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Violence and Incivility at Town Hall Meetings on Health Care… What Can the D&D Community Do?

We’ve been having a rich discussion today about this on the main NCDD listserv (subscribe by sending a blank message to NCDD-DISCUSSION-SUBSCRIBE-REQUEST@lists.thataway.org), and I wanted to post my initial message to the blog as well…

David Campt sent me a message yesterday with a link to a Huffington Post news story about how labor unions are organizing so their members can take on conservative Tea Party protesters and others planning to protest all of the town halls and other events on health insurance reform going on during the congressional recess.

A memo from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney states “The principal battleground in the campaign will be town hall meetings and other gatherings with members of Congress in their home districts,” reads the memo. “We want your help to organize major union participation to counter the right-wing ‘Tea-Party Patriots’ who will try to disrupt those meetings, as they’ve been trying to do to meetings for the last month.”

A follow-up memo from AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka accuses conservatives groups of being corporate-funded, and says “These mobs are not there to participate. As their own strategy memo states, they have been sent by their corporate and lobbyist bankrollers to disrupt, heckle and block meaningful debate….  Mob rule is not democracy. People have a democratic right to express themselves and our elected leaders have a right to hear from their constituents — not organized thugs whose sole purpose is to shut down the conversation and attempt to scare our leaders into inaction.”

The Huffington Post article noted that “A showdown between unions and grassroots conservative organizations could make for an August full of fireworks, with even more dysfunctional town hall meetings.

David asked me if it would “make sense for NCDD to try to position itself as a process expert to try to turn these events into something other than a chance for an explosive physical confrontation? I am not exactly sure how to do that, but this looks like a very ugly set of conditions being set in motion.”

NCDD Board member Leanne Nurse (EPA) then emailed me this morning with a link to this news piece on the Fox News website, which described how town hall meeting on health care reform held yesterday in a Tampa, Florida suburb erupted into shouting and violence as angry opponents clashed with event organizers.  She was wondering if any NCDD members had more information about what happened in Tampa.

There is a lot more to this story – including spin from both the Left and the Right and a lack of substantial information being presented to the public via the media (and now that town halls are becoming violent, the media will focus even more on the violence and not the substance of the issue).  It all adds up to democracy at its worst, which makes me wonder what our role is in all of this.

I’d like to know, first of all, if any of you are planning health care events involving people from all sides of the political spectrum?  Are you organizing forums that allow people to talk about the proposed bill in any depth?  Are any of you holding events that are open to the public and could potentially be well-attended?

If so, let’s share information about those events on the listserv. I’ll share what any events sent to the listserv on the NCDD site, on Facebook and Twitter, etc. to get the word out a little more that alternative, more democratically designed events are being planned.

If your efforts produce new stories we can use about how anger and dissension was diffused because all sides sat down together and were able to talk to each other civilly, I think we have the potential for getting some real PR for quality public engagement work.

Of course, if people are worked up into a frenzy before they get to an event, it may be near impossible to even get people to sit down and start talking to each other.  Have any of you experienced this in your work before?  How have you handled it?

What else do you folks think “we” should do, as a community of practice?  What’s possible and do-able in this short timeframe?  What can we do to better react to situations like this one in the future?  This is a scary situation for our democracy, but our community has so much to offer.

Sandy Heierbacher on FacebookSandy Heierbacher on LinkedinSandy Heierbacher on Twitter
Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Here's one comment someone sent me via email that didn't go out to the listserv…

    The botched town halls bother me a lot — I wish we could get a talking head onto olbermann or chris matthews to say "Hey! we don't have to give up or give in, there is a better way."

  2. Nick Troiano posted this comment and link on facebook (the blog posts here are published to my Facebook Wall)…

    There should be a document of best practices from facilitating deliberative discussions at town halls distributed to Congressmen and their staffs. Politicians want to be heard, but they also need to listen.

    Here is something that just happened in my home town:
    http://pikecountypress.com/wordpress/2009/08/05/c

  3. Rick Hyer says:

    Let’s face it, our Congressmen and Senators will never agree to a National Heath Care Plan. Big money, special interests, Bipartisanship, People’s tempers and the complexity of Health Care all contribute to getting nothing done with this topic. And it never will get done with the way we are approaching it.

    But, there is an easy way (relatively speaking) to get it done – because nobody has to compromise! Neither the Republicans nor Democrats would have to compromise on their National Health Care Plans … here’s how:

    Have the Democrats put together their best plan and submit it to the GOA (to ensure stated funding will, indeed, fund the plan). Republicans would do the same. We could also let Tea Party membership, Independents, and a Health Care Institution each do the same. After the GAO has validated all the plans, then present all the plans to the public, give some time to scrutinize (say, 6-12 months or so) then put all plans on the ballot and let the public decide which plan they want.

    We could incorporate the voting of these Plans on the normal April and November ballots, or use special voting days. If one of the plans gets over 50% of the vote, that’s what we implement. If no option gets 50% of the vote (none will on the first go-round), take the option with the lowest votes off the ballot, then vote for the remaining Plans (perhaps in another 6 months or so). Repeat this until an option gets over 50% of the votes. No compromising, easy!! AND – it takes the burden off of the elected officials to choose. And even more important, it prevents an over-compromised bill that is a piece of crap that nobody likes.

    This would not be a cheap thing to do, but it won’t be anyway. Non partison WEB sites and TV stations would be set up to field rumors every day (like Death Panels type of thing) and keep misinformation in check. There would always be a place for people to go to learn of the latest accusations, rumors, etc. to keep tempers and truth in check.

    Independent WEB sites would have a summary of each plan (and a URL to the “entire” write-up of the plan), what they do and don’t do, how much it will cost and how it will be funded. These plans could be studied and discussed on TV stations, radio, newspapers, etc. till most folks had a good understanding of what each does.

    It would get done this way, and we would end up with a good, non-compromised National Health Care Plan. And the U.S. Citizens (who will use and pay for the resulting Plan) will make the decisions, not Big Business, Politicians, etc.

    – Rick Hyer.

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