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Thousands rally at 'Mass Moral March on Raleigh' with focus on unity and diversity

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RALEIGH, North Carolina — Still working toward substantial victories at the ballot box and the legislature, demonstrators opposed to Republican policies within North Carolina demanded again Saturday that laws be repealed that they say harm the sick, the poor and minorities.

Thousands of people joined the state NAACP and other advocacy groups that helped stage the 9th annual "Moral March on Raleigh," which led through downtown streets before ending in front of the old Capitol building. The terminus is deliberate, since their unhappiness rests with the laws passed by the GOP-led legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory since 2013.

Those policies spawned the "Moral Monday" movement, in which about 1,000 people were arrested in non-violent protests at the legislative building and the old Capitol.

But the policies haven't changed — lawmakers have refused to expand Medicaid to cover more of the working poor, a series of election law changes remain on the books and the minimum wage remains at $7.25 per hour. And the Republicans remain in firm control of the General Assembly following the 2014 elections, losing only two seats overall.

The Rev. William Barber, the movement's founder, said civil disobedience would resume in Raleigh after Easter if the legislature failed to change their ways and reverse course.

"I've come to announce today we can't be quiet— not now, not ever," Barber, the state NAACP president, told the crowd in an impassioned speech. "We want our leaders to put away your partisan arguments — do what is right for the people."

Demonstrators from across the state came with a long list of grievances and demands, ranging from restoring a state earned income tax credit to stopping rules from taking effect for fracking. Abortion rights and labor groups also were represented.

Groups making up the movement have had partial success in the courts, where judges have struck down portions of an abortion law and last October upended North Carolina's constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage.

The state Supreme Court plans oral arguments this week on a law giving taxpayer-funded grants for children to attend private school, while lawsuits challenging the 2013 election law scaling back early-voting and ending same-day registration go to trial this summer.

The Rev. Robin Tanner, a Unitarian Universalist church pastor in Charlotte, plans a state-sanctioned wedding March 15 with her partner, the Rev. Ann Marie Alderman. Turner said overturning of the gay marriage amendment was just one, important step.

"We need to keep marching for so many other people in our state who are still denied justice," Turner said as she and Alderman marched. "Marriage equality is not the promised land."

Event organizers predicted 30,000 people in their march application with Raleigh city officials. As in 2014, Raleigh police didn't provide a crowd estimate. But the number of people at Saturday's event was certainly smaller than last year's march, when changes under GOP rule were fresh and an election year added urgency.

While 2014 participants took up three blocks of Fayetteville Street, they filled barely a block and a half of the same street on Saturday. Barber disagreed with the crowd assessment, but wrote by email. "we never judge the power of the movement by sheer numbers but by the depth of the crowd" in their resolve.

The event also included a call to unity after the slayings of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill last week. Farris Barakat, the brother of the slain Deah Shaddy Barakat, told a pre-march rally good has come from the tragic deaths, but the public must speak out against anti-Muslim bias.

"Maybe we haven't collectively stood up yet to say that Muslims are Americans, too," Barakat said. Then an imam delivered a call to prayer before the march began.

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