Moral Monday comes to Georgia

‘We are prepared to fill the jail’ if Deal doesn’t budge on Medicaid expansion

When the Georgia General Assembly convenes on Jan. 13 for the annual legislative session, protesters outside the Gold Dome will deliver a simple message: expand Medicaid. The group, which includes members from the civil rights groups, health care advocates, and labor unions, is inspired by North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement that generated national headlines. The multi-racial, multi-cultural rallies held each week in 2013 at the Tar Heel State’s Capitol featured hundreds of people protesting far-right policies and practicing civil disobedience — and in many cases, they went to jail. Each week, Georgia protesters will rally, lobby lawmakers, and educate each other and the public on policy issues. CL recently spoke separately with two of the event’s organizers, Tim Franzen of the American Friends Service Committee (and Occupy Atlanta organizer) and the Rev. Tim McDonald of First Iconium Baptist Church in East Atlanta.

How did the decision come about to bring the Moral Monday movement to Georgia?

TF: A Moral Monday movement forces people to look at the state budget not just as a random shopping list, but a list of moral priorities that has been benefiting the wrong folks for too long. It’s been a dramatic and inspiring thing to watch. We were anticipating a whole lot of radical stuff this legislative session, so we were thinking this Moral Monday approach might help. The Occupy movement started conversations. But the reality is it didn’t change the direction of this deepening of inequity that’s hitting the South pretty hard especially... One of the things we have in common with North Carolina right now is the snapshot of our political landscape is very similar. The tide has turned quickly and the demographics are very similar. North Carolina is potentially going to be a blue state in the next five or 10 years. And Georgia is, too. And there’s this last gasp of Republican politicians and agenda.

Why choose Medicaid expansion?

TF: It’s a real no-brainer. By our calculations, at the very least, the most conservative projection, if Gov. Deal doesn’t expand the Affordable Care Act, 600 Georgians are going to die this year. That doesn’t account for the thousands of others who will have problems getting the medication they need. Or people who are HIV positive who might be able to live a longer, more comfortable life, that won’t be able to because of simple ideological stubbornness. This feels like something that’s winnable and something that really cuts to the core of morality in our state. It’s a clear example of a politician choosing to do something knowingly that’s morally wrong.

Why approach it from a moral perspective?

TF: When we think about our laws, when it all comes down to it, it’s about what’s right and what’s wrong. When we look at this divide and wealth disparity and we look at who the system continues to favor... it becomes this question of “is this right or wrong?” ... It’s just not right for a country that has as much money as ours to have such a huge percentage of its population uninsured, incarcerated, and working two jobs and still living below the poverty line. Looking at it through a moral lens forces good men and women to take a side.

Devil’s advocate: If the state’s demographics and politics are changing to make these policy proposals more feasible, then why not just wait?

TM: People are suffering. People are dying. We don’t have time to wait. I wish we could. I wish we had that luxury. But people are hurting because we have not expanded Medicaid.

TF: Things are bad. Who gets prioritized in our budget, how the tax system works, it already benefits the people who have so much at the expense of people who have so little. And it continues to get worse. We have a group of politicians who have a super radical agenda that Georgians simply can’t afford. We have this opportunity to get an estimated 70,000 good jobs and get 60,000 uninsured Georgians health care coverage. Many of these people are folks who have kids. And our governor, for purely ideological reasons, is saying, “Nah, I don’t think so.” We have to start framing this as morally wrong. These are moral issues.

Have Moral Monday Georgia participants considered possible arrest?

TF: Absolutely. Jail is never something anybody wants to do ... But it’s something that we’re prepared to do if Gov. Deal doesn’t do the right thing. We hope it’s something that we can avoid. But we are prepared to fill the jail if he’s not willing to do it.

TM: Not only is it possible, it’s part of the strategy. Maybe not this first event. But it’s definitely part of our overall strategy.

So that could include camping inside the Gold Dome, outside the state House of Representatives and state Senate, and refusing to leave?

TM: All of the above and then some.

Are you giving Deal an ultimatum?

TF: We do have a plan. If Gov. Deal does not do the right thing, there will be people who put their bodies and freedom on the line in the most principled, nonviolent way to escalate our campaign to bring Medicaid expansion to Georgia.

What would you say to someone says, “Oh, it’s another protest. The General Assembly won’t listen. Why waste my time?”

TM: They said that in Montgomery, they said it in Birmingham, they said it in South Africa. Politicians care about one thing: getting re-elected. And if we build up the political power, it jeopardizes that for them.

This interview has been condensed and edited.