Is tide shifting against town hall disrupters?

When Rep. Rick Larsen, a Democrat, held a town hall meeting in Ferndale, Wash., a few days ago, the meeting was packed with right-wingers who booed and heckled his attempts to explain the urgent need to reform the nation’s broken health care system.

It was a wakeup call for Chris Lindberg, president of United for National Healthcare based in Bellingham, Wash. Lindberg said her group rolled into action, helping mobilize hundreds of health care reform supporters to show up at Rep. Larsen’s Aug. 8 town hall meeting in Mount Vernon. “It was a much bigger crowd, hundreds and hundreds,” she said. “It was pretty closely divided.”

About 200 were packed into the auditorium of the Public Utility District to hear Larsen. Another 200 were outside. (PUD is Washington State’s publicly owned utility providing electricity at rates far below “for profit” utilities).

Both inside and outside, health care reform supporters held signs that read, “No less than a public option.” A big banner read, “Health care now” and “Imagine health care for all in Whatcom County.”

“It was definitely a pro-single-payer health care crowd,” Lindberg told the World. “I got in and was able to ask Rep. Larsen a question: ‘Will you support a public option at a minimum?’” She said Larsen was noncommittal but promised to vote for health care reform if certain conditions are met, including a measure that equalizes Medicare reimbursements to West Coast physicians who are paid at rates lower than elsewhere in the nation.

Lindberg said single-payer supporters in the crowd did not want to place themselves at odds with supporters of President Obama’s public option. “We did not want to be aligned with the right wing’s disruptive tactics,” she said. “We need to show that the right wing is a minority, that the majority rejects their false rumors and fear tactics that are so dangerous to our country.”

Mass turnout in support of health care reform is crucial, she said. “We need to be a visible force with our banners and signs so no one can mistake where we stand.” At too many events, the ultra-right hecklers outnumber supporters of reform, she said.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who recently switched from Republican to Democrat, has been the target of some of the most vicious heckling by the ultra-right. He told reporters that he does not believe the hecklers are representative of a majority of the people. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., charged that the disruption of democratic town hall meetings is “un-American.”

That lesson was not lost on the labor movement in New Hampshire. The Service Employees International Union organized 450 SEIU members to turn out for President Obama’s town hall meeting at the high school gym in Portsmouth Aug. 11.

Jeanne Latulippe and her 12-year-old daughter who attended the meeting said, “My family pays more than 10 percent of our income on health insurance.” Latulippe, owner of the East Derry School of Music, said, “Over the past few years, we have seen our premiums go up again and again.” Something must be done, she said, to force premiums down to make health care affordable to families like hers.

Laura Mick of Manchester, N.H., born with a cyst and water around her brain, said every application she has made to private insurers has been rejected on grounds of a “pre-existing condition.” All the pending health care reform bills prohibit denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions.

“Health insurance reform should not be about scoring political points. It’s about people’s lives … businesses,” she said. “It’s about our country’s future.”

Lindberg said victory in last November’s election was a watershed, with the people’s movement shifting from the defensive to the offensive. “Now we are at a point where we can achieve health care reform,” she said. “We have to think in terms of outcomes that weaken the right wing, weaken the insurance companies.”

She praised Larsen for keeping his cool at the local meeting. “He opened by telling the crowd: ‘If anybody is going to ask me if I have read the bill, the answer is ‘Yes. I have read it.’ He refuted misinformation such as the big scare on ‘death panels’ and ‘euthanasia.’”

“He was able to get a modicum of civility, some rational discussion,” she said.

Lyndon LaRouche goons were picketing outside holding posters with the image of Obama depicted as Hitler and swastikas. “People were visibly upset by those posters,” Lindberg said. “There was shouting. I found myself stepping in between people” to avert violence.

A thug accosted a young man holding the main health care reform banner, leaning in to him and shouting in his face. “Then a man, I believe he was one of Larsen’s aides, came over and led the heckler away. The aide then came back and asked our guy, ‘Are you OK?’ He was very concerned.”

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