Capitol protests falling on deaf ears?
I first heard about the Moral Monday movement in February, when thousands of North Carolina residents took to the streets to rally against the state’s Republican governor and Legislature. Among other things, the protesters called for economic fairness, voting rights and more funding for public education.
Not long after I became aware of the protests in the Tar Heel state, I learned about another Moral Monday movement, based here in New York.
Interested in learning more, I headed down to the state Capitol on Monday for a noontime vigil. There, a small group of protesters held signs that said “A Budget Is a Moral Document” and “Faith for a Fair New York.”
Organized by the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, the Moral Monday vigils have been held every Monday this month, drawing a mix of clergy and progressive activists to the corridor outside the governor’s office.
Unlike the louder, rowdier sit-in that resulted in the arrest of 59 liberal protesters last Thursday, the vigil I attended was decidedly low-key. There were prayers, short speeches calling on the state to do more to help the poor and fund public education, scattered “Amens” and even a sing-along.
“We want a budget that prioritizes human needs over the interests of a wealthy few,” said Sara Niccoli, a Montgomery County resident who serves as executive director of the Labor-Religion Coalition. “We want a budget that prioritizes necessary public services, like a quality education and a strong social safety net.”
Niccoli’s remarks were echoed by Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, who said that “Tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts to essential services are immoral,” and spoke of the growing need at local food pantries.
“We do not follow special-interest groups,” said Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo of the Albany Presbytery. “We do not follow the money. . . . We gather our voices for a moral budget, a fair budget.”
Niccoli is Quaker, and the vigil was conducted in the style of a Quaker service, where anyone who wants to speak can do so. It lasted almost an hour, and I think it’s safe to say that it didn’t contain anything I found remotely objectionable.
After all, I want the budget to be moral and fair and fund essential services, too.
And since my father is a minister, I’m accustomed to hearing clergy express concern for the needy and issue calls for justice.
Just last week, my father reminded me that the money I pay in taxes and for benefits such as Social Security and health insurance helps other people, which is a good thing. At the time, I found his comments somewhat aggravating. In retrospect, they seem in keeping with the philosophy of the Moral Monday protesters, and their notion that people of faith should concern themselves with the needy and the weak.
With the April 1 budget deadline fast approaching, I wondered whether anyone was listening to the protesters or cared what they had to say. It seemed unlikely that most of the legislators discussing the budget behind closed doors were overly concerned with questions of morality and fairness. At this point in the year, they’re mostly concerned with hammering out deals, keeping powerful supporters happy and getting the budget done.
Toward the end of the vigil, Niccoli told her fellow protesters that “working in the Capitol when it’s in session is one of the greatest challenges of my life. These halls just feel so empty.”
I could understand why she felt that way.
The Capitol is a pretty building, but I couldn’t wait to get outside and get some fresh air.
Before breaking for the day, the protesters filled the hall with music, singing the Christian children’s song “This Little Light of Mine.”
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” they sang. “All over the Capitol, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Much to my surprise, they actually sounded pretty good.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at email@example.com. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.