Political observers know Bristol, Virginia as the site of Barack Obama's first campaign stop after accepting the Democratic nomination. On July 28th, Obama chose a Kroger's grocery store for his first Presidential visit to this blue-collar Southern city. The purpose of the visit was a Town Hall Meeting on health care reform.
Bristol is an ideal location for such a meeting. Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Bristol stayed red while the rest of Virginia went blue, and it straddles the Virginia-Tennessee state line. The coal industry holds sway in a rural region where the love of God and country is a way of life, not a soundbite.
Health care is an important issue to the people of Bristol. So is the economic recession, which has hit this already disadvantaged area especially hard. These issues motivated dozens of protesters to picket the venue. They made a passionate, well-organized and vocal crowd. They were also angry.
"If you support this bill you're a communist! You're a communist and you don't love America!" a man shouted. He was one of several to carry a Gadsen flag, a symbol of colonial defiance that has been adopted by many protesters as a personal message to the President.
Some carried homemade signs that called for the President's deportation; others, for his salvation. But most prominent were the signs distributed by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. Declaring that "Socialism isn't Cool," these signs identified the basis of the protesters' disagreement.
To Tea Party Patriots and Americans for Prosperity, Obama is a socialist. They oppose this alleged socialism with a fury that would do Joseph McCarthy proud. It is a fury that drove a man to pick a fight with a woman carrying her baby simply because she supported Obama. It is a fury that drove parents to put their children on the picket line, a fury that fueled shouting matches and insults. Its strength derives from the fear that feeds it.
According to Ben Marchi, director of the Virginia chapter of Americans for Prosperity, Barack Obama has one goal. "He's going to take your hard-earned money from you and give it to the folks who don't want work for it," he informed the crowd, and added, "Do you know what's going to happen if he's successful?"
He paused to allow the crowd to respond. "We're all in trouble, we're all going to die!" they shouted. Marchi did not correct them. "A whole lot of bad stuff's going to happen," he promised. "This bill is nothing short of evil."
In a town firmly entrenched in America's Bible Belt, the concept of evil has weight. Its use in conservative rhetoric affirms the belief that the struggle against the public option is a righteous one. If the rally in Bristol, Virginia is any indication, the powerful opponents of health care reform will not hesitate to play on the insecurities of average Americans. They were successful in Bristol. In a city where 27% of the children live under the poverty level, cries of "Crucify him!" greeted Obama's motorcade.
The environment encouraged by rallies like the one in Bristol make reasonable debate on the issue of health care reform difficult, if not totally impossible. Unfortunately, the protesters themselves are the true victims of such tactics.