SPRING VALLEY, CA. I knew I was in trouble with that phone call from ace OB Rag reporter Doug Porter. It was noon. “Where are you?” he asked impatiently. I stumbled for words. We were finishing up our morning business when he called, and I felt like a busted teenager. “We’ll be there real soon,” I mumbled, trying to brush away my hang-over.
Your OB Rag news blog had planned to send our troops to the Spring Valley Town Hall meeting, held on Saturday, August 29th. It was to be the last of Congresswoman Susan Davis’ series of such gatherings on health care reform. A bunch of us from this blog had attended her event in Hillcrest earlier this month, and one of the memorable incidents of that scene had been the crowd of pro-reformists laughing at the motley band of thirty or so counter demonstrators.
“What’s it like there? What’s going on?” I managed to ask Doug, who was very understanding and not really impatient at all.
“The line (for the Town Hall meeting) snakes out to the street. There’s hundreds here. It’s,” he said thoughtfully, “a sixty-forty split, progressives to conservatives.”
“Patty,” I yelled out, as I hung up the phone, “it’s time to go!” She had been cleaning out an old desk, and muttered an okay. We grabbed the camera, extra batteries, my note pad and headed for the door.
“I got us a water bottle,” Patty said. We knew it was going to be a hot one. The day before the heat had broken records. But yet, here we were, heading for the east and even more heat. Why? Why would anyone suffer more by attending what promised to be a stuffy, hot early afternoon of rancor in the eastern environs of this huge county?
We had been watching the town hall meetings being held throughout the country this August. We had recoiled in disgust at the news of gun-toting extremists, at the disruptions caused by more extremists as Congress-members attempted to hold discussions of the health care reform bill. When a right-winger at a Redding, California town hall meeting had announced that he was “a proud right-wing terrorist” and the Republican Congressman congratulated him to applause, we knew we had to be at any local town hall meeting.
Even though we knew it would be hotter than Hades, we had to go and show up as progressives, to counter the extremists, to stand as witnesses to the divisions in our country, our county. We also knew East San Diego County was home to more than one brand of right-wing extremism, so we were also pulled eastward to balance the political forces drawn to an event like this.
The Town Hall gathering itself was held in a hilly, residential suburb of Spring Valley. Originally scheduled for the new Spring Valley Library, it had to be switched to a larger venue due to the numbers signaling their attendance during the weeks prior to the event. It was switched to the large gym of La Presa Middle School, which I had heard held a thousand people.
Upon our arrival, I could see that parking was a problem, so we had to rest our vehicle a block or so away. This was our first indicator at the size of the crowd. As we walked through the gate to the school, a long, black limo pulled up, and out jumped the Billionaires – a group of leftists in gowns and tuxedos masquerading as rich people wanting “wealthcare”. They were great as they maintained their roles the entire day.
As we walked into the cavernous gymnasium, the chant “Health care for all!” was so thunderous, it was bouncing off the rafters. I thought “great!” seems we did the best organizing – it appeared that most in the crowd wanted reform.
But Doug’s initial 60-40 breakdown was accurate, I believe, as the righties chanted and stood and waved their signs over the course of the next hour and half. The place was packed – and people were lining the walls and standing in the aisles.
Patty and I starting moving about the room, and we ran into the other OB Ragsters: Anna, Rich, Doug, Monty – we saw others we knew scattered about. I saw small groups of union people with same-colored T-shirts and a lot of older, gray-haired citizens with signs supporting health care reform.
I encountered one woman who held a sign that said “Deport Obama” – I asked her where he should be deported. “Kenya!” she yelled back. I offered that she was being “un-American” for not supporting our Constitutionally-mandated election held in November.
Yet the right-wing seemed better organized. They sat in groups for support and were vocal critics of anything positive said about President Obama, or health care reform. The right was more militant. They would jump up and chant and wave their banners aggressively. There were a bunch of of angry older white men and women who opposed socialism and Obamacare. A lot of the pro-reform folks seemed taken aback by the ferocity of the other side, and who didn’t seem to push our side as much. I missed the militancy of yesteryear by leftists. Where were the youth who could stand up to such extremist tirades as were generated by the righties?
Congresswoman Susan Davis appeared, and after an intro by long-time Democratic Party activist George Mitrovich, she began her spiel. Mitrovich had spelled out the rules and asked the crowd to be considerate and listen to others. But the right didn’t listen. They constantly interrupted Davis in back-room shouts. And in general, she shined her smile and did not take on the rightists – as Congressman Barney Frank had done in Massachusetts earlier this month.
Davis, at the beginning, did ask for a show of hands, first of those who supported health care reform. It appeared to me at the back of the huge room, that most hands went flying up. She asked for those opposed, and only about one-quarter of the number had hands up. This was encouraging. Davis announced that this event was the only one of its kind held in all Southern California. Great, I thought, no wonder we got all the wingnuts here.
“One out of every six dollars,” I managed to hear Davis say, “is spent on health care in this country.” Then, “the U.S. rates 60th in health care among industrialized countries,” she said, “behind Cuba.” Oh, that was the wrong thing to say to this crowd. She was met with boos on that count. The righties don’t want socialism, Cuba is “socialist” – and we’re even behind them. Ooooooooohh!
Standing in the rear of the huge room, we couldn’t hear everything that was said. Davis opened up for questions, and there was some supposed system of neutrality in picking questioners, but it certainly seemed like the tea party people, righties in general, got the majority of the questions. Whenever a rightie asked a pointed question, their side would go wild. And then when an older woman asked Davis to improve Medicare – there was a small scattering of applause. Several of the first questions asked by righties were totally off topic – not about health care at all – and it was obvious they were pushing their own agenda – fed by right-wing radio pundits no doubt.
Another older woman asked Davis about taking government out of health care, David uttered her best line of the afternoon: “It’s pretty hard to take government out of Medicare.” Our side clapped.
As it turned out, both OB Ragsters Anna and Monty got to ask questions. What were the odds, huh? Our blog must have packed the box that questioners’ numbers were pulled out of. I couldn’t hear what Monty said, except one of his last lines – something to the effect – to those who don’t want government in their lives – “if you drove here on government-funded roads, walk home!”
I thought that was a great line. I yelled out “Walk home – it’s healthier!”
Every now and then the gym would rock with rival chants – and nobody could hear anything else. There wasn’t much discussion going on over the loud speaker system, although every now and then, I could see and hear individuals arguing with someone from the other side. There was some genuine discourse occurring but it was in the corners of the gym, not at the center. But there was yelling too. Across the room, across the aisle.
I argued with this one rightie who told me Obama had never shown his true birth certificate. “Oh,” I exclaimed, “you’re a birther!” As she continued to press her case why the President was illegitimate, I finally said, “you’re a racist! You just can’t accept that we elected a Black president.” She accused me of being discourteous to her. We argued so more but she turned and hurried away. A couple of people who had overheard us came up and agreed with me or thanked me.
It was sizzling inside. Even though the air temperature was comfortable, tempers were rising and the chanting and shouts were more angry. “Recall Davis!” was one chant that erupted. “Health care reform!” was the answer.
Eight large Sheriffs deputies stood by the exits. At times the air was tense with anger and emotion – and Davis, Mitrovich and civility couldn’t control anything at those moments. Davis simply seemed to smile as she stood there, helpless in the tirades aimed at her.
Mainstream Democrats, I thought, don’t know how to handle something like this. And lefties aren’t used to facing down the righties. We’re used to our own rallies and meetings, and we’re not up to countering people more aggressive and uncivil than us.
The event was over. We streamed out and walked by as both sides had their last chance at waving signs at each other. We were exhausted by time we reached the car, and I was hoarse from chanting and yelling myself.
It had been a draw. There was more of us, but they were better at expressing their side’s politics and getting their points across. Yet, even in red-neck country like East County, the left had showed up – we are contenders in this County. No longer is the right-wing going to rule the roost here. Yet, we better get our act together.
Progressive observers of this Summer’s Town Hall meetings have witnessed a rising and agitated extremist right-wing movement feeling its oats. They are mobilizing – against health care reform, against Obama, against what they perceive as “socialism” – and their edges are crowded with people with a dream of returning to a White authoritarian America – that has to be fascist by nature. And progressives must counter this movement with a movement of our own. We ignore them at our peril. We need to be better organized.
Leaflets were distributed inside the gym, announcing a right-wing post-meeting rally with radio rightie Rick Roberts later that day – they will be protesting “the march to socialism.” Ignorance, manipulation, and fear grip our fellow Americans. Some of them are willing to force the clock back. And their angry and hateful words demonstrate that they are willing to use force to do it.
What are we willing to do?