Tonight I headed up to South Tampa, Florida to sit in on the Health Care town hall with US Congress Member Kathy Castor and State Representative Betty Reed. What I got was a front row ticket to pure rage.
I've seen the news lately, so I had an idea of how noisy these events are around the nation. When I arrived, some two hours before the event started at six, there were already 20 some odd people there. Many of them were going over questions, such as "If Obama can't pick a dog in six months, why is he trying to get us to pick a health care plan in six weeks?" (which I thought ignored the other 60 years we've been discussing health care). One gentleman was trying to tell me that insurance companies should be allowed to cancel people's policy, because people would get sick, then sign up for health care, and as soon as they were treated cancel their policy - yet he didn't want it to be mandated that people would have to sign up for insurance to avoid such a situation. The answer seemed clear: If you don't have insurance, it's your own fault, and if you get sick and insurance cancels you, that's your fault too.
I was lucky in that I knew one of the organizers who let me get in a little early to the front row seats. I think the original plan was to have the front two rows or so filled with people who really wanted to hear about the health care bill, instead of letting those rows be dominated by the protesters we've been seeing on the news at other health care events.
If that was the plan, it was not successful. As people came in, several tried to disregard the "RESERVED" seating signs, including one gentleman who ripped it off the chair next to me and stuck it in the chair in front. "Come on man, that's not cool," I said, pointing out the rest of the entire room was empty.
"I don't see why anyone should have reserved seats here," he told me.
He finally moved, and I moved the "reserved" sign back to its seat.
Before the doors were open to allow people to sit, it was nonstop shouting. Shouting from people outside who pounded on the doors to be let in and complained because they weren't being allowed to start taking seats 40 minutes before the event was to begin. Shouting because they were told to let people through who were reporters or were supposed to be on the council.
Shouting as the room was filled to capacity and the others had to wait outside, holding signs like "I can't read, cut taxes" (which made no sense to me at all). When Representatives started coming in, people started shouting "No! No! No! No!" The town hall hadn't even started yet.
One thing I noticed was that many of the Shouters, and I came to call them, came in very organized. Many had 3x5 cards with printed questions. Sheets of paper printed out with highlighted text, usually held in the same kind of binder. I'm not sure if they all shopped at the same office depot, but the similarity was eerie.
Reverend Dixon, a prison minister, started off the room with the Pledge of Allegence. And that's when the shouting started. As people read the pledge, one woman shouted out at the "of the United States of America" part "UNDER GOD!" earlier than anyone else (maybe she thought it was the United States of UNDER GOD) - and when the room got to "under God", there was a sudden angry shout of "UNDER GOD!" as if they didn't think people would hear it the first time from the lady who shouted early. Reverend Dixon gave the opening prayer - and then the rage fest really got started.
As Representative Reed introduced Congressperson Castor - boos erupted. The gentleman next to me stood up to applaud her, and many in the room was on their feet clapping for her. Outside the door, a steady chant started.
"BULLSHIT! BULLSHIT! BULLSHIT! BULLSHIT!" Castor hadn't even started yet, and people were screaming. Yelling. Fights broke out outside. Castor held two taped together microphones to her mouth - but then the mob shifted tactics to "YOU WORK FOR US! YOU WORK FOR US!" Every minute, it was a new rage filled series of shouts to keep her from discussing her points. She asked the crowd how many of them paid for health insurance through their employer - and people started shouting.
"READ THE BILL!" People in the crowd kept screeching at her, including one tall gentleman behind me I'll call Mr. Shouty. Throughout the entire time Castor tried to address the crowd, tried to explain what the bill was about, he and so many others around the room screamed "READ THE BILL! READ THE BILL! READ THE BILL!" Then, because she tried to explain how the health care bill would try to provide health care for those who were uninsured, the screams changed to "TYRANNY! TYRANNY! TYRANNY!" "WE LEFT ENGLAND FOR THIS!"
Some of the people who were there to hear the bill tried to shout back at the protesters "Let her speak!"
The reply? "No I won't!" by Mr. Shouty. Instead, he turned back to Castor shouting "60 MILLION JOBS LOST! WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT 60 MILLION JOBS?" I didn't get that one. He was protesting insurance reform, but wanted Welfare or extended unemployment benefits?
The shouts continued. Castor couldn't even be heard over the din as Mr. Shouty held up a copy of the pocket constitution. "WHERE IS HEALTH CARE IN HERE! SHOW ME WHERE HEALTH CARE IS IN HERE!" (My friend @MariaLaino on Twitter replied "The Necessary and Proper Clause, bitch.")
Castor kept trying to go on over the din, as Mr. Shouty and his group kept screeching "SHOW US IN THE CONSTITUTION WHERE HEALTH CARE IS!" Castor talks about the Donut Hole in Medicare - and the Shouters start screeching "THAT'S TED KENNEDY'S BILL! IT'S TED KENNEDY'S FAULT!"
And as Castor was winding down, the Shouters started squealing "LISTEN TO US! LISTEN TO US! WHY WON'T YOU ANSWER OUR QUESTIONS!" This after almost 20 to 30 minutes of nonstop screaming and temper tantrums from the moment she started walking towards the podium. They hadn't heard a word she said, and screamed when she left the room under escort.
With every speaker, it was the same. A pushing match next to me erupted between Mr. Shouty Man and a union rep who got in his way. Ms. Lee Stirrat stepped up to explain the healthcare issues and about how even she has problems with insurance and trying to get the medication she needs. The Shouters all groan and start shouting, drowning her out as she's trying to explain the problems with people trying to get care under insurance.
When State Representative Reed came back to the podium, the shouts only continue. "FOLLOW THE CONSTITUTION! WHY AREN'T YOU FOLLOWING THE CONSTITUTION!" Evidently, following the constitution means not taking turns with your views, but screaming the other person so nobody can hear anything at all. The Florida Health Commissioner makes the case that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness requires a healthy body - a claim that lead to more jeers from the Shouters. He tried to discuss infant mortality issues, only to be screamed at that "OBAMACARE PAYS FOR ABORTIONS! DON'T TALK ABOUT INFANT MORTALITY WHEN YOU KILL BABIES!" Even when he protested he never performed an abortion, it didn't matter. Other Shouters squealed every time infant mortality was said "ILLEGALS! ILLEGALS! ILLEGALS!" This became a refrain. When 40 million Americans without health care was brought up - that was all illegal aliens. Because I guess "real Americans" can pay for their own healthcare. Like, pregnant teenagers.
Dr. Collins, a nutritionist, for a brief time held the room as she explained helping people who have come out of heart surgery - only to be shouted at when she tried to explain people who didn't know how to get good nutrition. Evidently, this was an impossible concept for the Shouters that people don't know how to eat healthy.
Finally, after almost an hour, police offers started pulling people out of the room who were just disruptive. Mr. Shouty was the first, to the applaud of many in the room - but there were still many Shouters to go. As one Ms. Coe stood to explain that as people have lost their jobs - people have lost their health care. The response by the Shouters? "Be more responsible!" One woman shouted out "Responsibility, Oprah!" Yes, the speaker was a black woman.
I think the lowest point was when Reverend Dixon came up to speak, and started to discuss the progress that had made during the 60's and 70's. The woman behind me started shouting "Yeah - we know what you did during the 60's! We know the 'progress' you made!" The look on Reverend Dixon's face was heartbreaking. He knew what she meant - civil rights. The progress made by civil rights groups for equality was some sort of slur now thrown back in Dixon's face.
She knew what he did during the 60's and 70's. Marched for equal rights maybe, or protested.
The questions that came next followed were mostly by Shouters who remained. Why are we paying more for health care when we have so many deficits? When Mr. Newton explained that health care currently costs us a lot of money because people have to use the emergency room - which they are required by law to treat, passing on the costs to us, and so health care reform would be cheaper - yup. The rage was back to shout at him. Conspiracy theory questions were asked, like "The bill says the federal government will gain access to all of our checking accounts." Some guy next to me let me know that when the government took over health care, nobody would go to the doctor because the government would be allowed to read your health care records. Why they would I don't know, or why HIPAA laws wouldn't still apply- but that was this man's fear.
In the end, that was everything for this meeting. Fear and rage. Rage that Castor wouldn't ask questions about 30 minutes of constant screaming at her. Rage that the public option even existed because it would drive regular insurance companies out of business -and when Mr. Newton brought up the example of the US Postal Service versus USPS, the Shouters, well, shouted that "YEAH! AND UPS IS BETTER!" Which, I guess proved his point, but the Shouters acted like they had won some important point. Rage at the uninsured that were all illegal aliens, or were having all of the babies who needed government funding to be born - because "no true American" would be without health care or would be a single mother having a baby. Rage that the public option would somehow destroy health care, or destroy medicare, or something. Rage that people said that insurance companies shouldn't be allowed to drop people from care, or that there were people losing their jobs (evidently all Obama's fault), or that the national deficit was so high (again, also evidently all Obama's fault for waging the War in Iraq then spending money to save the financial system and stimulate the economy). Rage that Rep Reed wasn't "following the Constitution" because it didn't mention health care (then again, it didn't mention interstate roads either).
By the end, the rage was effecting even the health care supporters who tried to shout down the Shouters towards the end. It became like a weird recursive shouting event, as the Shouters shouted and the other people shouted at the shouters to shout them silent.
When it finally ended, almost 30 minutes early I think, I walked out - and the Shouters were still out there, now shouting about Acorn for some reason (maybe they believe insurance policies will be issued by Acorn supporters or something).
A group of 5 police officers stood talking next to the parking lot. I stopped next to them. "Gentlemen, that was more excitement than one man deserves to have. Good job." I tipped my hat as they laughed and drove away.