In Jonesboro, Georgia, an energized crowd of about 700 gathered to attend a town hall meeting organized by Congressman David Scott. Scott, an African American Blue Dog Democrat, represents a largely white area. A few days after a recent town hall meeting where Scott lectured some in the crowd for "highjacking" the healthcare debate, a large swastika was painted outside his Smyrna district office.
It was clear that the meeting was going to draw media attention. Satellite trucks from the four major networks lined the road leading to the school, the parking lots were full, and journalists with microphones were everywhere.
The long line snaked from the entrance of the school all around the building. The multiracial crowd, which spanned all ages, seemed anxious but orderly. Signs of all sizes, some professionally-made, some crudely crafted, dotted the landscape.
Billy Bob Prather, a sixty-seven year-old retired plumber, held a sign that said "No Obamacare for Georgia." He and his female companion (who requested not to be identified) said they had spoken about the healthcare plan at church and in gatherings at neighbors' houses. Several neighbors had discussed a strategy of "calling out" Representative Scott if he tried to smooth talk them. They were disappointed that more of what they called "their side" was not evident in the crowd but were still optimistic their neighbors would show up.
Several members of the crowd thought it was important for reason to prevail in the debate. Marianna Kaufman and her friend Alfredo Duarte wished more people would realize that Medicare is a government run program. Avowed Democrats, Marianna and Alfredo suggested that the White House do more to educate the public and rebut unfounded Republican criticisms and urban legends regarding the president's plan.
A group of young men chanting loudly and waving homemade banners said they were veterans who, having fought for the country, were now fighting with equal fervor for healthcare for all Americans. Jeff Adams, a thirty-seven year-old Gulf War veteran, was particularly troubled by the vitriol exhibited at town hall meetings. "This outrage has to do with more than healthcare," he said. "Look at our President. Many are just exhibiting obstructionism and racism simply because of who our President is."
Another young veteran was perplexed about religiously motivated arguments against healthcare reform, hoisting a sign that read: "Real Christians want healthcare 4 all Americans."
Hannah and her mother Grace held a huge banner demanding "Healthcare Reform Now." Grace has terminal cancer and does not have health insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Hannah is very concerned that a civil debate about healthcare has been replaced by the rantings of extremists. She considers the swastika incident at Representative Scott's office beyond the pale.
Hannah believes that while some of the outrage at recent town hall meetings reflects people's authentic concerns, some are using the debate to "foment discord and anarchy." She considers recent accusations that the Obama Administration's healthcare plan includes death panels "ludicrous."
The crowd filed into the building in an orderly fashion and quickly filled the gym. Those who wanted to ask questions were given numbers that would be called in order. Numbers went quickly. I was one of the first to enter, but I received number 167.
Congressman Scott entered the gym and quickly asked if the meeting could start with a prayer for guidance, almost as if in an attempt to disarm the crowd. This was followed by the pledge of allegiance, and then the congressman launched quickly into his opening remarks. First off, he noted that since no bill was pending, everything that the crowd said could still receive thoughtful attention. Also, he made assurances that no matter what bill emerged from Washington, there would be no government coverage of abortion, as this is prohibited by the Hyde Amendment.
He stressed that talk about death panels and "pulling the plug on Grandma" were all false and irresponsible rumors started by those wanting to create mischief. This was met with thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Lastly, he pointed out that the public option was just that: an option intended as a fail-safe measure for those who either chose to join or who were rejected by private insurance companies. A public option would also help to make private insurance more competitive and responsive.
At one point, a Dr. Brian Hill rose to his feet to question Representative Scott. Dr. Hill garnered national attention after verbally tussling with Representative Scott when Hill asked about healthcare reform at a meeting devoted to discussing a local road project. When Scott verbally slammed Hill--suggesting he might be a plant--Hill appeared on a variety of news shows, representing himself as a concerned physician whose views were being ignored.
Hill's question-suggestion this day was that any healthcare plan should adopt best practices since the current system, including Medicare, was obviously not based on best practices. "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, is just insanity", he shouted. He also received a mixture of cheers and boos.
As the forum continued, Scott seemed to wax alternatively eloquent and weary as variations of the same questions were asked and answered over and over.
T-shirts worn by individuals representing groups like Move On.Org and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) dotted the audience, but there seemed to be little organized activity from any one group.
As I left the meeting after two and a half hours, individuals were still pushing their disparate agendas. James Newman of Lawrenceville, dressed in a blue and white colonial uniform, including a powdered wig, loudly explained he wanted to remind Congress that, "They work for us and not the other way around." Representatives of the group Organizing for America were actively soliciting signatures on a petition to signify support of the President's Health Insurance Reform.
The debate continues.