Moral March hammers against voter suppression

Thousands gather to protest in Raleigh. (Photographer: Alec Simkiss)

Thousands gather to protest in Raleigh. Photo by Alec Simkiss.

With the Voting ID requirement is taking effect for March’s primary, the NAACP’s biggest protest event of the year on Feb. 13 in Raleigh centered on voting rights. Among the 5000 protesters were several students from WCU.

Thousands attended the 10th annual Moral March on Raleigh and HKonJ People’s Assembly, filling an entire block of downtown’s Fayetteville Street with handmade signs, chants and singing. HKonJ stands for “Historic Thousands on Jones Street,” even though the march stops before Jones Street, where state legislature is located. Many of the issues have been the same since the first march in 2006 – education, health care and racial discrimination.

“People’s voices and votes matter,” said Joanna Woodson, a Vote Everywhere ambassador and Western Carolina University student. “If you become a stronger advocate for what you believe, the stronger your voice becomes. The more power you get behind your vote, the more powerful your vote will be.”

11 students at Western Carolina University gathered in a service van and drove for five hours to participate in this protest. With the help of NC NAACP Youth & College Division, students from universities near and far were brought to the front of the line to march, chant, and sing their way to Jones street.

“It’s my job as an American citizen to vote,” stated Rodrick Hall, one of the many protesters vehemently against the Voter ID law. “People need to be better educated about the issues at hand, and hopefully people seeing everyone here will show that people should be more aware about what’s going on.”

The below-freezing temperatures didn’t seem to affect turnout, as about 5000 people filled the streets. NAACP state leader Rev. William Barber reminded the crowd of what civil rights marchers faced in the past: violence, arrests, and great adversity.

“If they could stand the heat, we can stand the cold,” he said.

During the rally, immigration, environmental and health care advocacy groups all got a few minutes to speak to the crowd. Plenty of handmade signs were on display promoting a wide range of liberal causes, from coal ash cleanup to the green party registration, and abortion rights. Largely, what everyone unified against was around the Voter ID registration law.

“With the Voter ID law, it’s making it even harder for everyone to vote. We’re being denied a basic right, and it needs to change,” said Jessica Thompson, protester.

The Voter ID law is a state law that starting this year requires voters to bring a photo ID or instead fill out a form explaining why they don’t have one. Of all the points that were hammered in during the rally, voter registration was the one the HKonJ rally hit the hardest. Rev. Barber spoke about this law directly, stating the change is one of the ways Republican legislators are trying to reduce election turnout.

“When you suppress the vote, politicians want us to be slaves to their decisions, without citizens being able to register their discontent at the ballot box,” he said. “They have made it easier to get a gun than to vote.”

While there is plenty of debate about certain candidates, according to Barber and many who attended in the rally, making your voice heard via voting is the most important thing you can do to shape this country.

“What frustrates me is most people don’t feel that voting really affects anything. It does. In order to build the strongest democracy in our country, voting is the most important thing as Americans we can do,” said Uriah Wrad, a first time protester.

However, not everyone was in favor of the protest and doubted the effectiveness of the protest.

“It’s an organizational tool for the left, trying to get the vote out for the Democrats,” said Dallas Woodhouse of the North Carolina Republican Party for the News & Observer. “It hasn’t worked too well in the past few years as the Republicans have had strong elections in the last three cycles.”

Republican lawmakers have said the photo ID requirement is necessary to stop voter fraud.  However last year, Republican lawmakers watered down the law by allowing voters without IDs to cast a provisional ballot.

“Oppression is still happening today, and it’s happening in the form of the Voter ID law,” said Vera Okains, protester. “It’s sad that things like the Voter ID law are still passing, but the NAACP paved the way for us to speak our minds. I’m not going to toss the fact I can protest aside.”

Barber and the advocacy group Democracy North Carolina made what he called a “political altar call,” asking the crowd to volunteer to get out the vote and serve as poll monitors. Barber said he wants to “build an army” of 5,000 volunteers.

“People will be confused and frustrated” by the new requirements, Democracy North Carolina director Bob Hall said. “We’ve got to help them.”

Organizers of the HKonJ rally and march urge all eligible voters to show up on election day.