A town-hall discussion about health care is a dangerous place to be these days. The tone at these events has turned ugly and, at times, vicious; Thursday night, two boiled over into actual fighting--at one event in Florida, and at another in Missouri.
Democratic lawmakers are getting shouted down, and discussions about reform are being disrupted by angry conservatives who yell, scream, or chant over speakers. There has been a death threat and an effigy. Supporters of Demcoratic reform have deemed these people "angry mobs," shipped in by conservative Astroturfing organizations based in DC--dangerous, disrespectful, and manufactured.
So what do the organizers of the health care opposition say about this whole situation, this wave of aggression and, in its ugliest instances, raw insanity? They condemn the worst of the bad stuff, and, as for the rest, they say that people are just angry.
"If you get 1,000 people together, you always worry that five people in that crowd are going to take it too far," FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon said.
His group has sought to mobilize its members (of which there are around 760,000 nationwide) to attend town-halls hosted by Democrats across the country, and FreedomWorks provides information on its website about where and when Democrats will be holding town-halls this month, via Google Maps, along with talking points on health care and cap-and-trade energy reform to use at the events.
Brandon says his group in no way condones the violence, the death threat made by a caller to Rep. Brad Miller's (D-NC) office, or the hanging of Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-MD) in effigy--or, for that matter, the disruptions and shouting we've seen on YouTube.
Similar death threats have been made against the FreedomWorks office, Brandon said.
"We have never advocated violence, we have never advocated disrupting a town-hall," Brandon said. "You can be loud and vocal and definitely passionate, but when you start trying to shout people down and drown it out, you lose your effectiveness."
Town-halls are different from outdoor protests, held outside an event, Brandon says. There, shouting and chanting is fine; inside, during a discussion, it's not.
"I'm pleased that you're seeing fiscal conservatives staying engaged in the process overall, and of course I would rather not see the sexiest stuff that ends up on TV," Brandon said. "You'd rather not see someone getting hung in effigy, and I want no part of that."
FreedomWorks will release a statement condemning some of that activity, Brandon said.
Americans for Prosperity, another group that's turned out members to town-halls and provided information on where they're being held, similarly condemns the vitriol...though it too is pleased with the turnout.
Here's what AFP President Tim Phillips had to say in a statement posted to the group's website Monday, after the first few shoutings down occurred:
...We always promote a respectful exchange of ideas and civil behavior. In fact, I often say at events that we should "respect the office while making our voices heard." We never condone disruptive behavior.
It is disappointing to hear reports of some individuals acting inappropriately at some of the congressional events, though it should be made clear that the vast majority of Americans attending these congressional town hall meetings are acting in a respectful manner that still allows them to make their voices heard. We consistently remind our members to be courteous when making their voices heard and doing their civic duty...
Both groups vehemently deny that they've ever promoted the strategies advocated by Bob MacGuffie, reportedly a volunteer with Tea Party patriots, in a memo obtained by ThinkProgress that encourages town-hall goers to "shout" and seek to "rattle" speakers.
FreedomWorks and AFP have "absolutely" never advised their members to follow those or similar guidelines, spokespeople for both groups say.
But is it incumbent upon these groups to try to stop this kind of behavior from happening? After all, that's what supporters of reform have implied: that these groups are responsible for the disruptive and threatening behavior. The Service Employees International Union, for its part, has begun circulating a pledge to members who attend town-hall meetings stating they'll keep discussion civil. Coincidentally, an SEIU member was apparently involved in the fight outside Rep. Russ Carnahan's (D) town-hall in Missouri.
On that point, FreedomWorks and AFP don't think it's their responsibility: they're not promoting the disruptions, and it's generally just people getting excited--plus the few bad eggs that Brandon mentioned--who are doing the shouting and the uglier activities, of which neither group wants any part.
Other than statements condemning the behavior, they don't have any plans to keep conservative reform opponents from getting rowdy.
If not through encouragement, then, why is this happening? Why have things gotten so tense--so deleterious to public debate of a serious issue?
They say people are just angry--at the prospect of Obama's reforms, at the White House for calling them an "angry mob," at members of Congress for simply "talking at" their town-hall audiences, at event organizers for allegedly shutting them out of events, and at the insinuation that their rage is manufactured.
The Twitter hashtag #iamthemob is filled with mockery at the "mob" accusation and claims that conservative anger is "manufactured" (in addition to a disturbing call today for reform protesters to "hurt" members of SEIU and ACORN "badly" if they see them at town-hall events, and an encouragement to bring firearms).
"Honestly it's only a small minority of people who are acting out. The majority of these people are interested citizens, who are interested in these issues," said AFP spokeswoman Amy Menefee.
"We started off with a few people who were acting inappropriately, and the response from the White House and from the left in general has been so disproportionate to what's been going on," Menefee said. "They were already angry in a genuine way about these issues. Now they're genuinely angry even more because the White House has basically taunted them and ridiculed them."
"The White House response has really changed what could have happened here," Menefee said.
"This is a fundamental change, and that's why people are so passionate," says FreedomWorks's Brandon, of Obama's reform initiative.
Now that supporters of health care reform are starting to turn out their own foot soldiers, Brandon suggested, tensions are running higher.
"This is kind of an explosive, combustible situation. The Obama supporterss are very passionate and very excited about their guy, and our folks are very passionate about what we believe in. When you get two people who are very passionate in the same room, it's gonna get hot. I'm a Cleveland Browns fan, and when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to town, that gets hot," Brandon said.
He also cited claims that conservatives have been shut out of town-halls in favor of union members by event organizers.
There's no doubt that things have gotten crazy, particularly on the conservative side. Before the fighting Thursday night, it was conservatives who shouted down speakers, and it's continued to be that way: the Tea Party Patriots website posted video today of Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), the longest serving member in the history of the House of Representatives, getting shouted at aggressively from a few feet away by opponents of Democratic health reform.
Now that Democrats and the media have seized on this wave of viciousness, it presents a strategic problem (not just a behavioral one) for reform opponents: the image of a shouting mob threatens to become the face of reform opposition--the symbol of conservative efforts. And, while conservatives have dominated the town-halls and coverage of the August health debate so far, that's a distasteful image nonetheless.
The Democratic National Committee and the White House are calling them a "mob," and the phrase seems to have stuck. It's perpetuated with every YouTube video of unruly protesters disrupting a meeting.
Each disrupted town-hall is both a win and a loss for conservatives: another sales pitch for Obama's reforms has been blocked, and the new conservative grassroots have flexed their muscles once again--but it's also ugly, and it scores points for the other side by fitting into the "mob" narrative Democrats have, rather adroitly, chosen to hit back.
The town-hall episodes have put health care reform on the defensive; they've also made conservatives look unruly.
When asked if they're concerned that unruliness will jeopardize the anti-Democratic-reform efforts and turn people off, AFP and FreedomWorks don't seem that worried. They say they don't like it, but they're proud of the turnout they've generated to these meetings--apart from the people who scream and shout.
But they do say they hope things simmer down, at least a bit.
"If people would listen to what we're saying, maybe to what the people who are not shouting are saying, then that is more productive than shouting," Menefee said "So, right now, I'm not really that concerned, because I think people are gonna continue to go out to these meetings, and it's only the beginning of August right now, and obviously we hope that things will begin to calm down a bit."
Or, as Brandon puts it: "This is not PG rated. Political activism does take on an edge."