02/03/2012 10:51 am ET Updated Apr 04, 2012

It's a Crime to Deny Our Care

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

When Occupy Wall Street burst onto the scene, a consistent critique was that the movement lacked an agenda and political focus. But a key factor that made OWS powerful was that it was aimed at Wall Street -- a corporate target rather than a political target. At a time when most people believe that the government is a captive of the super-rich and mega-corporations, the Occupiers were going directly to the puppet masters and not bothering with the puppets.

The tension between focusing attention on the actual lawmakers and the powerful forces that control them -- and their impact on people's lives -- was one that Health Care for America Now constantly balanced in running the campaign to pass health reform. One reason that we were successful is that we used this tension to drive our activism.

The public hates health insurance companies. They believe they are greedy and put profits before people's health. This is personal for people, so many of whom have their own health insurance horror stories. We knew opponents of reform would try to scare people, making claims that they would lose their health insurance, that the government would set up death panels, and so on. We knew our best weapon against fear was anger, and that the best target for anger was health insurance companies.

At the same time, our job was to get health insurance legislation through Congress, and it wasn't clear that demonstrations outside insurance company headquarters would move a member of Congress. We needed to be absolutely sure that members of Congress heard directly from their constituents.

This tension led our campaign to focus directly on Congress, including having many people with health insurance horror stories tell them at lobbying visits and in town hall meetings. But after the Tea Party demonstrations in the summer of 2009 fomented public anger against government, we turned our attention much more squarely on the insurance companies. We created a new national ad campaign, both on TV and in print publications read on Capitol Hill, with the theme, "If the insurance companies win, you lose." That message tied congressional action on reform to the industry. At the grassroots, activists wrapped insurance company lobbying conferences with yellow crime tape printed with the words "it's a crime to deny our care."

The culmination of the effort came in early March 2010, when the legislation desperately needed a final push to get the votes necessary for it to pass the House. That is when 5,000 demonstrators carried out a citizens arrest of insurance company CEOs, waving wanted posters and signs saying, "Stop Big Insurance -- Tell Congress to Listen to Us."


March 9 was a glorious late winter day in the South; 60 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. Five thousand demonstrators -- some of whom had taken buses from as far away as Minnesota and Maine -- assembled at two points, each a half mile from the Ritz Carlton. One column met at the AFL-CIO headquarters, where they were led by the federation's president Rich Trumka, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. The other column gathered at DuPont Circle, across from the SEIU building, where I joined SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger and Governor Howard Dean.

The marchers carried bright red stop signs that read, "Stop Big Insurance -- Tell Congress to Listen to Us." They also carried wanted posters, which brandished the names and mug shots of the CEO's of the big health insurance companies. The wanted poster listed the criminal record of the CEOs:

-- deaths incurred in the process of pursuing insurance industry profit
Title 18 US Code § 1112

-- denial of promised coverage paid for by working Americans
Title 25 US Code § 3116

-- clandestinely transferred $10-20 million dollars to fund attacks designed to deny health coverage
Title 18 US Code § 1956

Title 18 US Code § 201

Above the crowd assembled in front of the hotel, long yellow banners read "Corporate Crime Scene." From an improvised stage on the top of an elevated flatbed truck, USAction President William McNary deputized the crowd, who together took the oath of office. They charged themselves to arrest the CEOs, "whose greed, corporate abuses, and craven lobbying pose a mortal threat to our democracy and the health and well-being of our people."

Marcus Grimes stood on the flatbed, waving his white cane, and told the crowd, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more." Marcus had a reason to be angry. The Virginia schoolteacher had lost his vision because he was uninsured and could not afford the $3,000 procedure that would have saved his eyesight. Marcus spoke as a representative of a group of 26 survivors of insurance company abuses.

The demonstrators filled the street in front of the Ritz Carlton, where mounted policemen tried to keep them away from the hotel entrance. A column of protestors filled the tunnel leading to the parking garage under the hotel until the police on horseback cleared them out. When several leaders tried to enter the Hilton, the police dragged them away.

Fighting For Our Health is available in bookstores February 1. You can also purchase a copy here. Follow the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

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