|All pictures by my wife, Anne Savage. Visit her website at Revolutionary Views, her blog: Glimpse and her Flickr page.
The event was held at the Romulus Athletic Center which sits at the end of one of the runways of Detroit Metro Airport. As we neared the venue a half hour before it was scheduled to start, it was clear that the turnout was HUGE. Before I had even parked the car, I saw a young African American guy carrying a 5-foot tall picture of President Obama with a Hitler mustache.
We walked up to the Center and as I tweeted per slinkerwink's most excellent instructions, a friend walked up and told me the line was way too long and they were leaving. This was a shame because, as it turned out, although Romulus is a predominantly Democratic area, the tea baggers had effectively turned out an enormous group. Riding my photographer wife's coattails, I was able to slip inside with her and get a spot near the front. I carried a sign:
The press folks gleefully snapped photos and video of the many posters including mine (download the poster HERE [.pdf]) and interviewed people all around the room. Typically, the more hysterical the person's message was, the more likely they were to get attention from the press.
It became instantly clear that there were going to be some angry altercations during the meeting. As I sat in my chair waiting for the show to begin a middle-aged woman behind me rattled off a non-stop stream of Limbaugh/Hannity/Beck talking points about healthcarerationingeuthanizingtheelderlyfreeabortionssocialisttakeoverlyingcommunistnazi...
You get the picture. (That's her standing behind me in the green shirt.)
I looked around and everywhere tea baggers were in the faces of health care reformers, faces red, veins bulging in their necks, literally screaming at people mere inches away as if the loudest person wins.
Erick Schneidewind, state president of the AARP and former head of the Michigan Public Safety Commission, was the emcee. He introduced himself and was instantly assaulted by a barrage of "TRAITOR!" and "LIAR!" and boos from around the room. As he explained why the AARP is supporting health care reform (and they are doing a GREAT job debunking misinformation), his voice was drowned out by derisive catcalls and boos.
Mr. Schneidewind informed the crowd that, because there was such a large number of participants, they would hold the scheduled one hour town hall then clear the room and do a SECOND meeting to allow as many people to participate as possible.
He introduced disabled woman named Marcia Boehm, a university employee and small business owner. Marcia is a little person and stands about 3½ feet tall. As she spoke (or tried to), she was engulfed in more nasty commentary from the tea baggers in the audience. "SHE'S A PLANT!!!" and "GO HOME, LADY!" She told her story of losing her health care coverage and, due to her pre-existing condition, her inability to obtain further coverage. She asked the audience to think about how we decide "who deserves health care and who doesn't".
Needless to say, no reflection on her comments took place by most of the people in the audience.
Ms. Boehm introduced a Registered Nurse who spoke briefly but was nearly inaudible due to the incredibly rude and obnoxious crowd. She, in turn, introduced Representative John Dingell. At 83, Rep. Dingell is the oldest living person in Congress today. He has introduced a single-payer health care bill every single year since he took over from his father in 1955 and has been at the forefront of the debate this legislative session. He began with some opening remarks but found it difficult, however, to overcome the unbelievably disrespectful comments, jeers and shouts as he talked. He managed to make make it through his remarks but, between a malfunctioning microphone and the raucous din from the tea baggers, he had a difficult time communicating to those of us who came to hear his take on the legislation currently before the House.
I won't forget the image of this elderly-yet-stately gentleman, calmly facing a hostile crowd. He's truly a class act.
Before he could take questions, a large man pushed his way right in front of Rep. Dingell pushing a young man in his wheelchair.
He proceeded to scream (literally scream) at Rep. Dingell, telling him that, under this new legislation, his son with cerebral palsy would be euthanized. Although Rep. Dingell assured him that this was certainly not the case, the man became more and more incensed, egged on by the crowd behind him. Dingell staffers were finally forced to move forward to ensure the man did not threaten Rep. Dingell.
As he became more and more threatening, the Romulus police finally intervened and escorted him out of the room.
Questions that had been gathered on cards were read one at a time. These were tough questions, not cherry-picked to make his life easy.
"Will I lose my health insurance though my employer if this bill passes?"
"Will illegal aliens get health care under this bill?"
"Will abortions be covered under this bill?"
"Will elderly people be euthanized under this bill?"
On and on the questions went. The answers were almost always what the crowd probably would have wanted to hear. But they weren't listening. They were so well indoctrinated with the anti-reform talking points that, even when the answer was the "correct" one according to their worldview, they would simply scream "LIAR!" and "BULLSHIT!" and "DID YOU EVEN READ THE BILL???"
Did you even read the bill? They actually asked that. They asked the man that has been instrumental in WRITING legislation like this for over FIFTY YEARS if he had read the bill he himself helped to write. Unbelievable.
After the first session, the room was cleared and a second meeting began. The tone was about the same during the second session. However, while the first session was probably a third health care reform supporters, the ratio was much lower in the second session that was even more dominated by the tea baggers.
During this session, a youngish white man with a beret and skinny sunglasses, sporting a shirt reading "Uncle Ted Wants You Dead", sat right in the front row, continuously taunting and berating whoever was speaking.
When Ms. Boehm sat down to give the stage to Rep. Dingell, Beret Guy shouted at her, "Look at me! LOOK AT MEEEEE!!! You are being USED!!!" Clearly this guy was NOT at the first session when the large man pushed his son with cerebral palsy to the front of the room.
Half-way through the meeting, he pulled out a cell phone and began talking to someone as he sat there in the front row. Periodically he'd look up and shout "LIAR!", usually at an entirely inappropriate time like when a question was being read.
Finally, when Rep. Dingell answered a question in a way he didn't approve of, he stood, got the crowd riled up then approached the podium. At that point Romulus police officers moved in and grabbed him, escorting him from the room.
"So this is America???" he shouted as they hauled him off. All I could think was, "Yes, sadly, this is America where even loud-mouthed idiots are allowed to make public fools of themselves."
As the event wound up, I found myself staring at the audience, dumbfounded. I knew people like this were out there. I knew there was a great deal of anger and hatred around the country. But never had I experienced it so up close and personal. After both meetings a crowd moved to the front of the room to have words with Rep. Dingell. He was gracious and polite, even in the face of their malevolence.
One of the things that really struck me, other than the pure absurdity of people believing their government will euthanize people and other such weirdness, was the utter hypocrisy of the tea baggers. They will loudly cheer a man who wheels a son with cerebral palsy to the front of the crowd to make a point but then condemn a disabled woman who tells her personal story as a plant. They will bring their children to hold signs but shout down a nurse telling her story as if she is not valuable to society.
I don't understand these people but I can tell you this: nothing you or I or anyone else can say will change their minds. A woman holding a sign reading "Abortion is not health care" was told TWICE by Rep. Dingell that abortion would never be paid for with public funds under this bill and yet she still persisted in claiming it would. When he told the audience that illegal aliens will not be covered by this program, their response wasn't, "Oh, excellent", it was "LIAR!!!"
They can not be reasoned with; you will not change their minds. The thing to remember is that they are, in reality, a tiny minority. Vocal? Yes. Obnoxious? Yes. In the media? Yes. But do they represent mainstream America? I feel confident in saying, unequivocally: NO.
I'm just sayin'...
UPDATE: I just want to make a quick comment here where it will be seen. I know it's popular these last few days to talk about astroturfing and corporate sponsorship of protesters. However, I don't think much of that was going on tonight. These people are angry and afraid. They may be getting their talking points via the insurance industry but they were there because they wanted to fight what they are afraid of. They believe that this country is being turned into a socialist/fascist/communist/Nazi state (yes, many of them actually believe all of these things simultaneously) and that makes the angry, afraid and dangerous. Be wary of blaming this all on the insurance companies and their propaganda. Of course it plays a role. But these people were there tonight because they wanted to be. If you want to address this issue you need to get to the root of it: Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and all the other hate-radio/television profiteers.
If you want to combat this at your event, turn out your base. We had a very pitiful showing of supporters there tonight and shame on us for that. If we want to win this battle, we need to let these people know they are in the minority. If you're having an event like this in your area, get the word out and fill the room.