About 200 people attended the Moral Monday rally at the state Capitol, calling on Gov. Nathan Deal to expand Georgia’s Medicaid program, on Jan. 13. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
Photo: BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJ
Photo: BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJ

Georgia’s Moral Monday group takes root, but can it grow?

On Jan. 27, state Sen. Vincent Fort and almost a dozen other people walked quietly into the executive second-floor office at the Georgia Capitol, politely asked to speak with Gov. Nathan Deal, then joined hands and prayed.

The occasion brought the first arrests this year for a group called Moral Monday Georgia, the new face of progressivism in Georgia. Its members have gathered every week since the start of the year to prod politicians on expanding of the state’s Medicaid rolls, gun control and women’s access to health care.

An offshoot of the Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina, the Georgia group — which involves people from a range of organizations — is trying to seize on the protests that have rocked Raleigh since last year. The North Carolina movement has spread to at least three other states in the South, as it wants to force changes in policy long shaped by conservative values and a belief in limited government.

And Moral Monday Georgia members believe the state’s changing demographics, with its population boom over the past decade and the increasing diversity within its borders, creates an opportunity to make that happen.

“We want to send the message that the same small group of people are making the decisions that affect all our lives,” said Barbara Joye, 71, a retired civil servant who has been active with the group since some of its earliest organizing meetings last summer. “We’re at the Capitol because that’s where the decisions are being made. I’m not saying we’re all interested in everything and all agree on everything, but our issues are all connected.”

It has already created a degree of discomfort on Capitol grounds, where protests in recent years have veered toward the polite and almost mundane. Lawmakers have been taken aback by protesters unexpectedly showing up in their colleagues’ offices to denounce a political act or inaction.

The group’s civil disobedience has led to more than 30 arrests for trespassing and obstruction since that January day in the governor’s office.

“It could have become a very dangerous and violent situation,” said Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, one of several senators who share an office hallway where one of the protests took place. “You have to work through the process: Sometimes you’re successful; sometimes you’re not successful. But you do not show disrespect for members of this body.”

Georgia organizers will be back Monday in Atlanta on Crossover Day, one of the busiest days at the state Legislature because it is the deadline in most cases for legislation to clear one chamber or the other. The day’s issue will be economic injustice hurting the state’s working class. Protests will implore legislators on raising the minimum wage and blocking legislation that would bar school bus drivers from collecting unemployment during summer break.

Opponents, including the state’s dominant Republican Party, deride the demonstrations and the group’s members as amateur and extreme.

“It’s a group of radical left-wing liberals who will clearly stop at nothing to push their agenda in Georgia,” said spokesman Ryan Mahoney of the state Republican Party, which has started a social media campaign branding the group’s effort as “liberal lunacy.”

Supporters say they are everyday Georgians who vow to make themselves as much a part of the Capitol as the hordes of lobbyists who flock just outside the House and Senate chambers. And they note they do not work in isolation. Another Moral Mondays group is set to launch Monday in Florida. A “Truthful Tuesdays” group has started in South Carolina.

Every week since Jan. 13, when the legislative session began, scores of Moral Monday Georgia protesters have assembled outside near the Gold Dome’s west steps, corralled by metal fencing in the Capitol’s “official” protest area. They are college students and retirees, community organizers and lay ministers. Some are vocal, others silent, empty-nester moms, dads who bring their children when school is out. People of different colors, different faiths, different cultures.

They often number to between 100 and 200. They take inspiration from the thousands who have joined with the original Moral Monday in North Carolina. The Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said his group drew the line over that state’s recent overhaul of early voting and voter identification laws, its own inaction on Medicaid expansion, cuts to education and women’s access to health care and loosening of gun laws.

Things came to a head in April, when Barber and 16 others, many of them ministers, were arrested inside the North Carolina Legislature for trespassing and failure to disperse. “We did not go in to get arrested,” he said. The next week, police arrested 30 more. The group has now held more than 40 Moral Mondays. Nearly a thousand participants have been arrested. Just last month, an estimated 80,000 people showed up for the group’s first 2014 march — including at least one busload from Georgia.

But Barber notes it took hard work to get there. North Carolina organizers began in 2006 with “local people assemblies” in communities statewide, eventually coming out with a 14-point agenda touching on economic sustainability, access to health care and disparity within the state’s criminal justice system.

Democrats were in charge then. Barber — who is adamant the group hold all politicians accountable regardless of party — said they got an earful. Then Republicans took over the state Legislature in 2010 and the governorship in 2012. What had been considered a rare moderate Southern state turned red. By then, the Moral Monday coalition had roots statewide.

That is not the case in Georgia. Here, the group has been working since the summer to coalesce the issues of an ad hoc group of about 40 different organizations. The Georgia NAACP has helped provide a foundation, but organizers acknowledge they still need to branch out from what is seen as an Atlanta-centric effort.

They have held or planned workshops in Savannah, Macon, Albany and Columbus — all smaller cities within the state’s rural areas. Places such as Athens, home to the University of Georgia, also have been targeted.

“There’s a disconnect sometimes. People don’t realize what happens (at the Capitol) affects the rest of the state,” said the group’s La’Die Mansfield, an Albany native now in her mid-20s.

The Georgia GOP has had a hold on the state Legislature since 2004, two years after the party took the governor’s office. And despite election-year challenges to Deal from both within the party and from Democrats, he still holds approval ratings at about 50 percent.

“The biggest thing a movement like Moral Monday needs is clear goals and purposes, a clear target and issues that are going to be addressed,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University. That “professionalizing” of the group could carry the group when it’s not in protest mode, Gillespie said. But it takes time and effort.

“Protest organizations can survive for a long period of time,” she said. “Protest movements don’t tend to survive.”

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