Moral Monday: More Than Mere Noise

Don't make the mistake of dismissing the movement
Barber and Moral Monday protestors

A couple of weeks ago, after the arrests of 20 Moral Monday protestors for making noise in the Legislative Building, a friend of mine sent me a note:

I love me some Moral Mondays. But tangibly speaking, what has the movement accomplished? Changing the rules to the Legislative Building? Emboldening the left and just pissing off the right? If anything, they’ve illustrated just how extreme the extreme right in Raleigh really is. But what have they really done? … They remind me a lot of Occupy [Wall Street]: well-intentioned but just noise, albeit noise I agree with.

Good point, and good question, especially in comparing Moral Monday to OWS. Is it all just noise? Well, yeah–if you look at both movements as purely tactical. Meaning: If protest movements aim to achieve specific goals, such as altering the state budget or inducing large banks to stop providing their CEOs with annual bonuses the size of small countries’ defense budgets, then yes, both movements have been miserable failures.

The optics are wrong. It’s easy to dismiss a crowd of hairy hippies clustered outside skyscrapers in Manhattan or ugly administrative buildings in Raleigh. And believe me, people noticed and chortled at the visuals. (Classic example: a former girlfriend of mine shared her view that the OWS protestors would have been taken more seriously if they’d cleaned up and worn suits. We didn’t last long.) OWS didn’t make a dent in the American system of plutocracy.

But specifics aren’t the endgame here. The goal is longer-term, more gradual, subtler. At base, it’s about–I hate this term, but it’s appropriate here–raising awareness. It turns out that OWS, as ludicrous as it may have seemed to the folks strolling by or watching on TV, accomplished quite a lot after all (from Business Insider in January, in a post titled “How Occupy Wall Street Won In One Chart”):

Agree or disagree with the aims and means of Occupy Wall Street, but the movement changed the way we think about our world forever.

For proof, look no further than the upcoming World Economic Forum in Davos. Each year, the organization puts out a report indicating what it believes are the world's biggest risks.

For the past three years, income inequality has been the #1 global risk.

But prior to 2012, inequality wasn't even on the list. Those protests in 2011 clearly had a profound [effect] on global thinking, right up to the elite level.

Or, put another way, ask yourself this: Would a scholarly tome about the causes and effects of global income inequality have become a runaway best-seller were it not for Occupy Wall Street priming the pump?

That’s the whole point, and William Barber clearly understands that. That’s why the minor kerfuffle over the budget this month was largely beside the point. Legislators can work on the specifics of the budget. But the protests–repeated, persistent, and yes, noisy–can place these basic income issues in the front of constituents’ minds, and those constituents can vote, and their voices can reach lawmakers and candidates and potential candidates, and those effects can play out over years and election cycles.

As Barber himself wrote in a recent N&O op-ed, “A budget is a moral document. Through it, we can measure a state’s values and its vision for the common good.” Getting North Carolinians to understand that–introducing the ideas that a state budget is about far more than tax relief, and that there exists such a thing as “the common good”–is the movement’s ultimate objective.

We may never be able to gauge the precise effect Moral Monday has on the state and its governance. But in targeting the people who make the laws and pass the budgets, the movement is nudging and mobilizing the people who vote them in. It takes time. But that’s how and where real, lasting change happens.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest