Protesters arrested during special legislative session

— General Assembly police officers arrested 17 people Thursday afternoon when they disrupted business in the House chamber.

An anxious crowd watched the House and the Senate as they worked on bills that Democrats have described as a “power grab” meant to undercut Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, a Democrat who takes office in January.

During Senate debate, three different minor disruptions lead Lt. Gov. Dan Forest to clear the third floor gallery that looks down on the chamber. The Senate returned after a 30-minute recess to pass a measure combining the State Board of Elections and the Ethics Commission and that would make Supreme Court elections partisan affairs.

Later, a member of the public spoke out during the House floor session. When Speaker Tim Moore ordered him removed, the crowd erupted into chants such as, “You work for us” and “All political power comes from the people.”

The House also had to suspend debate for about a half-hour on a bill stripping Cooper of some of his power to make appointments to state agencies.

Shortly before 5:30 p.m., police told people who didn’t want to be arrested to leave the building, and the protest gradually petered out.

Those arrested and led from the chamber in zip-ties were charged with trespassing and violating Legislative Building rules, and one was charged with resisting an officer.

Among those arrested was Joe Killian, a reporter with the nonprofit NC Policy Watch, a liberal think tank.

Democratic lawmakers and many advocacy groups have criticized the decision by Republican legislative leaders to call the special session after lawmakers had returned to Raleigh to approve an aid package for Hurricane Matthew and mountain wildfires victims. They also criticized actions to clear spectators from the chamber.

“I noticed that the gallery is still empty,” Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, said after debate on the appointments bill had finished. “I believe that’s because the doors have been locked.”

Martin then pointed to North Carolina Open Meetings law that says public bodies should conduct their business in the open.

Moore, R-Cleveland, pointed to rules that allow the House to keep order in the chamber.

“The chair does not believe for a moment that, once folks come back in, that they will not once again create a disturbance at this point, so those doors shall remain closed,” Moore said.

Martin then asked if Moore thought the House rules trumped the open meeting statutes. Moore shot back that the meeting was being carried on the Internet and broadcast on speakers outside the chamber.

“A number of folks who, when the police officer asked them to leave, resisted,” Moore said. “That’s a tight space up there. … You’ve got officers up there risking their safety to get people to simply leave.”

He later added, “As a result of that, for the safety of them and for the safety of the members on this floor and the dignity of this House, those doors will remain barred.”

Later in the evening, Moore’s remarks drew a response from Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, a long-serving lawmaker who participated in the 1960s civil rights movement.

“Those people, in my estimation, whether you like them or not, were exercising a right that they had to do, that they felt the need to do,” Michaux said. “Many of you may not have liked it, many of you may have detested it. But it was their perfect right to do what they did. I have done it. I have been arrested for doing the same thing that they did. But had I not done it, I would not be with you here today.”

A special thank you to our friends at WRAL for helping out with this post.