Posted August 11, 2009
In my years living in Georgia I’ve only lived in the 4th district, and attended town halls thrown by both Cynthia Mckinney and Hank Johnson. These events usually average out to about 30 people – 150 if there’s a panel and other things going on, and they’ve all been mostly African-American. What I saw yesterday was, for me, unprecedented. I’m not good at estimations but the turnout was well in the hundreds.
I arrived about ten minutes late (if I were a conspiracy theorist I would say it was really unusual that the 122 and 125, the buses that go to Georgia Perimeter College, stopped running from 6 to 6:50 – apparently unrelated coincidences, so most of us who take public transit arrived late). I wasn’t able to get there in time to make it into the main auditorium where the town hall was taking place, but hundreds more were ushered into a cafeteria or some sort of large room, where screens had been set up for viewing. The general feeling in the crowd was tense – when I was walking in line amongst a mostly white (which I can assume was mostly conservative at that moment) crowd remarks were being made such as “we’re being taken to the gas chambers”. Pamphlets were being handed out warning us of upcoming socialist tyranny. At one point I received a tap on the shoulder and was scared to even look up but (and I think I literally said Oh Thank God out loud) luckily it was two like-minded friends – although they left early.
Anybody who knows the fourth knows it’s a mostly black, democratic district. This wasn’t reflected in the crowd. The republicans were definitely more mobilized, and the crowd ended up being about half pro- healthcare reform/universal healthcare and half anti-reform conservatives, with people of color being the definite minority in both camps (at least in the viewing room).
This I can positively say – the right wingers were not able to dominate this town hall meeting like they have in other parts of the country. I think Rep. Johnson did a great job of cutting them off at the beginning – reading the e-mail that has been circulated among the right wing asking for disruptions and disputing it with a plea for dialogue, which received enough of an applause from the crowd that any major disruptions (and I know there was a few conservatives in there that were holding back) would have seemed silly and counterproductive. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the republicans didn’t take every opportunity to jeer the congressman and other speakers and cheer every time some rhetoric about personal responsibility and freedom from government came up, but most of it was limited to spectator reaction, that was countered by applause and counter-points from the other side.
After the congressman’s uninspiring remarks, which were hard for me to make out, came the panelists. Not surprisingly, not one single advocate of single payer healthcare was present. The panel had six members that included doctors, a member of the American Medical Association, the CEO of Grady Hospital, and somebody from the right that was really big on tort reform from a group I’m not familiar with. They were diverse in terms of background but ideologically hovered around vague ideas of tweaking the system here and there – small reforms – national, state and local – that would allow for more coverage but keep the sanctity of privatization in place. The most radical voice on the issue came from the CEO of Grady. He spoke of the issues Grady is having just keeping afloat as the main hospital in Georgia and one that serves patients unable to pay in strictly private hospitals. He told of the millions and millions of dollars Grady gave away each year in medications and came out firmly for a national public plan option and government negotiated prescription drug prices. He probably received the largest applause from universal healthcare supporters in the room.
Then came the question and answer session, where I thought universal healthcare definitely had the upper hand. People of color – mostly African-American, were the majority of those asking questions. One of the more charged statements (and one that garnered the most reaction from both camps) was an older black woman that had no insurance, couldn’t be treated at Grady because she wasn’t a resident of Dekalb or Fulton and was generally frustrated. She ended her question with a statement “if you make slaves, at least take care of your slaves”.
Another charged moment (and my favorite) came from a new father who had a baby of maybe 8 months in his arms. He was perhaps in his thirties, white, so not easily profiled ideologically, which gave him the full attention of everybody watching, waiting to see what he’d say. He spoke emotionally, telling how his baby was born at 11pm, resulting in the hospital charging his family for an extra day’s stay. His insurance company disagreed, leaving his family in a financial pickle. At the end of his statement, he lifted the baby in the air and said to applause and more conservative confusion and silence rather than boos “this is a victim of insurance rationing” – directly confronting the talking point of government healthcare leading to rationing. It was a powerful moment. There was no great moment for those that opposed reform, only skeptical questions (many valid) about what was in the bill, which is over 1,000 pages long. Hank Johnson, to their delight, didn’t really seem to know the answer to that question.
While the ideological battle around healthcare did seem to go (slightly) to those that favored universal healthcare or some sort of reform in this town hall, those that came to express that sentiment found little concrete affirmation in the at times incoherent ramblings of Rep. Hank Johnson. While he did feel emboldened enough by the democratic presence to use rhetoric to declare this (rightfully) a moral issue, take partisan shots at George Bush and needlessly praise Barack Obama, behind his statements of support for a public plan and reforms were murky details, which he usually let his legal assistant work out. At times the reform was presented as more regulation of private companies and at times Johnson spoke with authority about needing a public plan for everyone, and making sure it wouldn’t be watered down. Johnson did make sure to couple his summation with the statement “I still believe in profit, capitalism will be preserved”, which might just sum up the major contradictions of the democrats’ plan. If this is coming from one of a small minority of congresspeople who has been vocal about the need for single-payer in the past, it doesn’t give much hope towards what the end result of all this bargaining will be.
Another thing that was quite obvious, although I already knew it theoretically, was that the “O” – Obama – generation and movement has no teeth – at least in the 4th district. The people that took to the streets to register votes, canvass and vote themselves were not present en masse at this event – perhaps by design. Organization and numbers definitely went to the right wing, especially considering the demographics of the area. While there was a presence of groups like ABLE, Health Care for Americans Now and other mostly white, liberal groups, the only vocal and worthy activism seemed to be from Healthcare Now and single payer advocates. A handful of single payer activists held signs outside – one had his mouth covered by tape with “single payer silenced” written on it. They said they were deliberately passed on during the q and a session, and said many people they talked to, even though they agreed, didn’t know what single payer meant.
It was a relief to be able to attend one of the few town hall events around the issue that didn’t devolve into a shouting match or right wing take-over. Even with all the passion and dialogue on both sides, though, I couldn’t help leaving with the feeling that nobody won, except the corporations that will have their hand in our pockets no matter what the outcome ultimately is.