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Fear and Loathing in Montana: Racial Tensions and Xenophobia Palpable at Rep. Rehberg's Town Hall

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Melinda Gopher reported from Hamilton, MT, as part of HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Town Hall Watch.

Hamilton, MT--At an August 21st town hall meeting at the Hamilton High School theater, Montana's sole congressman, Denny Rehberg (R-MT), decried the public option as a government takeover of health care. He stated, "We need to give people a hand up, not a hand out." Rehberg held up a visual aid--a thousand blank pages--noting that H.R. 3200 was as big as the stack of papers he held up. He admitted he had not read the bill. He then threw the stack of papers down on the stage floor.

Rehberg fired up the largely conservative audience of mostly white, elderly retirees by asking, "Do you want your health care run like the Veterans Administration?" Rehberg cited media exposure of some of the substandard care of veterans in VA facilities. He stated that the public option was the path to government rationing of health care.

Later, a middle aged woman from Missoula noted Rehberg did not schedule a town hall in the more populous city of Missoula, so she drove to Hamilton to participate. She implied Rehberg purposely left Missoula off his town hall schedule. Rehberg did not reply or state a reason; the audience booed the speaker for asking the question.

The Hamilton town hall exposed a side of Montana often overlooked by the mainstream media: a racial throwback to the 1950s.

Montana has a complicated racial history. In the post-Civil War era, many white Southern landowners unsettled with the idea of Emancipation sought out new territory to perpetuate racial homogeneity and came to Montana.

However, Montana is home to several Native American tribes indigenous to the area. This tribal reality clashed with the social objectives of these Southern transplants. The racial dogma of these populations did not evolve; it merely found new targets of discrimination. In Montana, a common derogatory term for Native Americans is "prairie nigger." There is a distinct separation of races in Montana, and towns like Hamilton are social and cultural islands in the greater melting pot.

The racial and conservative dogma hung heavy in the air, and the audience jeered the supporters of the public option who were a small minority. Over six hundred people crowded into the high school theater to voice their concerns on health care reform. I came in during opening remarks. Upon entering the theater, I made my way to an available seat next to a white woman in her sixties. She glared at me and tersely stated, "This seat is reserved for my husband." I felt awkward and startled. This felt like a Rosa Parks moment. Open disdain for non-whites is a daily reality across Montana, especially in the smaller towns.

It is that unmistakable sixth sense that kicks in when you are a person of color. It is walking through a neighborhood where you know you will be observed, or being followed in a store, instances in life that have happened far too often to be dismissed as coincidental. It is the subliminal message that you do not belong here. It is an odd sensation, but unless you have lived it, it is quite indescribable. Other than an elderly African American man, I'm sure I was one of less than a handful of other racial minorities present.

With no other seat available, I went and stood in line to ask a question. I would spend the next two hours standing and waiting to ask a question. The topic veered off repeatedly to gun rights, and conservative interpretations of the Constitution. One elderly man asked whether the government was going to vaccinate the population for swine flu by force. Rehberg replied that that was unlikely. The elderly man stated he had heard this on FOX News.

The audience jeered supporters of the public option, equating them to Nazis. One man disrupted a speaker, yelling "We are not Jews!" and then, "They killed the Jews!" The atmosphere felt oppressively racialized and hostile. Conservative audience members were given generous leeway to express their views. Their comments were like listening to a broken record stuck on repeat after an hour. Supporters of the public option received the short end of the fuse by Rehberg's audience. One woman was startled to be shouted down by her own life long neighbors, some telling her to move to Russia.

Rehberg noted there were two large issues looming on the American agenda: immigration and health care. Rehberg informed the audience that states like California were robbing rural states like Montana of equal representation in Congress. The reason: the manner in which the census calculates this nation's population. Rehberg reasoned that the census is a straight count of the population and does not validate citizenship. He stated that the system allocates states like California a disproportionate amount of seats in the House.

When asked by a man if he ever had to chose between health care or surviving, Rehberg explained that as a rancher, he at one time had to make a choice over continuing his health coverage. His solution was to sell one third of his acreage to ensure his coverage continued.

Rehberg was later pressed by a questioner about whether all Americans could have the same coverage he did as a Member of Congress. He was quick to dispute that members of Congress have "Cadillac" plans. He asked his staff what options were covered in the Congressional plan, estimating that he had roughly forty plans to choose from. His staff person clarified that he had 500 plan options. The congressman failed to provide further details.

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