Town Hall Meeting

November 11, 2009 | Leave a Comment

Category: Activism, Society

At the end of this last August, Marcia and I attended a Jan Schakowsky town meeting at Niles High School.  There were almost 2,000 present.  Most of those folks were in the auditorium where the event was held, and many were outside holding signs and banners.  The focus was the proposed health care legislation.

Marcia meets with Schakowsky fairly often as the leader of the North Shore Coalition for Peace, Justice and the Environment.  A couple years ago, Jan was at our home for a meeting regarding Iraq, Iran and Israel where one of our group brought up Blackwater establishing itself in Illinois.  At that time, Jan was not familiar with Blackwater’s presence in the state.  Not long after that, Jan emerged to become an important congressional opponent of military contractors, Blackwater in particular.

Schakowsky is a strong supporter of Israel.  My fellow activists and organizers strongly oppose Schakowsky’s support of Israel’s conservative governments, and they also oppose West Bank settlers, Gaza atrocities and the way Israeli government policies treat Palestinians.  Our contact with Schakowsky is characterized by agreement with some of her positions and opposition to her support of Israel.

The meeting in the auditorium in August was attended mostly by liberals friendly to her perspective.  There were some who were to the left of her positions, but surprisingly few.  The hundred or so local Leftists I know by face were not in attendance, with the exception of three or four.  Perhaps 20 percent of the audience was conservative, Right Wing or Libertarian.

Having watched video clips of town hall bedlam over the previous month, I was expecting chaos.  Across the country, out-of-district obstructionists had been strategically creating a din of protest to drown out the words of legislation supporters.  Nonsense such as bringing guns to these events had become common.  Schakowsky had widely promoted the gathering.  Liberal and Left groups had been pounding drums to drive their supporters to the event.

When we arrived, two hours early, maybe 200 people were in line.  In a matter of minutes, the line doubled.  Many people were carrying signs.  Most of the signs supported Jan and a public option.  Many emphasized universal health care or a single-payer plan.  Signs comparing Obama to Hitler were present.

They opened the doors early.  We found seats.

The event started pretty much on time.  Jan made a short introduction speech which was not drowned out by noise, though there were some loud, negative exclamations.  It seemed the out-of-district obstructionists were not present.  She went right to questions.

A pattern emerged.  A question was asked.  Jan answered the question in a fashion that supported a public option, and conservative members in the audience made lots of noise.  Certain individuals made particularly loud yells or screams.  Then Jan would call upon one of those brash, noisy individuals, asking the person to ask a question, but not before the two or three previously picked questioners got a chance to ask their questions.  (She picked questioners in clusters.)  That person would then be quiet until it was his or her chance to ask a question before almost a thousand people.  The person would ask the question.  Jan would respectfully answer.  Then the loud conservative would behave far more civilly the rest of the event.

This pattern was repeated several times.

On the more liberal end, there were guys behaving like grade-schoolers, screaming at conservatives to shut up.  Mostly the hour and a half went by with little chaos.  It was quite different from what I had seen appear on the video clips of TV reports.

The principle in play was the one of offering a voice to your opponent.  During the Bush Administration, this was not only discouraged, but actively repressed.  For those of us representing the American Left, it has been particularly frustrating that those representing a Left position, such as universal health care, have been discouraged from speaking by the Obama Administration.  Not unexpectedly, some of the loudest applause at the Schakowsky event went toward those expressing support for a single-payer plan.

No one expects anything like consensus around this issue.  Nevertheless, talented officials like Schakowsky do seem to be able to create an environment where radically different opinions can be exchanged.  I experienced both excitement and anxiety sitting in a room with 1,300 people, people passionate about their position.  I yearn for universal health care.  I was dumbfounded by last summer’s events burying a single-payer plan or even a single-payer compromise such as the public option.

Perhaps with continuing events like the August town halls where all sides could listen, universal health care will some day arrive.


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