Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Why Democrats get steamrolled ...

... way more than they should. The Republicans (or some significant faction of them) have started sending what are basically lightweight goons around to Congressional town hall meetings to disrupt them. Not to confront the Congressmembers with uncomfortable questions or even to cheer and boo more than the average, but to outright disrupt the meetings,and not just momentarily.

Now, when I hear stuff like this I tend to think of ways to put a stop to this crap. Marty Kaplan, the director of the Norman Lear Center and USC Annenberg School professor writes about this phenemenon in the Huffington Post, Mobs R Us? 08/03/09. Short version: these rightwing disruptors are kind of like the dirty hippies in the 1960s and I never had anything to do with them and please don't anyone associate me with them.

That's just pitiful. Some basic approaches suggest themselves. For one, these are most likely conservatives of some kind, some of whom may be paid for their soft-boiled thuggery, but even if they are they probably have some level of commitment to the cause of opposing Kenyon Fascism or whatever the hell they think they're opposing. And this is a form of thuggery. But these are not, as far as I can tell, like the gangsters and gun thugs corporations used to hire in the 1920s and 1930s to beat up and kill union organizers and supporters.

So I would think the following approaches would be useful.

1. Shout them down. The organizers of the town hall could have a few ringers of their own there prepared to yell, "Sit down and shut up!" and "We want to hear the Congresswoman" and things like that. If a couple of the ringers look like bouncers from a biker bar, so much the better.

2. Get some advice from union organizers. A lot of them have some experience in spotting disruptors early and have the verbal skills and experience to confront them when they start up. Someone with some experience in this is more likely to handle it more effectively than someone who's seeing it for the first time and is unprepared. And if a couple of barrel-chested union organizers who can look convincingly mean are willing to come to the meeting, great.

3. Call the cops. We're talking about Congressional town hall here, not union meeting that the local cops and Klan and hired guns want to break up. If you've ever been in a meeting that a group tried to disrupt this way, it's not hard to tell the difference between people there to ask tough questions and people out to prevent the meeting from happening and intimidate the speaker in the process. Most of these types aren't likely to risk arrest. Like I said, it's thuggery but a very lightweight variety.

4. Press charges. If some of them do push it to getting arrested, we're not talking about Nelson Mandela or Freedom Riders here. These soft-goon types aren't prepared to do jail time for the cause. Once word gets around that you may be looking at six months to a year in jail if you're effective, the problem will die down.

5. Hire private security. If the alternative is having a bunch of Republican sleaze-bags prevent you from having a public meeting, why not? But since we're presumably dealing with arrogant Republican twit types, the problem can probably be handled without spending a lot of extra money on security.

6. Oppo research. This should be a no-brainer. Find out some of the operatives organizing these campaigns and paying the softie-goons, and make sure they get bad publicity. Some reporters in the alternative press will hopefully do this. There was a time, not so very long ago, that the mainstream press would have done this. But times have changed.

7. Ignore useless nonsense like what Marty Kaplan wrote. Has Kaplan ever been to an actual public political event, I wonder? That post was just pathetic.

Which of these approaches or combination of them would be appropriate really depends on the particular situation. The bottom line is that people have a right to hold public meetings, and that right includes official protection from having the meetings prevented from taking place by hostile groups. There's no magic formula that can be easily put down in words, certainly without more specifics than I've seen on the disruptions, that can be a one-size-fits-all prescription. If someone is just yelling out protest slogans like we see demonstrators do occasionally in Congressional hearings, they can be escorted out of the meeting with no real damage to the function of the meeting. Dems shouldn't be thin-skinned about dealing with oppositional or outright hostile questions. And we're apparently not dealing with actual violence initiated by the goons in those situations yet. So you don't need to have the meeting rooms and aisles lined with uniformed guards and unofficial security volunteers. But the Dems cannot allow these roving Republican astroturf demonstrators to prevent them from having functional town meetings with their constituents, where local voters are prevented or intimidated from asking their own question and voicing their own concerns.

Scarecrow at FireDogLake is on the case in Republican Health Care Politics and Right Wing Thuggery 08/03/09. He identifies Dick Armey as one of the prime movers behind this. Denice Dennis reports on a specific instance in Right Wingers Wreak Havoc on Philadelphia Town Meeting Huffington Post 08/03/09.

Back to Kaplan's pitiful post: If you're going to advertise your virtue to Republicans and to the Beltway Village by reaffirming your rejection of those awful hippie antiwar protesters of the 1960s which still so haunt the nightmares of good Christian Republican white folks, is it to much to expect that you denounce something those Sixtiers (many of whom are now sixtysomethings) actually did? Kaplan defines the sins from which he distances his pristine liberal (?) principles in the following very general way:

Back then, more than a few public events were thrown into confusion by agile and vocal protesters, and more than a handful of universities had sand thrown in their gears by occupiers, demonstrators and masters of agitprop.
But was there an actual parallel to these present townhall thug-light operations in the dreadful Sixties? More specifically, was there any significant faction of the Democratic Party that tried to prevent Republican Members of Congress from holding public meetings with their home constituents? Did any of them involve as significant a figure as a former House Party leader of the status of Dick Armey?

Maybe, but Kaplan doesn't tell us about them. There were lots of public protests about lots of things in "the Sixties". Some of them more polite and orderly than others. But I don't recall ever having read about Democrats, or even antiwar groups, systematically attempting an operation like the one going on now. If Kaplan knows about some, maybe he will enlighten us in another column distancing himself from those awful anti-Vietnam War protesters.

This kind of disruption is actually more associated with small, sectarian groups who took disruption as their task. During "the Sixties", the US Labor Party, the vehicle that first made Lyndon Larouche famous, pulled such stunts. (Rumor had it that they cooled it with that after they made the mistake of trying to disrupt meetings with union organizers who had experience with 30s-style class warfare.) The US Labor Party was pretty much universally regarded as an FBI-directed group in those days; I don't know how solid the documentation is on that. But I once saw that affiliation referenced in a Business Week article, so I'm assuming it wasn't entirely a frivolous assumption.

I've been in a couple of meetings in the last decade or so, both of them events sponsored by Catholic parishes, where some far-right crazies pulled this type of disruption activities. One was neo-Nazi types trying to heckle down a presentation by a Holocaust survivor to a church youth group. In that case, the adults shouted down the hecklers. When they started up again later, someone finally called the cops. These bold defenders of the white race against Jews and Jew-loving Catholics bravely and quickly skedaddled when they knew the cops were on the way.

The other time was at a parish meeting to discuss the sexual-abuse scandals in the church so much in the news a few years ago. The diocese had been at least attempting to host a series of meetings like this. Some fanatical antigay group was disrupting them on the ludicrous notion that gay priests and only gay priests were the problem in the abuse scandals and that no one should be allowed to even talk about the issue in any other context. In this case, the priest discontinued the meeting. Which was understandable. One or two of the people on the panel were former victims of abuse and the rightwing goons wanted to subject them to a different kind of real-time verbal abuse. I regretted, though, that the parish didn't insist on having the meeting again and having the police there to expel disruptors.

Both freedom of religion and freedom of speech were at issue in both instances. If a Catholic parish wants to have a Jew come talk about the Holocaust, or to discuss a difficult and emotional issue like the priest abuse scandal, they have a right to do that without the meetings being disrupted by rightwing goons or whoever. Sometimes, you wind up having to deal with dirtbags to exercise your rights.

The disruption tactics of both those groups sound more-or-less identical to what I saw in those two instances. There are ways to deal with that kind of thing.

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