Hundreds thronged the Senate rotunda to show support for demonstrations that are drawing increasing numbers of people to Raleigh for what the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is calling "Moral Mondays." General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver placed the arrest count at 57, which brings the total over four weeks to 153.
Hundreds more supporters remained outside the General Assembly before and after the protests, waiting for those arrested to emerge.
What started with tens of supporters and 17 arrests has attracted hundreds of people of different age groups, races and professions to protest the policies of the General Assembly, which came under Republican leadership after the 2010 midterm elections. Their complaints range from cuts to social programs to the proposed repeal of a law intended to take racial bias out of capital punishment.
Rich D'angiolillo, a 63-year-old software developer from Mebane, said he heard about the demonstrations from friends and decided he needed to join the supporters to raise his voice against a decision to forego a Medicaid expansion that would have completely covered 500,000 people through 2016.
"I'm not sure if it is the best way or not, but I feel that I have to do something," he said. "I don't feel that my efforts in other ways - letter writing, phone calls - have worked that effectively, so I'll keep trying until something does work."
Leigh Bordley, a member of the Durham Public Schools board, stood among those risking arrest to challenge proposals she said will only exacerbate achievement gaps caused by poverty. She said a House proposal to give grants to families who send their children to private schools will further undermine funding for public schools.
"These are vouchers under another name," she said. "They are simply a way to transfer money to private companies."
Those arrested have faced misdemeanor charges of trespassing, failure to disperse and violating building rules, specifically those against raising placards or signs.
The NAACP contends those arrests may violate First Amendment rights. Chapter president the Rev. William Barber said his group's attorneys continue to study possible challenges, partly based on wording in the state constitution that references the citizens' right to "instruct" their legislators.
"There is some question among a lot of legal scholars about how you can arrest somebody for holding up an eight-by-ten placard that says, 'Don't cut Medicaid' when you have the right to instruct," Barber said.
Weaver said he's consulted with staff attorneys and is confident the arrests fall within reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on First Amendment rights.
"They're the ones that are coming in and causing the disruption," he said. "We've always given any group access to express their first amendment rights. We issue permits for the outside of the facility."
The Monday protests will resume after Memorial Day, when the NAACP will begin a 25-county tour of public gatherings across the state.