On August 6, 2009, Representative John Dingell (D-Detroit) held a health care town hall meeting in Romulus, Michigan. 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 30 minutes before it was scheduled to start, it was clear that the turnout was HUGE. Before I had even parked the car, we saw a young African American guy carrying a 5-foot tall picture of President Obama with a Hitler mustache.
This was just a foreshadowing of what was to come.
We walked up to the Center and I encountered a friend walking away from the venue. "The line is very, very long. It wraps around several times inside the building," he told me. He and his wife had decided they were not going to be able to get in and were leaving. Riding my photographer wife's coattails, I was able to slip inside with her and get a spot near the front.
Inside, the local and national press folks busily snapped photos and video of the many posters being displayed around the room. Some of the pro-reform posters were clearly made to be handed out since they were all in the same handwriting and ink and this drew many derisive comments. Many others, however, were clearly homemade. The press were also busy interviewing people all around the room. Typically, the more hysterical the person's message was or the more angrily they shouted, the more likely they were to get attention from the press. The young black man with the Obama-as-Hitler poster was the busiest one of them all.
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 health care rationing, euthanizing the elderly, free abortions, Nancy Pelosi this, Barack Obama that, socialists taking over, lying, communists, Nazi/fascist state...It was literally a non-stop regurgitation of every right-wing anti-health care reform meme that I've ever heard with a few extras that I hadn't heard thrown in for good measure.
The first three rows were predominantly Dingell supporters. Although it is an entirely normal thing for a politician to have his supporters up front at his public meetings, to listen to the crowd, you would have thought that no opponents to health care reform had been allowed in the room. This could hardly have been further from the truth since it was very obvious that reform supporters were out-numbered two to one or even three to one. Nonetheless, there was a great deal of anger around the fact that Rep. Dingell had his supporters up front despite this being common practice for politicians on both sides of the aisle.
I looked around and everywhere, angry anti-reformers were in the faces of health care reform supporters, 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 thorough job debunking misinformation), his voice was drowned out by extremely nasty 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 meeting then clear the room (which held about 200 people) and do a SECOND meeting after that to allow as many people to participate as possible. He also asked that people keep their questions short and to be as civil as possible to ensure they could answer many questions. This did not occur.
After his introductory remarks, Mr. Schneidewind introduced a disabled woman named Marcia Boehm, a university employee, instructor and small business owner. Marcia is a little person and stands about 3.5 feet tall. As she spoke (or tried to), she was engulfed in more nasty commentary from many people in the audience. "SHE'S A PLANT!!!" and "GO HOME, LADY!" and "Why should I have to pay for YOUR health care???" Through the shouts, she attempted to tell her story of losing her health care coverage and, due to her pre-existing condition, about her inability to obtain further coverage. Although she was eligible to go on public assistance, she had chosen not to, something would seem to go over well with the opponents in the audience. Her message, however, was lost on the crowd. 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 longest-serving member of 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 to overcome the strikingly 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 his detractors, he was barely successful at communicating to those in the audience who came to hear his take on the legislation currently before the Congress. Despite this, I won't forget the image of this elderly-yet-stately gentleman, calmly facing a hostile crowd.
Before he could take questions, a large man shoved his way right in front of Rep. Dingell, pushing a young man in his wheelchair. The man, later identified as Mike Sola, of Milan, proceeded to shout (literally shout) at Rep. Dingell, telling him that, under this new legislation, his son with cerebral palsy would not receive health care. 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 verbally threatening, moving closer and closer to Rep. Dingell, the Romulus police finally intervened and escorted him and his son out of the room. He was not arrested.
On Rep. Dingell's website, he had this to say about Mr. Sola:
I also was confronted by the father of a young man afflicted with cerebral palsy last night. He was under the impression that health reform legislation being considered in Congress would exclude care for his son's condition. Unfortunately, he would not allow me an opportunity to respond to his concern. I'm sorry that Romulus Police had to escort them out, but he left officers no choice. We had 200 people in the hall, more than 200 people outside, and we could not let one person take over that meeting. My staff did offer the gentlemen a one-on-one meeting in my office, which is a more appropriate forum for a lengthy discussion about how the bill affects one person, but he refused. The offer still stands.
Questions that had been gathered on cards were then read one at a time. These were tough questions, not cherry-picked to make his life easy. Representative Dingell did not shirk the crowd or the difficult questions. There wasn't a single softball lobbed at him the entire night. Yet even when he refuted some of the most ridiculous myths and accusations being circulated recently, he was shouted down, called a liar and treated as if he was personally responsible for the planned euthanasia of all senior citizens in the country.
"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 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? I honestly couldn't believe 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.
After the first session, the room was cleared and a second meeting began. The tone was no better than the second session. Also, 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 screaming opponents. Because they had been forced to wait so long outside, they seemed angrier.
During this session, a youngish white man with a beret and skinny sunglasses, sporting a shirt reading "Uncle Ted Wants You," sat right in the front row, continuously taunting and berating whoever was speaking in a loud, impossible-to-miss voice. He was later identified as Matt McCormick.
As Ms. Boehm sat next to Rep. Dingell near the podium, McCormick shouted at her, "Look at me! LOOK AT ME!! You are being USED!!!" as Rep. Dingell attempted to answer questions behind her. I wondered to myself what McCormick would have thought of Mr. Sosa during the first session when he pushed his son with cerebral palsy to the front of the room to be used as a prop in his vitriolic attack on the Representative.
Half-way through the meeting, McCormick 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!", often 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, McCormick 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 as he shouted, "So this is America?" According to a post on his blog, he was later arrested.
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. Some were supportive but most were hostile and negative, shouting questions at him and then not allowing him to answer. The entire time, he was gracious and polite, even in the face of their anger.
One of the oddest things to me about the event was the complete inability of the anti-reform crowd to believe any answer they were given that would have calmed some of their worst fears about the health care legislation currently being debated. For example, 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, good." It was "LIAR!!!"
Although Rep. Dingell graciously extended his time in Romulus to allow as many people to participate as possible, there were still a large number of people that did not get in. Out in the hall, Rep. Dingell's wife, Debbie Dingell, attempted to answer questions for the crowd that remained. Standing on a chair, she faced the same type of hostile and bitter attacks from people surrounding her that her husband was facing inside. They would ask a question and, when she tried to answer it, she was shouted down.
In the end, it was quite clear that most of the people that attended Rep. Dingell's town hall meeting were not there to learn about the health care reform efforts and the legislation being considered in Congress. They believe they know all there is to know about it and nothing will dissuade them from what they believe to be true. Outside on the sidewalk after the meeting had ended, I talked with a small, petite woman holding an enormous sign with a fetus on it. As I looked at it with a confused look on my face, she glanced at my Obama campaign t-shirt then said solemnly, "You know this bill will make everyone pay for abortions." I responded, "But Representative Dingell just said twice in front of national news media that this is not the case. There's nothing in the bill about publicly-funded abortions. Nothing. Do you understand that?"
"No," she said. "I got an email from Right to Life and they said this bill will force all of us to pay for abortions. It is true."
Realizing that she was no longer listening and that she probably never had been listening, we got in our car and drove away.