The Magazine

The Town Halls of August

They're here, they're conservative, get used to it.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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It had been a rough month by the time 67-year-old Bert Stead of Redding, Calif., stepped to the microphone at an August 18 town hall meeting with Republican representative Wally Herger. It was about to get rougher.

Dissent, formerly the highest form of patriotism, had suffered a precipitous decline in repute since the beginning of the Obama administration, a decline that in August deepened into a nosedive.

Stead and the thousands of other Obamacare critics flooding town halls to make their dissent known had been called "extremist mobs" by the Democratic National Committee, pawns of the insurance industry by Senator Dick Durbin, "un-American" by Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, "brownshirts" by Representative Brian Baird of Washington, "manufactured" and "Astroturf" by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, "evilmongers" by Senator Harry Reid, accused of "fear-mongering" by the president, and been deemed "political terrorists" by Representative Baron Hill of Indiana.

So the Redding veteran decided to say something about it. "I have been known to say things fishy," he started, as the crowd cheered his sarcastic allusion to the infamous invitation by the Obama White House ("If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to flag@whitehouse.gov."). Stead continued: "I have been known to even attend a Redding Tea Party. .  .  . I wanna say that I'm a proud right-wing terrorist."

It was clear to those who have followed the debate over town halls, including most of those at Herger's event, that Stead was mocking the rhetoric of Baron Hill and the other over-the-top Democrats. Herger got the joke: He replied to Stead's speech with a smile, "Amen, God bless you. There is a great American," before speaking to his health care concerns.

But MSNBC's Chris Matthews, a political pugilist turned punctilious scold, declared Stead's words so awful, he could not bring himself to finish the thought:

A guy who thinks it's okay, in this day and age, to call himself a right-wing terrorist. This is the dangerous edge, in which these people, including some elected officials, are now dancing. We've been here before. Words lead to actions, words create the national mood, the mood creates a license. People take that license and use it. I'm not spelling it out any further because I don't want to.

Fellow MSNBCer Keith Olbermann took an uncharacteristically hard line on the use of sarcasm in a public forum, saying "even if he was being allegorical or hyperbolic, this is not language to bandy about." He accused Herger, who refused to apologize for the exchange, of "contributing to this climate of paranoia and violence enveloping our political system."

Liberal blogger Greg Sargent, from his perch at the Washington Post, bemoaned a right-wing mainstream media that excuses the flagrant use of irony by elderly veterans: "Let's face it, if a Democrat did this, there would be days of media outrage about it. Not to state the obvious or anything, but right-wing terrorists have been known to kill American citizens."

Not to state the obvious or anything, but the climate of paranoia and violence that enveloped our political system this August was largely a creation of people like Matthews and Olbermann. The edge on which we're dancing is about as dangerous as the one Ren McCormack danced on at the Beaumont prom in Footloose. But the newly dour John Lithgows of the left won't stand for dancing, conveniently forgetting Camp Casey, Code Pink, papier-mâché Bush effigies, assassination fantasies, Bushitlerisms, profane signage, and the vandalism and violence that marked their own dissent earlier in this decade.

Their willful mischaracterization of Stead was a fitting end to a monthlong attack on town hall protesters by the left, which began with Think Progress bloggers, MSNBC, and the DNC distorting both the provenance and content of a memo they alleged directed a national movement of conservatives to disrupt town hall meetings. The memo by Bob MacGuffie, a small-time conservative activist in Fairfield County, Conn., was cited as proof of a national strategy in countless media accounts. But it was distributed only to a handful of local activists, who had no connection to national conservative organizations, as alleged. Ironically, it urged using "the Alinsky playbook of which the Left is so fond"--i.e., tactics that should be familiar to the onetime Alinskyite community organizer now sitting in the Oval Office. The memo read in part:

You need to rock-the-boat early in the Rep's presentation. Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep's statements early. If he blames Bush for something or offers other excuses--call him on it, yell back and have someone else follow-up with a shout-out. Don't carry on and make a scene--just short intermittent shout outs. The purpose is to make him uneasy early on and set the tone for the hall as clearly informal, and free-wheeling. .  .  . When called on, ask a specific prepared question that puts the onus on him to answer. .  .  . After the Rep answers, or more likely diverts or dodges, be prepared with a follow-up--take the initiative and you will be able to follow-up. The balance of the group should applaud when the question is asked, further putting the Rep on the defensive.

Stead was just the latest fellow unlucky enough to have his words intentionally distorted for the sin of getting involved in public debate. Before he became known as a "terrorist" on national television, Stead was known in the community as the guy astride the Honda Gold Wing he jokingly calls his "fat old man motorcycle." He rides with three veteran charity groups, raising money for homeless and elderly vets, escorting fallen vets across the country to Arlington National Cemetery, and tracking down and identifying unclaimed remains of veterans for proper military burial. There are new rules in place. To summarize: The left calls protesters "political terrorists" for mere yelling at local town halls, protesters get teed off about being called "terrorists," they satirize the idiocy of liberals by calling themselves "terrorists," and are subsequently faulted for their rhetoric by the very liberals who called them "terrorists" in the first place. Says Stead: "Why can't I use their terminology? Especially if I'm poking it back at them?"

One public calendar, compiled by RedState.com, lists more than 400 congressional town hall meetings in the month of August. It's likely not an exhaustive list, but it represents an average of more than 13 live town halls conducted per day in America during the monthlong span. At these meetings, there were fewer than ten documented incidents that could be described as violent, and most of them involved very little physical contact.

The first of these came Thursday, August 6, in Tampa and St. Louis. Liberal health care groups and the DNC had encouraged union representatives to show up in force for Obamacare. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was an official sponsor of Representative Kathy Castor's town hall in Tampa, and at a meeting hosted by Castor's Democratic colleague Russ Carnahan in St. Louis, there was a heavy presence of attendees wearing the union's trademark purple shirts.

In Tampa, there were scuffles at the doorways as event organizers shut the doors on protesters who felt they were being unfairly boxed out, but there were no reports of charges filed or injuries--just a picture of a man with a ripped shirt. Inside the hall, a St. Petersburg Times photographer snapped Karen Miracle slapping Barry Osteen in the face. Miracle turned out to be the treasurer of a local Democratic club, and Osteen an Obamacare critic. Miracle claimed she was protecting her husband, with whom Osteen was arguing, but a slideshow depicts Osteen barely moving a muscle in a series of eight pictures, while Miracle and her husband move closer to him.

In St. Louis, several video cameras captured an altercation between Kenneth Gladney, who was selling "Don't Tread on Me" flags and buttons outside, and several purple-shirted SEIU members. Witnesses said Gladney, who is black, was addressed by an SEIU member using the "n-word," who then assaulted him. Gladney went to the hospital with minor injuries, and two SEIU members, including the local SEIU public service director Elston McCowan, were among the six people arrested in St. Louis that night. An unidentified female was arrested in connection with the same altercation. A video of the event shows her approach an Obama critic filming the Gladney incident, and then smash the camera into the filmer's face. The female assailant was later cuffed by police at the scene, also on tape. The SEIU later claimed that Gladney was the aggressor, but a video shows a different picture. Gladney is outnumbered and visibly shaken as one SEIU member yells on tape, "He attacked America!" before challenging Gladney's defenders to a fight and hurling profanities at the filmer.

When Nancy Pelosi appeared in Denver the next day, Obama supporters countered Obamacare critics with pre-printed signs from Health Care for America Now and Organizing for America (the group directly descended from the Obama presidential campaign). A Denver Post photographer caught one of those sign-bearers, a grim-faced woman in a "HOPE" Obama shirt, ripping a homemade anti-Pelosi sign from Obama critic Kris McLay's hands as she yelled in protest. The Obama supporter declined to be identified for the photo.

At Arlen Specter's town hall on August 11, an Obama-care critic was roundly criticized as a loon for standing up and yelling at Specter about his right to "speak my mind before I leave." While he did disrupt the event, what most news accounts ignored was the escalation afterwards. An Obamacare supporter tried to manhandle the critic out of the room, which can be seen on the video shot by every network. At that point, Specter stepped in forcefully and effectively, and police closed in, calming the scene before it got out of hand.

At Representative David Price's August 13 town hall in Durham, N.C., sponsored by the state employees' union, Obama critic Gene Ellefson was punched at the beginning of the evening, surprising the relatively quiet crowd and witnesses, who said there was very little arguing leading up to the punch. "I was punched with no blood drawn by an older man who didn't like comments I made .  .  . to a stranger sitting nearby who was also a conservative," said Ellefson, who pressed charges and has a court date in September. "I was not belligerent and I was not shouting as I have seen in other coverage of these types of events. There was very little yelling at all at this event."

According to local media, the perpetrator seems to have been a man wearing a union sticker named Woffozo Humphries who was escorted out by police. In a video of the aftermath, a liberal audience member is heard asking, "Do you have health insurance?" to laughter, as Ellefson leaves the auditorium.

Altercations featuring Obama supporters as the aggressors hardly fit the climate-of-fear storyline of the mainstream media, so it must have come as a relief to liberals when one of the violent, racist "teabaggers" they'd been conjuring finally seemed to show up. At a St. Louis town hall meeting on August 11 hosted by Democratic senator Claire McCaskill, a white man tore away the sign of a black woman before police stepped in and escorted both parties out. The left labeled it a hate crime, saying the poster was taken because it had Rosa Parks on it. But there was more to the story than that, and it's quite plausible his motivation wasn't racial at all. There were no signs allowed inside the auditorium. In video shot before the altercation, three women with posters enter the auditorium, marching in dramatic protest style. The crowd yells, "No signs!" several times, before McCaskill herself tells them they must put them away, at which point one of the women remains standing, seeming to taunt the crowd. When a reporter comes over to inquire about her poster, the man steps in and rips it away. He was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor assault.

On August 25, liberals were once again delighted when the Democratic party headquarters in Denver was vandalized, attributing the 11 broken windows to efforts by the "other side" to "stir up hate." It turned out the guy doing the stirring up and breaking windows was one of their own--Maurice Schwenkler, who worked for a Democratic candidate in 2008 and is a member of Denver Bash Back, a group of "radical gay, lesbian and transgender individuals," according to the Denver Post. In another act of vandalism, a swastika was painted outside black Georgia Democrat David Scott's office, and attributed by the left to a racist element on the right, but police have yet to find a suspect.

In a fitting turn of events, an August 25 town hall meeting of Virginia Democrat Jim Moran also saw an altercation. Fitting because Moran may be the only congressman with an entire section of his Wikipedia page dedicated to "assaults and threats"--featuring the congressman as the perpetrator (including a 2000 dust-up with an Alexandria, Va., second-grader).

At the Moran event, an Obama critic had his shirt ripped, and an Obama supporter was punched in the eye. According to witnesses, there was a dispute over a sign. The Obama supporter grabbed the critic's shirt, ripping it, and the critic threw the first and only punch. No one was arrested, and neither man pressed charges, police said, but from my vantage point it looked like the Obama critic reacted with more force than he should have. The rest of the event, save for one yelling pro-life protester who was ejected, went very smoothly but was reported as far more chaotic than it was.

There were also two prominent reports of people carrying guns outside Obama town halls. Police told news outlets that William Kostric was within his rights to carry a holstered hand gun in New Hampshire on August 11, even at a protest. In Arizona, where there's also an open-carry law, both Obama supporters and critics were spotted with assault weapons at an August 17 rally against Obama-care in Phoenix. None of the armed protesters threatened anyone, but MSNBC's Contessa Brewer took the opportunity to crop out the face of a black man with a firearm, even while asking if all these "white people showing up with guns" evinced a dangerous "racial overtone."

That's the full list of documented violence from the August meetings. In more than 400 events: one slap, one shove, three punches, two signs grabbed, one self-inflicted vandalism incident by a liberal, one unsolved vandalism incident, and one serious assault. Despite the left's insistence on the essentially barbaric nature of Obamacare critics, the video, photographic, and police report evidence is fairly clear in showing that 7 of the 10 incidents were perpetrated by Obama supporters and union members on Obama critics. If you add a phoned death threat to Democrat representative Brad Miller of N.C., from an Obama-care critic, the tally is 7 of 11.

And if you extend the census into September, you can add the most severe injury of all, which happened during a fight at a September 2 rally backing Obamacare in Thousand Oaks, Calif., hosted by the left-wing activist group MoveOn.org. Police have not determined who started the fight, but it ended when one of the Obamacare supporters "bit off the left pinky" of counterdemonstrator William Rice after Rice threw a punch, according to police. The Obamacare supporter, who could be charged with mayhem, left the scene before police arrived, and though Rice's missing digit was recovered, doctors were unable to reattach it because "a human bite has so much bacteria," Rice told me. Several liberal commentators took the opportunity to hail the forcible amputation as a victory of government-run medicine over a hypocritical Obama critic. Because Rice is 65, he is covered by Medicare.

All in all, a not inconsiderable amount of that "dancing on the dangerous edge" Chris Matthews bemoans is being done by the very same people who are fretting that tea partiers will destroy this once-great nation.

If the left and the media were really worried about political violence, they might save some moralizing for former Democratic strategist Skip Ohlsen. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last week that Ohlsen was named in a search warrant in an ongoing investigation into an October 2008 parking garage bomb explosion that severely injured a 70-year-old Missouri attorney. They might have fearful pronouncements to spare for Bradley Neal Crowder and David Guy McKay, who were found guilty of plotting to bomb police cars outside last summer's Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Or they might save some of their outrage for Katyanne Marie Kibby, a Texas activist charged with threatening the man who turned Crowder and McKay in to the FBI.

But instead the left's self-righteous leaders fire-and-brimstone the townspeople with tales of a country doomed by loud health policy protests. In doing so, they sound as out-of-touch as Footloose's Reverend Shaw Moore inveighing against the great peril of dancing the watoosie. They will not convince regular Americans that the honored civic pastime of political protest is un-American, inherently dangerous, or terroristic simply because it is undertaken by conservatives.

What we learned in the last month is that people who have been energetically organizing, filling town halls and high-school gymnasiums, and staging protests for most of their lives are more than a little dismayed to find out that the other side can do it, too. There will always be a risk of unrest at any political protest, left or right, and that risk increases with the emotion and energy surrounding the debate. And it will always be important to call for civility in heated debates, and to treat public forums and our right to speak in them with the respect they deserve.

But encouraging responsible civic behavior was not the mission of the hyperventilating liberals this August. Instead, they aimed to impose a social cost and scrutiny on conservatives who protest that they had never previously imposed on protesters closer to their own political persuasion. The high-profile throttling of people like Bert Stead and Bob MacGuffie, who merely spoke out or organized friends to do the same, was meant to send a message. Free-market grandmas around the country were meant to look at Stead and MacGuffie and wonder if they wanted to turn themselves into piñatas for the MSNBC hosts or should keep quiet instead. Pro-life moms attending town hall meetings, perhaps for the first time in their lives, were meant to recoil at the label of "racist" or "terrorist" and wonder whether staying at home with the kids might be a better course of action. William Rice is wary of similar treatment, saying he's avoiding most media for fear that "I'll end up being some sort of a bad guy," but he remains "optimistic that a healthy debate is good. I hope that it all works out for all of us." MacGuffie is still organizing conservatives in Connecticut, and Stead has already returned to the protest field on his Gold Wing, defending himself and Herger at a liberal demonstration calling for the congressman's resignation.

Indeed, judging by the tea party protests of last spring, the health care protests of August, and protests planned for September and beyond, with enthusiasm seemingly uncurbed, the wrath of Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews and the "un-American" insults of Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and their caucus are being laughed off. Perhaps the Reverend Moores of the left will learn there's a new kid in town, and when it comes to "civic engagement" (as they might call it), everybody can cut footloose.

Mary Katharine Ham is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.