RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - More than 100 people were arrested Monday at the largest demonstration yet of the North Carolina NAACP's weeks-long protest of the conservative policies of the Republican-led General Assembly.
Police estimated that roughly 1,000 people attended a rally late Monday afternoon behind the Legislative Building on Halifax Mall. Hundreds then entered the building. Upwards of 150 people were arrested outside the doors to the state Senate chambers, where demonstrators chanted, sang, and delivered speeches decrying what they called a regressive agenda that neglects the poor.
Activist groups estimated the crowd at about 1,600.
The NAACP has held weekly protests in Raleigh since mid-April, and what started with 17 arrests and tens of supporters has grown every week, bringing the total number of arrests to nearly 300 after five weeks of protests.
Groups ranging from abortion-rights supporters to environmentalists and public educators have joined the rallies, which have attracted people from Greensboro to Rocky Mount.
Protesters want to call attention to the rightward shift of the state legislature, which moderate Democrats dominated for decades.
In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans captured both chambers of the legislature for the first time in more than 100 years. They've since built veto-proof majorities and taken control of the governor's mansion, while lawmakers pushed a conservative agenda on social programs, criminal justice, taxes, education, voting rights, and other areas.
Demonstrators complain that Republicans have overstepped their mandate from voters, hurtling the state back to another era.
Darren Hunicutt, 33, an accountant from Chapel Hill, said he brought his wife and 8-year-old twin boys to the demonstrations because he believes decisions to block a Medicaid expansion, cut the number of teacher assistants, limit eligibility for pre-kindergarten, and expand sales taxes goes too far.
"The Republicans have taken a progressive state that prioritizes education for young people, prioritizes economic justice, prioritizes access to healthcare, and basically in the last six to 12 months done a complete 180," he said.
Among those who stood outside the state Senate's door awaiting arrest was George Gresham, president of the Service Employees International Union's United Healthcare Workers East, which represents nearly 400,000 members from Florida to Massachusetts. He said the state's policies go against the working poor, and the growing momentum of the NAACP's demonstrations will catch fire elsewhere.
"We need this fight in the whole country, and if we're going to begin in North Carolina, so be it," Gresham said.
Republican leaders mostly dismiss the protests, saying lawmakers are doing exactly what they campaigned on and that the protesters don't represent a majority of North Carolina residents.
Unlike past weeks, police couldn't clear out all those under arrest before the Senate's Monday floor session began, which led to some grumbling from lawmakers who had to work around the rotunda filled with police and demonstrators. Other lawmakers who came out for the protests complained about being forced to stay behind police checkpoints with members of the media.
"What am I obstructing? I'm elected to be here," said Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland.
Pierce said he believes diverse crowds of people are coming out in greater numbers because the issues cut across racial and political lines. "I think that people are beginning to read and see that this present administration is toxic," he said.
Those arrested were charged with second-degree trespassing, failure to disperse, and violations of building rules. The NAACP chapter president, the Rev. William Barber, said his group is researching challenges to those arrests based in part on constitutional provisions that say citizens have a right to "instruct" their legislators.
Barber is among those arrested in the first wave of protests headed to court in late June.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.