The dark side of American protest

Henry Champ on the ugliness that is the Tea Party protests.

It's well past time to call out these so-called Tea Party protests for what they have become. Ugly.

Until now, many people have wanted to believe that these often impromptu protests represent the very best of American politics: The town-hall image of a concerned public banding together to wrest power from oppressive government regulation, the kind of stuff that fuelled the Frank Capra movies of the 1930s and '40s, where the little man prevailed over the machine.

But, instead, these Tea Parties have become a welcoming refuge for racists, homophobes, and worse.

Indeed, in the days following Sunday's vote, police were investigating some kind of threat or harassment against at least 10 Democratic lawmakers. Some of these threats included posters with a legislator's image in the crosshairs. 

Earlier, as black congressmen walked to Capitol Hill for Sunday's big health-care debate, some were spat upon and called the "N" word and other repulsive racist slurs.

Georgia Democrat John Lewis in an elevator on Capitol Hill on Sunday, March 21, 2010, after being taunted and called names on his way into the legislature. (Harry Hamburg/Associated Press)

A particular target was John Lewis of Georgia, a Democratic congressman who was being pilloried because he called national health care the last missing civil right.

Another was the openly gay committee chairman Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

He was showered with anti-homosexual epithets as he made his way to the chamber. None of those slurs will be repeated here, so horrendous were they.

Egging them on

Don't believe the nonsense that the offenders are a minority who have attached themselves to well-meaning protesters.

On this day they were clearly the majority and everyone cheered them on when they performed these miserable acts.

Making all this even more reprehensible were the actions of many Republican members who took to appearing on a balcony overlooking the legislature's lawn and urged on the chanting crowd.

Keep in mind these representatives of the American people were looking at placards with images of Obama in a coffin, hanging nooses and Nazis.

As well, there were several that referred to the new Republican senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, the anti-health-care campaigner who took Ted Kennedy's old seat, with the message: "If Brown can't do it, our Brownings will."

This latter message appeared over the drawing of an assault rifle.

What is the threat?

I've seen these crowds before. In the 1960s in the American South when I was reporting on the growing civil rights movement.

But never did I expect to see this kind of uncontrolled anger in a cosmopolitan city such as Washington, at the foot of the Capitol building no less.

And inside the chamber, what were the legislators talking about? What was the threat to the American republic that this health-care legislation represented?

As so many newspapers pointed out, it is a law that will bar insurers from denying people coverage when they get sick.

Explaining the epic U.S. health-care overhaul, a CBC News comparison with the Canadian system. 

It will stop insurers from denying coverage to children who have pre-existing conditions.

It will allow young people to stay on their parents' policies until the age 26, a boon to university goers.

Ultimately it will expand the health coverage to 32 million people.

It is scarcely the Communist Manifesto to take over the U.S. that the louts from the Tea Parties or a handful of Republican congressmen say it is.


It's a very good bet that very few Americans can describe more than one or two things on the list of what this bill is about.

A Tea Party protest in Schaumburg, Ill., in March 2010. (Associated Press)

Much of the responsibility for that knowledge gap comes from misleading TV ad campaigns and from town-hall meetings where bullying and shouting always trumps the facts.

These noisy squabbles always draw cable television crews who can package a two-minute spot that might run for two days, in which the most compelling component is some goofball wearing a gun and carrying a sign saying " I love America, Pelosi is a Red."

Pelosi, of course, being Nancy Pelosi, the 70-year-old (tough as steel) grandmother who spearheaded the legislation through the House of Representatives.

Where is the Republican leadership, or the leadership of the Tea Party, in taking on the liars, bullies and troublemakers in their midst?

Where Is the Republican leadership when it comes to tamping down the flagrant charges of some in their ranks who use the Congressional floor to charge Barack Obama with seeking to create a country of "white slavery" or that his administration is Communist-inspired.

Very few American journalists have called out the Tea Party for its abuses. Most of those who have are Black Americans. They've seen all this before.

Blue dogs

To be fair, the Democrats share the responsibility for making this health-care reform a shambles. Particularly the president who shilly-shallied in the face of these protesters when they first surfaced a year ago.

He and his elected colleagues wobbled when they should have elevated a clear message to the voters.

Indeed, there were several occasions over the past year when the White House appeared on the edge of withdrawing from the fight, despite health reform being a central pillar of Obama's election campaign.

The so-called Blue Dog Democrats, self-described fiscal conservatives, were the first to flee, worrying their districts would be lost to Republicans. 

In trying to negotiate a solution, Obama agreed to several out-and-out bribes to senators for their votes.

Truth is, what is now being described as Obama's legacy is not a result of his steely resolve, but the very ill-timed 39 per cent fee hike a California insurance provider was about to levy a month ago.

Talk about a gift from heaven. An emboldened White House set sail and its victory was sealed. But not without a level of rancour and hostility that Americans will be paying for, for quite some time.