Skokie, IL, August 31st--There was no way I would have considered missing Rep. Jan Schakowsky's town hall meeting. She's been my congresswoman for many years, and I knew I wanted to be there to show support for her and for her stance on health care reform. (She is a very strong advocate for reform.) I figured there would be some Birthers, Deathers, Wackos, Teabaggers, or whatever one might call the vociferous opponents to health care reform and essentially anything else the current administration might want to do. I hoped they wouldn't be out in large numbers.
My friend and I arrived quite early, almost two hours before the scheduled start of the meeting, not knowing whether that was crazy and we'd be waiting by ourselves or not. When we got there, there was already a line of folks waiting to get in, and a small group of reform proponents were standing near the street holding signs advocating reform and receiving some friendly honks from cars passing by. This was an encouraging sign. I didn't see any anti-reform protesters to speak of at this point.
We were told that we might not be allowed to bring signs into the meeting, but that if we managed to get them in we could wave them and chant if the opponents got disruptive. I had a fairly large sign from a pro-reform rally that I had attended a couple of weeks before in downtown Chicago, so I rolled it up and kind of tucked it under my jacket, hoping to get it inside. As we approached the entrance an apparent reform opponent behind me shouted that I was hiding a sign, and I had to leave it outside the door.
The 900 seat high school auditorium filled up completely, and we were told that there were hundreds of people outside who were not able to get in to the meeting.
The high school superintendent welcomed us at the beginning of the session and explained that there were some students there to see democracy in action and participate in the meeting. She explained that there were rules of behavior--respectinr one another, allowing others to speak without interrupting--that the high school students were expected to observe when they were in the auditorium. She asked our group to observe these rules as well, a clever way to shame any potential disrupters into behaving quasi-reasonably, I thought.
As the meeting got underway and Jan gave a brief introductory statement, it was clear that the overwhelming majority of attendees were firm supporters of health care reform, which seemed a good sign.
However, the opponents were incredibly aggressive: sometimes shouting out, sometimes ignoring the directions to wait to go to the aisle until called upon to ask a question and just going to the aisle and acting as though they had already been called upon. Somehow, despite the clear and large majority of supporters in the room, the opponents ended up being the ones to ask perhaps two thirds of the questions.
Jan handled them and the situation quite well. Her staff had been very well organized in how they approached the set up of the question/answer format and things never got totally out of hand. It was nothing like the early utter chaos seen at some of the other town hall meetings, which were essentially shut down by opponents.
Nevertheless, I found it quite depressing.
It was depressing for me to see how misinformed, how suspicious, how angry some people are about the government doing anything to make people's lives better. Their insistence that this program will mean the complete surrender of personal privacy--that the government will have access to all of your personal information (as if insurance companies and the government don't already have this information); that health care will be given to (gasp) illegal immigrants (thought this is not the case under the proposed bills); that billions will be taken away from services to seniors under Medicare (there will be cuts, but not to services specifically). The list goes on and on. The rambling, crazy, and at times incoherent screeds some of these people let loose were really quite disturbing, because they made no sense and revealed how really disturbed/confused/intensely resentful too many citizens are.
All this took place in a district that is very progressive and very engaged in the political process. I hope that a lot of these anti-reform folks came from outside the 9th Congressional District, and this is likely the case. But if there are folks who think like this right here in the relatively enlightened, well-educated, informed, and progressive-thinking 9th Congressional District, it's a bit of a depressing commentary on the American citizenry as a whole.
On the way out, the anti-reform folks with their weird signs were lined up on one side of the sidewalk and the pro-reform group on the other, and as we made our way to the car, we were walking through the anti-reform folks' side and got yelled at when they saw my pro-reform sign. That made me mad, and I walked up to the Fox News van at the edge of the parking lot and asked their reporter whether she had actually even talked with anyone in attendance who was supporting reform, and whether any voices of support for reform would ever make it onto Fox News. She was not happy with me.
All in all, I'm glad I went, but I left with a clearer understanding of why it's so difficult to get important changes accomplished despite widespread support. A poorly educated population and a highly organized and well-funded misinformation campaign hiding as grass roots opposition is tough to overcome. We progressives have to work much harder and be more organized than our opposition.
All I can say is it was much more fun back on the campaign trail. Life was so much simpler then!