Avant-Garde Activism: North Carolina's Grassroots War Against HB2

Ever since North Carolina's state government was taken over by tea party Republicans, people in the Tar Heel State have become used to seeing their state making national headlines for all the wrong reasons. And thanks to Gov. Pat McCrory's new anti-transgender law known as HB2 -- and the federal civil rights lawsuit it has provoked -- the negative coverage of North Carolina has grown at an exponential rate over the last few months.

It's certainly easy to look at the tidal wave of regressive policies coming out of the state legislature these days and assume there must be something fundamentally wrong with North Carolina -- that the people of a state which voted for Barack Obama in 2008 must have caught conservative fever and abandoned North Carolina's history of progress. But if you look a little deeper, the grassroots movement which has arisen to fight HB2 can provide an inspirational model for progressive change -- not just for other Republican-held states the South, but across the nation.

The biggest grassroots response against HB2 has been from the business community -- an outcry that was conspicuously absent during North Carolina's 2012 fight over Amendment One. In part because very few major employers spoke out against the ballot initiative banning marriage equality, it ended up succeeding by 22 points. In fact, the Amendment One fight may have actually led North Carolina Republicans to believe business leaders would be similarly hesitant to weigh in on HB2 -- an assumption that couldn't have been more wrong.

Within days after Gov. McCrory signed HB2 into law, hundreds of businesses began speaking out against the latest right-wing attempt to discriminate against LGBT North Carolinians -- including four of the top six private-sector employers in the state. After Google Ventures announced that it would no longer invest in North Carolina companies because of HB2, Raleigh's growing startup community organized an effort dedicated to repealing the law. Nearly 200 startups representing over 5,000 jobs have signed the Startups Against HB2 petition, in addition to the hundreds of companies which have joined Equality NC in calling for HB2's repeal.

Meanwhile, a dedicated group of activists has been sounding the alarm on a weekly basis about Gov. McCrory's assault on civil rights and human decency -- and making sure the governor can hear them loud and clear. Every Wednesday evening, the "Raleigh Air Horn Orchestra" meets outside the Governor's Mansion to blast air horns and blow every kind of instrument from trumpets to vuvuzelas as a loud reminder of the grassroots opposition to HB2. You can see coverage of the Air Horn Orchestra's past "performances" here:

One part political protest, one part performance art, the Air Horn Orchestra is anything but traditional -- and that's by design. "Traditional protests don't always engage young people or change minds," said Tina Haver Currin, an organizer and "conductor" of the weekly event. "Instead, we have found the most success by invoking humor and changing the dialogue--or, in this case, having no dialogue at all. The Air Horn Orchestra is a fun, cathartic event AND a representation of what we currently hear coming out of the governor's mouth: a bunch of noise."

Tina and her husband Grayson Haver Currin also launched an effort to keep big-name artists from boycotting North Carolina over HB2. When artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Ringo Starr started canceling their North Carolina shows, the local power couple came to the conclusion that cultural and artistic boycotts -- especially in liberal cities such as Raleigh and Charlotte -- harm the wrong group of people. That's why they formed NC Needs You, a group dedicated to turning boycotts into benefits for progressive organizations who are fighting to repeal HB2. In just over a month, NC Needs You has channeled profits from a sold-out Mumford & Sons arena show and a Duran Duran amphitheater gig to local organizations supporting LGBT equality and other progressive causes. They helped convince Beyoncé not to cancel her recent show in Raleigh (you're welcome, Beyhive), and even got Animal Collective to sell recordings of their live shows to benefit Progress North Carolina.

"There is an essential ground game to win in North Carolina come November, and there are vulnerable communities to protect until we can overthrow the current bigoted system," said Tina. "Though gerrymandering continues to make it difficult to enact positive change in North Carolina, people are still choosing to speak up and act out. Thanks especially to the Internet, people can now coordinate and connect like never before. If there's anything positive to come out of this, it's watching as people from all walks of life empower and amplify each other's voices in response to this hateful legislation."

North Carolina's grassroots war against HB2 isn't about bathrooms -- it's about civil rights. For years, movements such as the NAACP-led Moral Monday protests have been fighting back against the regressive legislation coming out of the General Assembly. But with the overwhelming backlash against HB2, we've seen these movements go into overdrive in a new and creative way. From some of the smallest startup entrepreneurs and air horn activists to some of the biggest music artists and major employers, North Carolina progressives are finally starting to build enough momentum to help the political pendulum finally begin to swing back towards sanity.