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Town Hall Attracts Array of Protesters

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/08/reston-town-hall-off-my-body-sign.jpgPro- and anti-health care reform activists gather outside a town hall event in Reston, Va. (Photo by: David Weigel)

Related Photos: Reston Town Hall Attracts Protesters

RESTON, Va. — Gathering outside of the South Lakes High School in this well-heeled exurb of Washington, more than a hundred supporters and opponents of health care reform–or health insurance reform, as it was rebranded in blue-and-white signs passed out by Organizing for America–carried a sense of valedictory. The long and bitter month of “town hell” protests was wrapping up. Progressives who favor a Medicare-style “public option” had gotten their act together and shown up in force. Conservatives who had been turning out for weeks expressed shock, then bemusement, at the sudden arrival of their rivals.


Image by: Matt Mahurin

“Pick up your pre-made signs!” said Mike McLaughlin, a retired foreign service veteran and opponent of health care reform, who stalked around the area in front of the school with a booming megaphone. “Pick up your astroturf!” Other conservatives grumbled to reporters that they hadn’t been let in, and some mocked liberals for holding signs provided by Health Care for America Now or by Organizing for America, instead of putting together their own placards.

This particular town hall meeting, led by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, was destined to get out of hand. The extra star power was combined with a proximity to the beltway press corps and to professional conservative activists. Randall Terry, the omnipresent anti-abortion rights protester, made his way into the town hall itself and screamed about “killing babies” before being unceremoniously dragged out. Mary Ellen Burke, an organizer for Americans for Prosperity, met and greeted protesters against health care reform, talking about other AFP campaigns and the upcoming September 12 march on Washington organized by FreedomWorks.

There were remnants of the conservative groups that had been criticized in August for ginning up anger at town halls; an AFP sign that said “Socialism Isn’t Cool,” a batch of leaflets for Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty handed out by volunteer Erik Holmgren. (“As you know, the dollar has lost 95 percent of its value since the creation of the Federal Reserve?” Holmgren said. “You start to wonder if they’re driving down the dollar for a reason. Are they getting us ready to join a single North American currency?”)

But there was conservative unity against the liberal groups who had showed up to support Moran and Dean, and there were angry arguments about ACORN, “union thugs,” and chants that the conservatives thought were programmed. One of them tried to derail a pro-reform chant by adding editorial comments in between the breaks.

“Health care now!”

“You pay!”

“Health care now!”

“Free stuff!”

“Health care now!”

“Read the bill!”

Steve Brown, a physics teacher who held up a faded Bush/Cheney ’04 sign, said that he’d been getting nothing but compliments and comments from people who missed the ex-president. “I’m worried psychologically for the country,” said Brown. He had a good health care plan, but he wasn’t sure that his job was secure. “They didn’t raise our salary this year, because there’s no money.” Brown’s suggestion to turn the economy around: “Cancel the stimulus bill, put the money toward paying the deficit.”

Many of the people outside the school had come knowing that they wouldn’t get into the meeting, wanting to see the spectacle and, in some cases, have substantive conversations about health care. “Where else are you going to find so many informed people like us?” said Bill Campeni, with a hint of sarcasm as an angry argument broke out nearby between people on whether it was offensive to compare President Obama to Adolf Hitler.

“I’ve met a couple people on the other side who made good points,” said Jim DiAngelo, who put up a cell phone to let his wife listen into the chants. “I also started the chant that made these people crazy.” That chant was “Sarah! Sarah!,” a reference to the former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin.

DiAngelo turned and argued with a woman who said she supported health care reform because her mother couldn’t get coverage; DeAngelo told her to “be a woman, go shoot some wolves like Sarah.”

“Oh, she’s so tough,” the woman sneered. “She quit! She couldn’t take the pressure.”

DiAngelo turned red. “She’s not tough? She brought a child to term! A liberal woman would have told her to abort it! Yeah, you bet your ass she’s tough!”

Supporters of cult political figure Lyndon LaRouche stayed away from the action and largely outside of the town hall itself, setting up a booth decorated with the signs comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler that have become notorious since one of LaRouche followers was berated by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) at a town hall meeting. LaRouche’s compound in Leesburg, Va. is only 19 miles northwest of Reston; the people handing out literature and engaging in loping, confusing conversations about the British monarchy and its role in health care reform said they’d been with “Lyn” for years. But they were largely ignored by conservatives who didn’t want to be associated with them and liberals who reeled at their imagery. The LaRouche conspiracies about a “Nazi” health care system were shared by some protesters–one sign gave Obama “Joker” face paint and warned of a “National Socialist” health plan–but they had other things on their mind.

“It’s really a stretch, the Hitler business there,” said Kim Langley, who had printed out the “Obama Joker” poster that surged in popularity after being promoted on The Drudge Report, and went on at length about moves Obama was taking that made him worry about the future of his country.

“I’m a student of revolution. I was a special forces officer, right? My job in some cases, back in the day, in the 1970s, when I was in the special forces, was basically to create unrest, to create overthrow of the government. Our job was to help guerrillas, insurgents, overthrow bad governments. My particular group was oriented toward central and South America.”

Langley wasn’t ready to go much further with his analogy. “There’s certain key milestones that I would consider… if he was to start to infringe the right of free speech, with newspapers and things like that…” Langley trailed off. “It hasn’t peaked yet to where I’m really scared.”

As the school emptied out, the activists who remained, more than a hundred of them, crowded around the door and formed cheering sections. Health care reform supporters smiled and shook their signs at the crowd, and got a mix of cheers and boos. Reform opponents did the same thing, with the same reaction. Some of the people leaving the event simply expressed confusion at how a surging, angry crowd had assembled outside of a town hall meeting.

“We’re going toward a one party system,” said Ron Kirby, holding a giant Gadsen flag that he’d gotten at the state GOP convention earlier this year. “Pretty soon, you know, you’ll have to be a Democrat to get a job.”

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