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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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.