With fists pounding on exterior windows like a street mob out of a 1930s newsreel, a crowd of right-wing agitators against health insurance reform descended on a town hall meeting in Tampa, Florida, "banging on windows" until police and organizers were forced to end the event. The result? A violent mob silenced the voices of each and every American desperate to find a way out of the endless cycle of fear, shame and family bankruptcy brought on by an inhumane, profit-driven health insurance market. Moreover, by using violence to shut down civic discussion between neighbors, this right-wing horde trampled underfoot one of the most sacred and historic symbols of American democracy.
Town halls in America are much more than information meetings. They are emblematic of a unique aspect of face-to-face American democracy. A tradition that reaches back to the founding generation of the Republic, Thomas Jefferson himself imagined the nucleus of American democracy not in the vaunted halls of government palaces, but in farm sheds and village meeting rooms. In these regular meetings in town halls, neighbors would gather to learn what they needed to know in order to solve the core problems of the day. It is a tradition that has served this country well for well over two-hundred years.
Today in Tampa, that bright American town hall tradition came crashing down at the hands of another, ignominious trend in political life: the politics of intimidation, threat, and violence. This is the brand of politics that wields the toxic force of fists and the sound of breaking glass to cut off healthy civic exchange. This is the brand of politics that fills the public square first with talk of violence, then promises of violence, and then violence itself.
This is also the brand of politics that media coverage is quick to gloss over -- quick to conceal behind some false notion that violence is on both sides. Do not believe it.
Americans trying earnestly to gather with their neighbors and engage in discussions about health insurance reform should beware of every account they read that depicts town hall disruptions as generic, two-sided violence. Beware, because these descriptions are false.
The health insurance reform debate in this country is not a fight between two violent sides. It is a peaceful discussion that right-wing mobs are trying to stop and prevent. Tonight they used violence in Tampa to successfully stop that peaceful discussion from happening.
To find a way to fix our broken health insurance system, the American people did what we have done for centuries: we organized town hall meetings throughout the states so neighbor could meet with neighbor to learn the facts and figure out together what could be done to improve our own lot, the lot of our children, our parents, and our neighbors.
Those peaceful town hall meetings were not invaded by protesters from every political stripe. They were invaded and attacked by one specific kind of group: mobs of organized, right-wing agitators wielding a strategy of disruptive escalation: shouting, then fist waving, then pounding on glass.
Meanwhile, these mobs are not only encouraged, but are egged on by industry, elected officials, and broadcast media personalities.
This is not two-sided violence. This is a one-sided attack on Americans trying to engage in the most basic act of our democracy: civic conversation with an eye towards problem solving.
When American citizens cannot come together to discuss a problem for fear of being attacked by a violent mob, the foundation on which our civic tradition rests has been cracked. And if that crack is not repaired, the foundation will break.
Members of Congress and Senators who wrap themselves in this mob in the name of scoring political points for an upcoming election risk trampling not only on millions of Americans suffering in the current health insurance system, but also on the American system of government itself.
In America, violent intimidation is not the brand of politics we embrace. It is the politics we brand immoral.
Tampa is a warning. If the use of violent street mob tactics persists -- if more and more right-wing mobs pound on windows and create a threatening environment to shut down town hall discussions, a line will have been crossed that may have dire consequences for this country.
How disgraceful it would be if a few right-wing mobs -- egged on by a few corrupt politicians and a handful of egotistical broadcast media figures -- pushed this country across that line separating Democracy from political violence in the name of derailing a reform effort intended to help tens of millions of American families.