Tag Archives: town hall meetings

Right Wing Gun Group Puts “ObamaCare” in Its Crosshairs

Right-wingers have depicted health care reform as a front for various dastardly schemes, which include everything from killing off grannies and unborn babies to ushering in a socialist state. Now, one radical gun rights group sees yet another hidden agenda behind the reform effort: The health care legislation, they say, threatens their right to bear arms.   

D.C. Tea Party protest, September 12, 2009

The accusation comes from Gun Owners of America, a 300,000-member group that proudly advertises itself with a quotation from Ron Paul: “The only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington.” The GOA has been described as “eight lanes to the right” of the NRA, which it tends to dismiss as a pack of wussy sell-outs; and the group’s longtime leader, Larry Pratt, was booted from Pat Buchanan’s inner circle for having ties to the militia movement and hobnobbing with white nationalists.

Yet, like the Tea Partiers who draw Republican Congressional leaders to their racially tinged protests against “National Socialist Health Care,” the Gun Owners of America could well influence the reform debate in ways that belie their extremist status. GOA has thrown itself wholeheartedly into the battle for the soul of the GOP, pledging to help oust “RINOs” and other insufficiently trigger-happy Republicans in the 2010 primaries. And last week the Washington Post reported that the GOA’s campaign against health care reform could also “cause political indigestion for Democrats from conservative states,” and have some influence on their final votes.

In fact, no version of the reform legislation even mentions firearms. But that hasn’t stopped the Virginia-based group from raising the alarm about what it calls the “anti-gun ObamaCare bill.” In its most recent alerts, the GOA has fixed on the proposal for a nationwide system of electronic health care records, which, it says, “will most likely dump your gun-related health data into a government database….This includes any firearms-related information your doctor has gleaned or any determination of post traumatic stress disorder or something similar, that can preclude you from owning firearms.”

In other words, better record-keeping and information-sharing might lead some people to be denied gun permits on the basis of serious mental illness. Presumably, this could include people like Cho Seung-Hui, the student who gunned down 32 others before killing himself in the 2007 Viriginia Tech massacre. Less than two years before the shooting, a state court order had directed that Cho be taken into custody for a psychiatric evaluation, declaring the young man mentally ill and “an imminent danger to himself or others.” (He was later ordered into outpatient treatment and released.) But Virginia failed to supply this information to the FBI-monitored National Instant Criminal Background Check System, so Cho was able to purchase two semi-automatic pistols in local gun stores, along with two ten-round magazines of ammo on eBay. After the massacre, even George W. Bush willingly signed a new gun control bill—the first in 13 years. But Gun Owners of America doesn’t think insanity is necessarily incompatible with gun ownership. (The group also has a novel approach to such massacres: Put more guns in schools.)

A GOA alert earlier this fall was titled “ObamaCare Could be Used to Ban Guns in Home Self-Defense.” Their premise, as described by PolitiFact, is that “in a bid to control spiraling health care costs, the administration will target people who have ‘excessively dangerous’ behaviors that officials believe raise the cost of health care.”  The legislation’s “special ‘wellness and prevention’ programs” the GOA warns, “would allow the government to offer lower premiums to employers who bribe their employees to live healthier lifestyles — and nothing within the bill would prohibit rabidly anti-gun HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius from decreeing that ‘no guns’ is somehow healthier.” (Sibelius earned GOA’s unending wrath when she vetoed concealed-carry gun legislation as governor of Kansas.) “It is even possible that the Obama-prescribed policy could preclude [insurance] reimbursement of any kind in a household which keeps a loaded firearm for self-defense.”

Such dire prognostications are quickly spreading far beyond the GOA’s membership. The Washington Examiner quoted Dave Kopel, research director of the libertarian Independence Institute of Colorado, who said, “The more you socialize costs, the more you empower the argument that the government has the authority to control private behavior.” Kopel continued, “If [the Department of Health and Human Services] can write regulations for lower premiums for healthy habits in general…”Then I don’t see anything in the bill that stops HHS from saying people get higher premiums for unhealthy habits such as owning a gun or a handgun.”

With Republicans sticking to party-line votes against health care reform, the GOA is going after what it sees as vulnerable Democrats. After the Senate cloture vote, GOA attacked Democrats from Conservative states who “were bribed into selling out the American people because Harry Reid ordered them to do so,” and declared: “Can you spell R-E-C-A-L-L?  GOA is looking into which states are the best targets for recalls–and you can be sure that we will be pursuing this option aggressively, exposing the Senators who sold their vote.” It provided a model letter for its members to send, which begins: “Just so you know, I will not forget how you voted on Saturday, November 21 when you threw your support in favor of anti-gun socialized health care.”

But if Democrats like Arkansas’s Blanche Lincoln or Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu are swayed by the likes of the GOA, it will mark a new low in the party’s capitulation not only to conservatives, but to extremists of a truly hateful variety. While his views on some subjects may not represent all GOA’s members, Larry Pratt, who has been the group’s executive director for 26 years, has been up to his neck in far-right extremist activity for several decades—an outrider among the pistol-packing white power crowd, and a fellow traveler and inspiration to the militias that sprung up in the 1990s.

Leonard Zeskind, the expert on white nationalist movements, has described Pratt as having “one foot in the political mainstream and the other in the fringe.” Pratt comes out of Fairfax, Virginia, and served two terms in the state legislature in the 1980s, arguing an anti-abortion, anti-tax line. But he made national headlines in 1996, while he was co-chair of Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign, after news surfaced on his attendance at a meeting of the racialist far right in Estes Park, Colorado, in 1992. As described by Zeskind, in an article for Rolling Stone:

The three-day strategy session was organized by Pete Peters…who pastors to members of a fringe religious group called [Christian] Identity. Identity doctrine contends that Northern Europeans are racial descendants of the biblical Hebrews; that our government is in the hands of satanic Jews; and that black people were created before Adam and are therefore less than human. Identity believers have begun to stockpile weapons, food and supplies in preparation for Armageddon, which they think will be a race war in the United States.

Among the speakers were Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler and legendary Klansman Louis Beam. And as Zeskind writes, “Although many of the participants had met before, this gathering was different. This meeting marked the birth of the modern militia movement that would tie well-armed radicals to gun advocates in a right-wing national network.” Beam laid out his theory for carrying forward a white revolution against the Zionist Occupied Government by means of a “leaderless resistence” cell strategy. Instead of mass organizations with known chains of command, Beam said, right wing revolutionaries should go underground in secret cells, unknown and unrelated to one another. The cells could number a few or many members, or individuals could act on their own as so-called Phineas Priests. It’s not a stretch to say that this meeting, and the ideas and energy that came from it, may have helped inspire not only the modern Militia Movement, but also crimes ranging from the murders of abortion providers to the Oklahoma City bombing.

And in the midst of it all was Larry Pratt. Lenny Zeskind describes the GOA leader’s appearance at the meeting:

Pratt stood at the podium and peered out from behind his glasses. He confessed to the crowd of gun lovers that he wasn’t a particularly good shot or an enthusiastic hunter. “I bought my first gun in 1968, during the riots in Washington, D.C.” that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he said. At the time all he could buy was a shotgun. “If they’d had that assault rifle, so-called, for sale, and I’d seen that big old magazine there at the time, that’s exactly what I would have bought.”

Pratt, who had studied the evolution of death squads in places like Guatemala and the Philippines and glorified these vigilante groups, joined Beam in providing inspiration for a revived militia movement. He argued the importance of the old-style posse, organized in militias. In his book Blood and Politics, Zeskind quotes from Pratt’s writing: “When the government no longer fears the people, atrocities become possible….Long live the militia! Long live freedom! Long live a government that fears the people.”

Larry Pratt's facebook photo. (He has 3,021 friends.)

Pratt’s history, in general, exemplifies the blurred boundaries between the “mainstream” and the “fringe”—the right and the extremist (and usually racist) far right. In addition to GOA, Pratt set up the Committee to Protect the Family Foundation, which attacked gays and demanded a quarantine for anyone with AIDS. “Our judges coddle criminals instead of caring for the victims of crime. They’ve chased God out of our schools, defended abortions…and now they are trying to infect us with strange and horrible diseases.” He was a keen backer of Randall Terry and Operation Rescue, and when the government shutdown OR’s finances, Pratt’s Protect the Family Foundation raised money to help pay off the groups debts and fines. And Pratt is also a founder of the anti-immigrant groups U.S. Border Patrol and English First, and a contributing editor to a periodical of the anti-Semitic United Sovereigns of America.

Pratt has said that he is not a racist or a violent revolutionary, though his record suggests otherwise. And the apparent mainstream influence of a radical group like GOA seems especially sinister at this historical moment. We live at a time when the election of the first black president has sparked an explosion in gun sales, and when attendees at anti-health care reform town halls carry assault weapons and signs saying “It is time to water the tree of liberty” (with the “blood of patriots and tyrants” as the quotation continues). All of which is just fine with the Gun Owners of America. Commenting on the idea of “Americans openly carrying firearms outside presidential appearances,”Pratt told CBS News that “the most remarkable thing about this is that some find this behavior to be remarkable.” A few days later, Chris Matthews asked GOA spokesperson John Velleco whether people attending a presidential event should “be allowed to walk in the door armed… Should they be allowed to come into the president’s company and sit in the first row with a loaded gun?” Velleco said that would be fine with him.

In times like this, accommodating the likes of Pratt and the GOA–over health care reform or anything else–is playing with fire.

The Republican Right: Bring That “Boy” Down

Jimmy Carter yesterday plainly said what everyone ought to know already. As the BBC reported it:

Former US President Jimmy Carter says much of the vitriol against President Barack Obama’s health reforms and spending plans is “based on racism”.

Mr Carter told a public meeting there was “an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president”.

Any journalist who covered the Democratic presidential primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania could not possibly have missed the naked hatred of the man based on the fact he is black. Comments such as “Oh I’ll vote for the nigger” were actually emanating from Obama supporters, so you can imagine what his opponents were saying. These same kind of comments were in the air in western Maryland during a recent town meeting on health care. The area has a history of being not just right wing territory, but Klan territory.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Younger people might have illusions of a “post-racial” society, but the unsilent generation knows racism when it sees it. America has not crossed any divide on this subject. The Republicans, especially the Republican South, reborn under Nixon, now based on young white men, can be easily ignited on this subject. This is a region of the nation where black men were not so long ago addressed as “boy”–and are still sometimes referred to that way when no one who would object is listening.

You can bet this is the kind of atmosphere Joe Wilson is familiar enough, and you can bet that’s part of what emboldened him to call the President of the United States a liar from the floor of the U.S. Congress. As I wrote on Mother Jones last week:

Joe Wilson isn’t just some mean-spirited buffoon. As a South Carolina legislator, he was one of only 7 state senators who fought to keep the confederate battle flag flying over the state capital. South Carolina, of course, was the first state to leave the Union after Lincoln was elected. Flying the confederate battle flag was a big deal in the south, which was once—and in some cases is still—inhabited by the KuKluxKlan and its successors…

The decision to fly the Confederate battle flag was made by an all-white legislature in 1962 as the civil rights movement was picking up steam. The bill passed in 2000 didn’t even remove the flag entirely—it called for a different version of flag to be flown in front of the state house instead of on top of it.

The continued presence of a Confederate flag at the state house has caused the controversy to continue. In July 2009, the Atlantic Coast Conference—after discussions with the NAACP—decided to move three future college baseball tournaments out of South Carolina.

Jimmy Carter, who knows this world well also, called Wilson’s outburst “a dastardly thing to do”–which implies, as many others have, that it was a calculated move and not a spontaneous outburst. Responding to the personal attacks on Obama at town hall meetings and similar venues, Carter said: “Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on healthcare.”

Likewise, the attacks won’t end with health care reform. They’ll just roll on into other issues on the President’s agenda. Leaders of the Republican Right, whether or not they are deeply racist themselves, are determined to bring Obama down–and if the racism of their constituents does the job, so be it.

Armies of the Right

Across the nation this summer, unknown numbers of people are hunkering down and arming up for what they believe is an imminent battle for the soul of America. Town halls and tea parties provide just a small glimpse of the rage, fear, and paranoia fomenting on front porches and in Internet chat rooms, in the conservative heartland and beyond. While the details may vary, the visions in such forums share a common theme: In one way or another, a fight to the death is coming, and coming soon.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user theonetruebix used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user theonetruebix used under a Creative Commons license.

These deep-seated fears explain at least some of the vitriol, the violent scuffles, and death threats bubbling up in town hall protests against health care reform. It’s all too easy for certain right-wing activists to accept that the president’s plan will create death panels or mandate taxpayer-funded abortions. Because some of these people don’t just believe that Obama wants to destroy capitalism and kill their granny and their unborn child—they believe he wants to kill them, too.

At a town hall meeting with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin in Hagerstown, Maryland, on August 12, one attendee carried a sign that read “Death to Obama,” and “Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids.” Another sign at the same event compared Obama to Hitler. At least some of the Obama-Hitler iconography originates from followers of perennial whack-job Lyndon LaRouche, but the comparison has been disseminated by Rush Limbaugh to a wider audience of hardline conservatives.

That’s not the only insidious comparison making the rounds: One protester who attended a raucous town hall with Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter told a Village Voice reporter that Obama was a “21st-century Marxist” who would adopt the same methods Hugo Chavez used to take power in Venezuela: “infiltration of the education system, political correctness, class warfare ideology, voter fraud, brainwashing through the mainstream media.” 

As the town halls have become more heated, the hints of violence have become increasingly overt. One man showed up outside the president’s town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with a hand gun strapped to his thigh; on August 17, another brought an assault rifle to a demonstration at the site of Obama’s speech to veterans in Phoenix. It emerged that the latter’s presence at the meeting had been coordinated with a former member of the Viper Militia, whose adherents were convicted of weapons and conspiracy charges in the 1990s and were accused of plotting to blow up federal buildings. 

Clearly, this is about far more than health care policy. Instead, it’s just one sign out of many heralding a resurgence of the extreme right wing. It’s been widely reported that extremist groups are growing, in numbers and membership, since Obama launched his presidential campaign. As in the past, some of the ideas espoused by these groups are working their way further toward the political core with the help of right-wing politicians and media figures. 

For instance, take Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) claim that expanding AmeriCorps would result in liberal “re-education camps.” This statement has now morphed into rumors that the young community service volunteers are being armed to take over the country—possibly with some help from the New Black Panther Party.

Similarly, Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, is predicting an October surprise from Obama in the form of “a hyped-up outbreak of the swine flu, which they’ll say is as bad as the bubonic plague to scare the bed-wetters to vote for health care reform.”

The assertion may sound ludicrous, but it dovetails nicely with a view among conspiracy theorists that a sweeping and deadly plot lurks behind the swine flu pandemic. Influenced by the work of a whacked-out Austrian “journalist” named Jane Bürgermeister, some on the far right believe the virus was manufactured by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the rest of the black helicopter crowd’s usual suspects, as “part of a long-term plan by the syndicate, who have built large numbers of FEMA concentration camps with incinerators and prepared mass graves in states such as Indiana and in New York to quarantine people and dispose of the bodies of the people who are killed by the bioweapons attack.” This “depopulation” scheme has in turn been linked by conspiracy theorists to the Obama administration’s plans for a “global planetary regime to enforce forced abortion” and sterilizing the population through the water supply.

Among liberals, the dominant take on all of this seems to be ridicule and derision, or else impotent hand-wringing about the demise of “civil discourse.” It’s as if they’d forgotten that many of these so-called loonies just happen to own guns—and while liberals go on chattering, these folks are stocking up on ammunition. And right-wing radicals have an advantage when it comes to ideological fervor. Obama and the Democrats in Congress quickly frittered away any populist energy that might have come out of the recession, the fiasco of the Bush years, or the 2008 election. All that’s left are the compromises on top of compromises that they call policymaking, for which no one can muster much enthusiasm. Right-wing zealots, on the other hand, think they are fighting for their lives by standing fast against communism, or the anti-Christ, or both; they’re not only doing God’s work, but also fulfilling their destiny as true American patriots.

Indeed, the right-wing revival is infused with the words and imagery of the American Revolution. The gun-toting protestor at Obama’s New Hampshire health care town hall was also carrying a sign that read, “It Is Time To Water The Tree Of Liberty”—a clear reference to a quote from Thomas Jefferson that the “tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” (Because he had a permit and wasn’t in shooting range of the tyrant, the patriot was allowed to keep his gun.) On a website also called The Tree of Liberty, members exchange Obama insults and apocalyptic visions in a forum called Committees of Correspondence, named for assemblies in colonial America that protested tyrannical British policies.

The denizens of these gatherings and websites, the tea parties and the raucous town halls, represent a long-standing force in the country’s political culture: American nativism. This oft-ignored strain draws its central impulse from an opposition to anything that challenges the vision of America as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation. Nativists have taken aim at Catholics, Jews, freed slaves, and successive waves of immigrants, beginning with the Irish fleeing the potato famine in the 1840s and continuing through to present-day immigrants from Latin America. They call for a closing of US borders and support strict adherence to the Constitution in its most literal sense, shorn of equivocating amendments, as a remedy for unwanted social change. And they have been inextricably linked to racist right-wing movements, from the Ku Klux Klan to the Militias to the Minutemen who now “guard” the border. (In the current debate over health care reform, one of the most powerful myths is that it will extend free coverage to illegal immigrants at the expense of “real” Americans.)

Many followers of modern extremist right-wing groups also adhere to the doctrine of Christian Identity, which teaches that white men are the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who traced their lineage back to Adam and Eve. The black and yellow people, they believe, are of lesser stature, likened by some to a bad first copy made by God in his fashioning of the Garden of Eden. They are not real people, the thinking goes, and should be cast down as “mud people.” The American Founding Fathers were among the true sovereigns, and the white patriots of today are their descendants. Even before Obama’s election, many believed that the nation’s political and economic systems had been taken over by the Zionist Occupied Government. Jews, according to them, are not true white people, and are bent upon world domination, with the aid of their henchmen, the racial minorities.

That’s why the election of Barack Obama adds even more fuel to nativist rage: The president is a black man, child of an interracial union, the son of a foreigner who bears a foreign name. According to some, he is not even an American citizen. “[T]he face of the federal government—the enemy that almost all parts of the extreme right see as the primary threat to freedom—is now black,” says a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups. “And the fact that the president is an African American has injected a strong racial element into even those parts of the radical right, like the militias, that in the past were not primarily motivated by race hate.”

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Lone Wolves and Lynch Mobs: The Threats Behind Town Hall Meetings

Keep in mind that it’s one thing to forcefully argue for health care reform, including dramatic changes to Obama’s approach–and quite another to join in activities that threaten physical harm, along the lines of the attacks on abortion clinics that sometimes culminated the murder of workers and doctors, the most recent being Wichita’s Dr. George Tiller.

Some of these tactics, used by some of the right to life movement and its supposedly unwanted allies on the far right, are being employed against members of Congress at the so-called town meetings on health care reform.  The Washington Post reports this morning reports on one of these confrontations, with newly minted Democratic Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania:

The exchange between Specter and one man broadcast throughout the day on cable television — culminated with the senator asking whether the man would like to leave the meeting and the man responding, to applause from some in the crowd: “One day God’s going to stand before you, and he’s going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies up on the Hill.”

Earlier in the week, Buzzflash featured a personal report by Maria Allwine on the crowds outside a town hall meeting with Senator Ben Cardin in the Baltimore suburbs, which she attended with a group of single-payer advocates:

I have never seen such hatred, vitriol and racism in all my life – and I do not say that lightly.  It made me physically ill – I could stand the heat, but I couldn’t stand the hatred and racism.  We all read about it, we know it – but having it in your face in such large and angry numbers is hard to deal with.  There were posters of Obama as Hitler, the Democratic Nazi Party, Keep Your Laws Off My Body (except for abortion – I asked) and various and sundry examples of ugliness.  Some Lyndon LaRouche supporters along with anti-immigration and tort reform.  Also a lot of “killing the elderly, euthanasia” type signs.  And of course, our favorite – “No Socialism.”  As I looked across Osler at these people, they were screaming and angry – and they often came over to where we were to provoke us and to out-shout us.  The comments to me as I walked up and down with my signs were appalling. …

Folks, this is NOT about healthcare or anything remotely resembling policy or any particular issue.  This is about the naked anger of the right wing being out of power and not accepting a black man as President combined with their own racism – it’s thinly veiled at best, but it’s racism.  I venture to say that this is the least thinly veiled racism I’ve seen for a long time – they have taken those gloves off.

The rightwing swiftboating that has characterized the last two presidential campaigns can take a racialist turn, as they did in Pennsylvania during the primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Obama. During that heated contest,even reporters were taken aback at some of the racist epithets aimed at Obama. The same sort of thing resurfaced at some of Sarah Palin’s rallies during the general election. And it’s back in force at the town hall meetings.

It’s this sort of wild threatening talk that puts law enforcement on the alert for people taking matters into their own hands. The militias once more are on the rise. And the  FBI currently is in the midst of a broad reconnaisance effort to locate “lone wolf killers” whom they fear will turn to armed action, along the lines of the Tiller murder and the Holocaust Museum attack, not to mention the earlier and less publicized murder of two Pittsburgh police officers. As USA Today reported yesterday:

Federal authorities have launched an effort to detect lone attackers who may be contemplating politically charged assaults similar to the recent murders of a Kansas abortion doctor and a Holocaust museum security guard.The effort, known as the “Lone Wolf Initiative,” was started shortly after President Obama’s inauguration, in part because of a rising level of hate speech and surging gun sales.

 

Ten Questions on Health Care to Ask at a Town Meeting

This from a buzzflash.com guest blog by Dave Lindorff, based on an idea from one of his readers. Should you go to one of the town hall meetings on health care reform, here are 10 good questions to ask. The questions about Medicare, which I’ve highlighted in boldface, are especially good ones for older people to ask. This is especially important because the media seems to be full of tales of loony geezers claiming the government is going to mess up their Medicare–if it doesn’t euthanize them first.

1. If Canada’s single-payer system is so god-awful, why have repeated Conservative governments at the provincial and national level in Canada never touched it? Canada is a democracy. If Canadians don’t like their health care system, why haven’t they gotten rid of it in 35 years? Since the system there is run by the separate provinces, many of which are very politically conservative, why has not one province ever tried to get rid of single-payer?
2. Why is rationing by income, as we do it here, better than rationing by need, as they do it in Canada?
3. Wouldn’t single-payer mean that companies could no longer threaten working people with the loss of their health insurance? Why is this a bad idea?
4. The bigger the insurance pool, the better. So doesn’t having a national pool, as with single-payer, make the most sense?
5. Why should we be allowing politicians who are taking money from the medical industry to write the new health care legislation?
6. How can the Congress be developing a health system reform scheme and not even invite experts from Canada down to explain their successful system?
7. If Medicare–a single-payer system here in America–is so popular with the elderly, how come it’s no good for the rest of us?
8. Isn’t it true that Medicare currently finances the most costly patient group–the elderly and infirm–so that extending it to the rest of the population–most of whom are young and healthy–would be much cheaper, per person?
9. The AMA, the Pharmaceutical Industry, and the Insurance Industry all bitterly opposed Medicare in 1964-5 when it was being debated in Congress and passed into law, with the right, led by Ronald Reagan, calling it creeping socialism. It became a life-saver for the elderly and didn’t turn the US into a soviet republic. Why should we give a tinker’s damn what those same three industry groups and the Republican right think of expanding single-payer now?
10. The executives of Canadian subsidiaries of US companies all support Canada’s single-payer system, and even lobby collectively to have it expanded and better funded. Why does Congress listen to the executives of the parent companies here at home, and not invite those Canadian execs down to explain why they like single-payer?