Disruption of the health care town hall meetings has triggered some rich debate about free speech in the U.S. In these discussions, CODEPINK has been referenced several times as the group that has most often tested the boundaries of free speech. Over the years, we've been chided and insulted by the media, Members of Congress, former Press Secretaries, and even President Bush himself. However, when Nancy Pelosi weighed in recently on the town hall "mobs," saying that "drowning out opposing views is un-American," I was compelled to respond.
While the frequent mentions of CODEPINK in these discussions do not surprise me, it saddens me that there are so few groups from the past decade to reference when talking about pushing the edge of healthy debate. Congress has been failing the people in so many ways for so long that there should have been be a non-stop primal scream from the people to wake the our representatives up from their corporate-funded stupor.
But who would have heard them? For far too long, the American people have been cut off from and out of the political process without any real avenues of letting their voices be heard. So when Speaker Pelosi -- no stranger to drowning out opposing views -- talks about "drowning out opposing views is un-American," the statement is steeped in irony.
For example, CODEPINK attended Nancy Pelosi's last town hall meeting in January of 2006. Let me be clear -- these town halls are one of very few ways for the people to voice their opinions, and CODEPINK does not disrupt healthy debate at these events, as some of the protesters have done at recent health care town halls. At this event, Medea Benjamin was the first in line to ask a question. After her question was ignored (no answer was given), CODEPINK members stood quietly in the front of the room with their banner. No screaming, no verbal attacks or threats of violence, no disruption of the other voices in the room.
At the time of the meeting, Pelosi had announced she'd taken the impeachment of George Bush "off the table" -- choosing her popularity and chances at reelection over her constitutional duty. Millions of Americans were not happy -- but Pelosi refused to have any other town halls for the rest of Bush's term -- effectively "drowning out opposing views." Today -- over three years later -- she continues to work at locking out debate about single payer in the Congressional hearings on health care.
In the media surrounding the health care town halls, protesters disruptions have been compared to CODEPINK's presence in Congress. This is comparing the proverbial apples to oranges and doesn't distinguish Congressional hearings from the public-centered town halls. In Congressional hearings, the discussion is all too often one-sided, with the voice of the people woefully absent. We seek to expand the conversation and introduce the elephants in the room -- most often we've delivered our message with our choice of costume or the messaging on our signs and t-shirts. We do this after we have exhausted every other remedy to express our opinions -- after we've called, written letters, delivered petitions, brought activists to DC from around the country and met with our representatives. We resort to non-violent direct actions when there is no other way to get the message across.
We've understood, regrettably, when we go to a hearing that if we stand up and deliver the message that it is quite probable that we will be arrested. Our 'outbursts' are not meant to shut-down conversation; they're meant to join it where we have been shut out. This does not seem to be the motive of the health care protesters, who appear upset that the topic is even being visited.
However, what is most sobering about this conversation about how to hold national debates is that here, in this country that considers itself to be the most democratic in the world, dissent is so rare and so frightening. We need dissent now more than ever - our representatives have just forked over $10 trillion to Wall Street and another $100 billion for wars. We should all be attending town halls right now and asking the hard questions, demanding accountability. Our representatives need to feel our anger at the selling out of everything we value. But this can only happen when we have all the facts and when we respect the other voices in the room. We absolutely must demand to be heard -- but never through violence, and not at the expense of silencing others.