We stood on the side with a large group of anti-whatevers while Cohen's security chief announced that three armed, carry-permit holders had entered the arena and requested for anyone else packing to please identify themselves to the local police. There were a mixture of boos and applause while the preppy beside me shouted, "That's against the law." Now I knew why the white people weren't reluctant to attend, but this was, after all, a community center. Steve Cohen was finally introduced to the cheers and jeers from his constituents and carpetbaggers respectively, but I knew we were in in for a long day when he read the headline from the morning's paper that said "U.S. Economy Shows Life," and a cascade of boos gushed forth from the hostile crowd. When Cohen told the crowd that under the pending House bill, "If you like your current health insurance, you can keep it," it sounded like the referee just made a bad call at a Tiger home basketball game. Then the chants began; "Read the Bill," and "Tell the truth." If Cohen had announced free beer and Bar-B-Que, this crowd would have still booed.
A parade of doctors on both sides of the issue stoked the fires, with the crowd cheering wildly for those condemning health care reform as governmental intrusion into the free market, and shouting at others who stated that the poor deserved health care too. See, these assembly-line doctors who get paid per procedure don't want anything to change because, like street Mafiosi, they're in on the skim. Another jock doc sent the crowd-turned-mob into a frenzy by blaming all the problems of the health industry on the high cost of malpractice insurance. With two wars, an economy on the brink, and unprecedented collapses in the home, banking, and auto industries, you don't know what surreal really means until you stand in the middle of a crowd of angry, red-faced, rich white people chanting, "Tort Reform!" A thunderclap of boos erupted when Dr. Neal Beckford said, "There are fifty million uninsured Americans," as if railing against the facts would change them, but the largest display of hostility was reserved for the doctor who announced that he had read the House bill and, "There was nothing in it about euthanizing Granny."
Boisterous crowds had gathered around us when suddenly a dispute about free speech broke out right next to me. Linda Moore reported in the Commercial Appeal:
Within 15 minutes of the start of the event, a nearly nose-to-nose confrontation between individuals with opposing views became so heated they had to be separated as Shelby County sheriff's deputies and Memphis police officers called for reinforcements. No arrests were made.OK, so that was me. A knuckle-dragging, Fox News talking-points spouting heckler believed he had the freedom of speech to come into my district and prevent me from hearing my Representative, bellowing, "Stop Lying" in my ear the entire time, and I felt I had the freedom of speech to tell him to be quiet. I might also have thrown an epithet or descriptive adjective in there somewhere. Of course, I said "Shut up," and he thought I said "Stand up," so there was a brief flare-up and exchange of words that was followed by some macho posturing until I felt hands on my shoulders and arms, one of which belonged to brother Billy who was telling a muscled loudmouth with a salon cut to get his finger out of his face. Security immediately stepped in and the meeting continued. The burly heckler looked hard at me a few times, but there was a Sheriff's Deputy standing between us now and, you know what? He wasn't so eager to act-out after he was challenged.
What I want to know is, where were you? I scanned the crowd and you weren't there. The news has been filled with clips of town hall meetings across the country erupting into organized chaos and there was a good chance it was going to happen here. So, why did you allow an enraged mob of former Bush voters to hijack an important democratic function and throw your elected Congressman to the wolves? Where were Steve Cohen's friends and loyal supporters when the modern equivalent of a torch-bearing, superstitious mob of townspeople descended on his meeting with his constituents? Where were the self-congratulatory whites to defend him, who thought Cohen's election signaled the start of a post-racial paradise, and the patriots and champions of freedom who permitted this assault on democracy to go on unremarked? And where in this crowd of 1000, were the black people? I saw, aside from members of Cohen's staff, maybe a dozen African-Americans in the hall. Your congressman was speaking on your behalf today too, and that you weren't there to hear the message makes me wonder if its apathy, or an early indicator of support for Cohen's foe for re-election, former Mayor Willie Herenton.
The last time I saw passions run this high was forty years ago over the war in Vietnam, so something deeper than health care reform must be driving this anger. In 1970, I participated in a Knoxville protest of Richard Nixon's use of a Billy Graham Crusade in the University's stadium to show he was still able to speak on a college campus after his announced invasion of Cambodia. My assignment was to stand at the main intersection and hand out leaflets explaining that our protest had nothing to do with Reverend Graham, but the angry Christians pouring in by the thousands were outraged by these alien, shaggy-haired weirdos that had taken over the college without ever realizing that they were their own children. I had never felt so detached from the society's mainstream as then, but now I know why. The mainstream is sometimes polluted. The angry protesters at today's town hall meeting are like the fabled "Silent Majority" of the Nixon years. They are confused and afraid that there are things beyond their control, even sinister forces, that mean to alter their way of life, because the era of white entitlement is fading away. Another of the doctors speaking today was roundly booed for reminding the mob that fear and lies, repeated over and over again, will always trump the truth.
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