grateful for the experience and for having the privilege to stand up for what I believe in,” McDonough said.

McDonough said she does not regret her choice to get arrested, and that Muammad’s verdict hasn’t changed her mind.

“Being part of a movement that helped to propel the issues currently facing North Carolina into the national spotlight is an enormous honor,” McDonough said. “I am not afraid, and I too will accept my verdict when it comes. We will not stop resisting oppression. The Moral Monday protests were simply the beginning.”

Lauryn Collier, interim president of the N.C. State NAACP chapter, said although she wasn’t heavily involved with the NAACP before this semester, she found it impressive that people planned to get arrested.

“When I was getting briefed on the moral Mondays, we found that people were signing these waivers and creating videos in the event that they did get arrested for their loved ones to watch or for people to watch,” Collier said. “I think it really says that all the people who were involved are really fate about getting their voices heard and wanting the legislature to pay attention to them and make some differences that are going to impact their lives.”

Similarly, McDonough said the protests carry a long tradition of resistance and civil disobedience in the South and specifically our state.

“The number of Moral Monday protesters illuminates the power and strength of North Carolinians, as well as the willingness of North Carolina’s citizens to sacrifice for their communities and the state they love,” McDonough said.

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