Arrests follow protests at state Capitol

More than 40 people were arrested Tuesday in a string of protests targeting Gov. Nathan Deal’s decision not to expand Medicaid in Georgia under the Affordable Care Act.

Dr. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor, was among those placed in handcuffs by Georgia State Patrol troopers. Warnock and a group of supporters staged a sit-in outside of Deal’s office Tuesday afternoon. They were arrested without incident and led away as the remaining crowd of protesters sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

“It is no exaggeration to say that we are here on a matter of life and death,” Warnock told a group of about 100 supporters.

Warnock was the last of a series of speakers in the Capitol rotunda, including two Democratic state senators, criticizing Deal and Republican leaders on a range of issues from education to abortion rights to voting rights. But the governor’s position on Medicaid expansion was the centerpiece of Tuesday’s action by a coalition of liberal groups organized under the name Moral Monday.

Protest organizers said 10 others were arrested with Warnock. Following those arrests, another 13 protesters were arrested when they attempted to block the door to the Senate.

Earlier in the day, Capitol police removed 16 people from the Senate gallery after they began a staggered wave of protests urging Deal to reverse course.

“Our lives matter,” one group chanted. “Medicaid expansion.”

The protesters — most of them senior citizens — were quickly handcuffed and hauled to a basement conference room by Georgia state troopers and Capitol police. The protests disrupted the Senate floor action for about 15 minutes.

According to police, the protesters are charged with committing a misdemeanor under a state law forbidding loud protests at the Capitol.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle ordered Capitol police to close the gallery following the arrests.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before. This is crazy,” said Patrice Bass, a Hampton resident who was visiting the Capitol for the first time and was in the Senate gallery when the protest began.

Following the interruptions, Republican Sen. Judson Hill lauded Deal’s decision not to expand Medicaid.

Hill, R-Marietta, likened the federal government’s lobbying for Medicaid expansion to the sales tactics used by car salesmen.

The Obama administration is making “a troubled program less solvent” on the backs of the country’s needy and low-income population. Medicaid is already failing its patients, and any expansion will make it worse, Hill said. “It is not the lifeline, as some project,” he said. “This is a bill that Georgia and America cannot afford.”

But several Democratic senators took to the well following the protests to speak for Medicaid expansion and call out Republicans for politicizing the issue.

Medicaid expansion is affordable, and will reduce health costs, create jobs and save lives, said Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, whose husband is currently hospitalized. “Just be honest: We’re not opposing Medicaid (expansion) for financial reasons, we’re opposing it for political reasons.”

Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, decried the expansion opposition and the impact on rural Georgians who live in areas where medical care is sparse. Instead of helping these people and other needy Georgians, the Legislature has done myriad other things, including providing tax breaks for luxury jet makers such as Gulfstream, he said.

“Come May 20 (primary election day), folks will tell you how they feel,” Lucas said. “Don’t go and lie and say you didn’t know.”

Megan Harrison, a member of the Moral Monday steering committee, said the volunteers arrested included several clergy members. Harrison said Deal is playing with people’s lives by rejecting an expansion of Medicaid.

“Governor Deal is making a rhetorical, political point,” Harrison said.

Deal has said the state cannot afford the expansion once federal aid for the program disappears.

The Affordable Care Act would require the federal government to cover 100 percent of the costs for the first three years, with its share declining to no less than 90 percent thereafter.

The protests were carefully orchestrated, and a number of reporters and camera operators were on hand for the Senate gallery arrests, having been tipped off by the group. Three state troopers were in the gallery when the protest started, but their number swelled to more than a dozen almost immediately.

As the group’s name suggests, most of the protests have occurred on Mondays, but the Legislature was not in session this Monday. Tuesday marks the 39th day of the 40-day session and promises to be a long day of wrangling as lawmakers try to get their bills passed before midnight of the final workday, which will be Thursday.

Protests continued outside the Capitol as lawmakers pushed dozens of bills to passage in an attempt to beat the legislative clock.