Talk about fun entertainment on a beautiful summer evening with mild temperatures and you probably wouldn’t suggest sitting in the visitors gallery of the North Carolina House of Representatives. Well, reconsider. June 14, was a night of drama, protest, and shouting epithets which brought home loud and clear the reality of the Republican sweep of the legislature last November.
The first sign of conflict was a line of street protesters carrying placards saying “no fracking” and “save our water.” No what? I had no idea, but my son Alex, who suggested this evening’s entertainment, said fracking was a controversial method of drilling for natural gas. The second indication of potential trouble was an excess of legislative police standing around watching visitors.
I would have been totally confused by the proceedings had not Alex elaborated on the personalities and rivalries involved. Last summer he had been an intern for the Democratic majority leader Hugh Holliman who lost his seat in the November election. Alex pointed out the deposed Democratic Speaker of the House, Joe Hackney, sitting humbly and a bit resentfully among his now minority fellow Democrats. The new Speaker, Republican Thom Tillis, clearly had an agenda to run through as he warned the gallery that any vocal protesters would be removed by the Legislative police.
The anti-fracking crowd settled in across the gallery from where we sat. Fracking, more accurately known as hydraulic fracturing, I later learned , is probably the underground equivalent of mountaintop removal in terms of invasive and environmentally destructive fuel retrieval. Basically, you drill about a mile deep, then turn sideways and blow up the earth with high pressure water laced with nasty chemicals. The drilling company is not even required to disclose what these chemicals are. So, you are injecting millions of gallons of contaminated water into the earth and further endangering the quality of any well water in the vicinity. For a better description see the Clean Water for North Carolina website.
I also later learned that one of the richest deposits of natural gas, ripe for fracking, is under my house. Not knowing all this at the time, I was a little puzzled over the passion of the anti-fracking group, and a little bit unimpressed with their scruffy wardrobe. In the ’60s our designer-casual protest outfits were a bit more colorful and creative.
A few Democrats spoke briefly and eloquently opposing Senate Bill 709. However, the outcome was already assured as the Republican majority voted to open the door that could eventually permit fracking in North Carolina. A couple of protesters had already dropped a banner over the gallery rail and been hastily removed by the police. After the vote, they somberly began leaving the gallery till one of them shouted out, “You have just signed the death warrant for North Carolina,” then he looked toward the Republican side and emphatically added, “Assholes.”
Ooooh, that stung the room into a breathless silence as the legislative police in unison turned toward the fellow and immediately ushered him out and arrested him. A bit shocked myself by the fellow’s style and choice of words, I wondered, “Whatever happened to the silent vigil?”
Well, Alex and I had gotten more than our money’s worth (it was free,) and decided to take a walk downtown past the governor’s office. A full golden moon periodically appeared between the tall buildings and the air was as intoxicatingly balmy as it ever gets in June. Dozens of late dinner patrons were sitting at sidewalk restaurants engaging in quiet conversation. When I think about what chaos and violence many parts of the world are suffering now, it was rather comforting to feel so safe on a walk down a city street having just witnessed democracy at work, warts and all. The outcome wasn’t to my satisfaction, but the people had spoken, in more ways than one.
And, I have to hand it to the protesters, they cared and showed up. Where were the thousands of us couch potatoes who should have been there opposing fracking? And, who even knew about it? And, how many of those who voted for this Republican legislature last fall would have been in support of a proposal to fracture the earth beneath their homes? At least someone was informed and was there.
I was surprised the next morning to see no mention of the anti-fracking demonstration on the local TV news. Instead I saw the usual litany of car crashes and random murders. The only political news was the midnight vote by the house to override the governor’s veto of the budget. It turns out that Speaker Tillis’ main agenda for the evening was a surprise vote after midnight to get the three-fifths majority (five Democrats were required) and pass the budget. Possibly, he wanted to avoid a Wisconsin like gallery of irate school teachers whose jobs were endangered by the new budget. It turns out that the extra police were there in anticipation of a budget showdown rather than an anti-fracking demonstration.
As it became clear to me that the average guy has no idea what goes on in the state legislature, I started to realize that the average representative has only half an idea. As the session came to an end there was a single night when the House of Representatives had 89 bills scheduled for a vote. No one person could possibly understand what is in all those bills and make an intelligent vote in one night. There was even a ludicrous proposal to package several bills together for one vote. The legislators were so tired that the state’s most vocal anti-gun representative accidentally voted for a pro-gun bill only minutes after she had railed against it.
Many of these bills have enormous consequences. One of them appears to be part of a plan by Republican legislators to disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters. The bill would require a photo ID from voters at the polls. It’s been called by rational fact finders “the solution in search of a problem.” The rare instances of voter fraud have been pretty well documented.
What may look like total confusion (or boredom) at first sight, turns out to be a drama worth visiting. Take an evening and sit and watch, then have a late dinner on Fayetteville Street. In the space of the three days that I’ve paid attention, the future of our land, coastline, water quality, public safety, education, job opportunities, and sense of fairness and justice has been at stake. It’s all explained fairly well at a couple of web pages, one, the News and Observer, and two, WRAL-TV by Laura Leslie. Also, keep informed by checking in on one of the “watchdog” groups like Democracy North Carolina that monitors the legislature for average folk like you and me. Then get out in November 2012 and vote.