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Fighting the GOP Mobs: Progressives, Labor Ramp Up Grassroots Response

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With lobbyist-backed GOP mobs working to shut down town hall meetings on health reform with members of Congress, labor and progressive groups are fighting back on several fronts. The orchestrated mob scenes have already led to reported death threats against at least one congressman and new outbreaks of violence.

One result of all this is that the voices of most Americans, who, polls show, favor a public health option, aren't being heard. In some ways, progressives have become the new "Silent Majority" in the health care debate, as I explore in a piece at the new labor-related blog of In These Times.

Yet in Tampa last evening, the media attention was focused on angry protesters who couldn't get into a meeting room to hear Rep. Kathy Castor, and began banging on walls and screaming "Tyranny!" As Think Progress headlined the incident: " Inspired By Glenn Beck, Protesters Overwhelm Town Hall Meeting With 'Cat Calls' And 'Banging On Windows'."

Progressives are facing well-coordinated organizing and propaganda efforts by corporate front groups spurring such protests, abetted by conservative and even mainstream media outlets (via Media Matters for America):

While progressives and unions have generated thousands of phone calls to Congress and door-to-door visits in support of health care reform over the last year, they're now sharply ramping up their efforts to increase turnout at the town hall meetings. The AFL-CIO, for instance, made public Thursday its strategy memo to state and local federations emphasizing having a major presence at those town halls, focusing on 50 high-priority swing districts.

But it's also a major player in the labor movement that is now poised, on its own and with such coalitions as Health Care for America Now, to unleash the most effective organizing infrastructure available to progressives -- a true counter-weight to corporate-funded "astro-turf" campaigns.

The question, of course, facing progressives and Democrats is whether the stepped-up response launched this week will be enough to overcome right-wing smears and mobs. Union strategists believe it will be -- and that the GOP's bully-boy, nutjob tactics will backfire, already a theme in Democratic ads. In upcoming ads and organizing, one union activist says, "We're going to be focusing on the health insurance companies, and how they're for keeping the status quo and thwarting reform; we'll be pinpointing this mob outrage for what it is, and drawing the link between it and the corporate mobilized manufactured events -- while 73% of the American public wants a public option."

One of the more hopeful signs for reformers is that President Obama's powerful organizing operation, Organizing for America, now run by the DNC, is adding to its phone banking and canvassing a new call to show up at town hall meetings. As the Washington Post's "Plumline" blog reported:

For the first time, Obama's formidable political operation, Organizing for America, is calling on supporters to go to town meetings and show support for Congressional Democrats, as a way of countering the Tea Party brigade's efforts to lay siege to such gatherings...



And early this week, for instance, the AFL-CIO hosted a "webinar" training and organizing session with over 200 leaders from the organization's four regions, opening with a short briefing by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius on health care; organizers then turned to outlining the strategy in part of showing up in force at these town hall meetings.

AFL-CIO's lead health care advocate, Gerald Shea, observes, "When our people are organized, you're going to have a strong turnout and a strong visible presence. If there is a a disruption, we'll call for order and say, 'Many of us came here to to ask questions, not to harangue.'"

Still, Shea also says that they didn't plan on organizing large-scale turnouts at the town halls until this past Monday, because they were focusing on lobbying Congress through last Friday. News about the GOP anti-reform mob scenes broke over the weekend. He notes that they expected "significant" right-wing activity at the town halls, but Shea says union activists were surprised by the "intensity" at these events. But the push-back has begun.

On Thursday, AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka added a scathing critique of these "tea bagger"-style protests progressives and Democrats are challenging:

Major health care reform is closer than ever to passage and it is no secret that special interests want to weaken or block it...Mob rule is not democracy. People have a democratic right to express themselves and our elected leaders have a right to hear from their constituents -- not organized thugs whose sole purpose is to shut down the conversation and attempt to scare our leaders into inaction.

An early sign of the union movement's challenge to mob rule was already shown at an event Wednesday in Indiana featuring President Obama. As the AFL-CIO Now blog noted:

At most of these town halls, the large majority want real discussion about health care reform. And union and health care advocates are helping ensure that happens.

For example, yesterday in Indiana, President Obama was scheduled to deliver a talk on the economy, green jobs and health care at a Wakarusa RV plant. Union and health care activists went to work, knowing protesters were set to be bused in to line the streets by the plant and grab headlines. Union members and our allies called, sent e-mail messages and texted local unions and activists with the message "It's time to fight back for health care reform." Todd Anderson, AFL-CIO Midwest regional director, reports as many as 1,000 union members showed up, outnumbering the teabaggers by 10 to one.

Our allies at Health Care for America Now! have outlined a simple strategy activists can follow to make sure health care events set for the congressional recess are not hijacked by screaming teabaggers. It includes building turnout, making sure folks know what tactics to expect from the protesters, making contact with the media and more tips.

Richard Kirsch, the National Campaign Director of HCAN, declared:

We can't just wait for the public to recognize the reality behind this nutty minority. There are two prizes in the battle at hand -- the national press narrative and Congress' support. We have to win the press war by making it clear that shouts of "socialized medicine" and "government health care" are from a mob on the fringe of American politics. And we need to be sure that wavering Democrats in Congress see that there is strong popular support for health care reform.

The organization's strategy guide, targeted to activist groups, offered several key tactics to countering the anti-reform mobs, including:

3. Bring more people than the other side has. Their side will be smaller but noisier. You must bring enough people to drown them out and to cover all our bases so as to marginalize their disruptive tactics. You don't want to get into a screaming match, but it must be obvious to everyone -- including press -- that you represent the majority.

4. Arrive earlier than the other side does. We need to stack our folks in the front to create a wall around the Member, and we need to stake out the best spots for visibility and signs. Reconnaissance on the venue and an understanding of the staging will be important here. Make sure you do your homework so you can position your folks most effectively.

5. Be more visible than the other side. Bring more signs and leaflets, and whenever possible, post your signs all over the place so that you visually out-perform the other side. Make sure you have people holding signs in every place where a TV camera is likely to be and that next to every right wing sign, there's one of your signs with your message...

The Campaign for America's Future and People for the American Way are also organizing average citizens to participate.

The Campaign for America's Future progressive battle plan underscores what's at stake:

Don't Let Special Interests Use Town Halls To Block Change

The battle for health care reform has moved to town halls during the August congressional recess. But the wild mobs disrupting events, intimidating lawmakers, and shouting down reform are not just expressing their views, they are doing the dirty work for corporate interests that want to cut the heart out of the Obama health plan.

We absolutely cannot let the far right fringe do the bidding of the insurance and drug lobbies and hijack the debate. We need to show up, big.

Take back the town hall! Make our voices heard for real health care reform.

Now the question is whether the majority that favors genuine health care reform will turn out in large enough numbers to take back the health care debate that's been hijacked by extremists and corporate interests?


UPDATE:

A complete calendar of Congressional district events can be found here:
http://www.ourfuture.org/action/2009083206/august-health-care-event-calendar