People’s movement asserts new power

I think we all can agree with Vice President Biden. Passing the health care reform bill was “a big f—–g deal!” The fight absolutely is not over, but the people’s movement has just captured a pretty big hill! While it is not the expansion of Medicare to all that many of us had set as our goal, it is a massive victory, one that will bring relief to millions in our depressed capitalist economy. It is, in fact, the biggest step forward for health care in our nation since the passage of Medicare 45 years ago.

At that time, President Lyndon Johnson was able to ride the wave of the civil rights and free speech movements to get that bill through Congress.

Just a month ago national pundits had health care reform and the Obama administration dead, and were more than happy to begin tossing dirt on their graves. Only a tremendous mobilization by supporters of reform saved the day.

It appears that the grassroots movement that helped elect Obama and the Democratic Congress has reemerged. Even the president himself hit the road, mobilizing folks. The health care movement and organized labor helped. Much of the upsurge was spontaneous, as regular folks had reached the end of their patience with Republican/corporate obstructionism.

Demanding health care reform

The right-wing teabaggers also issued calls for mobilization. The corporate media chimed in. All hope for changes our people need so badly was to be drowned in a sea of insane racist, right-wing anger.

Here in Ohio, according to the media, we were to catch the brunt of it.

Like schoolyard bullies, the teabaggers in Columbus, Ohio, announced their intention to show up at freshman Congresswoman Mary Jo Kilroy’s office and deliver a message of intimidation, demanding that she vote “n”‘ on the health care bill. Show up they did, screaming insults, calling women “bitch” and “whore,” spitting and yelling at sick people. They did all they could to provoke confrontations. They reminded me of those arrogant, strutting bullies in bad old TV movies.

Like in the old movies, we had good guys riding to the rescue, but this time it was different – the good guys were the newly energized people’s movement.

First, there were a few e-mails from individuals, then a couple local progressive groups forwarded the messages, urging folks to show up and “Stand up with Mary Jo,” supporting her stand in favor of health care for all. The mobilization seemed to come from nowhere. Actually, much of it came from the huge movement that had helped elect Obama, but had been mostly dormant since.

Instead of intimidation, what we had were dueling demonstrations. Separated by police lines, each numbered about 300. But that was where any similarity ended.

On the pro-health-care side, many were not activists: young folks just getting involved, older people who have caught hell from the insurance companies, quite a number of folks who worked in the health care field or for insurance companies and saw the crisis up front and personal. A good group of union folks: a bunch of IBEW guys, pipefitters, retired steelworkers, SEIU, some public workers with AFSCME. Some students came out, and the folks who’d been involved in this fight were there also. It was a hopeful, concerned group, happy, but also very determined!

In contrast, the teabagger side reeked of hatred. Screaming racist insults, spitting on people, they were, quite literally, the spitting image of the racist mobs of the civil rights movement days.

Teabaggers’ ‘Bull Connor’ moment

However, their attempt at intimidation is proving, like Bull Connor’s hoses in Birmingham in the 1960s, to be pretty embarrassing for them.

A reporter for the conservative Columbus Dispatch captured on film a crew of these folks spitting on, throwing money at and threatening an older man sitting in the street with a sign that said he had Parkinson’s disease and needed the health care bill to pass. This film found its way to the Rachel Maddow Show. The next day, Rep. Kilroy spoke about the incident on the floor of Congress and placed the video in the congressional record. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Chris Matthews’ show aired the film. It was seen by millions on YouTube. This was the face of a truly ugly side of our nation.

Like the shocking violence of the real Bull Connor, the actions of these present-day thugs seen up close on film is provoking a wave of justified disgust on the part of thousands, possibly millions of Americans.

It appears that the right-wingers, in and out of Congress, may have overplayed their hands. We’ve won a major victory, and some on the right are trying to figure out how they can get out of the box of isolation and marginalization that they’ve so firmly stuffed themselves into.

The biggest thing happening is that the thugs no longer control the dialogue. The people are standing up and demanding that the long road to a better, more just society has to begin, here and now.

New political moment

In Canton, Ohio, an estimated 1,000 people demonstrated in front of Congressman John Boccieri’s office, calling on him to reverse his previous “no” vote and vote for the health care bill. A day later, he announced he would do just that.

At Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s Lakewood, Ohio, office, people showed up to urge him to vote for the bill. Supporters of HR 676, the single-payer health care bill that Kucinich had co-sponsored, were also there urging him to continue to vote against the reform bill. But in the end the two groups left as friends and Kucinich, citing thousands of calls and hundreds of discussions with constituents, announced he would also switch his vote from “no” to “yes.”

Meanwhile, in D.C., the projected “huge” “Code Red” rally against the bill fizzled. Expressing frustration, right-wing New York GOP Rep. Steven King issued veiled threats of violence.

“We still have our votes,” he said, “but if that doesn’t work, the situation could dissolve into violence in the streets, like in other dictatorships!”

In Washington, the “baggers” created another Bull Connor moment, assaulting African American and gay members of Congress with the ugliest racist and homophobic epithets. Not since those bad old days of the actual Bull Connor and his ilk has there been a national political movement that would so openly identify itself with such blatant racism and homophobia.

There are reports of death threats against members of Congress, and the president. An extremely dangerous development is the “gun rights” rally scheduled for D.C. on April 19. The date was chosen to commemorate the date that Timothy McVeigh murdered over a hundred public workers in Oklahoma. Many are planning to attend carrying firearms.

We should not take these threats of violence lightly. But clearly the tide has begun to shift. And local mobilizations across our nation – not just in big cities but small ones too – show they are a key part of it.

A year ago, the people’s movement was exhausted and frankly, taken by surprise. After years of fighting the corporate Bush regime, struggling for survival, then pulling out an amazing historic electoral win, they were not ready to open another battle. The insurance and other corporations, with the ultra-right Republican Party, were ready and willing to heavily finance a dangerous movement of the most marginal, extreme right-wing, racist, homophobic, anti-women and anti-labor elements. Sensing a threat to their ill-gotten wealth, they saw this as a way to poison the political waters and attempt to suppress the people’s desire for reform and a more just society. It is a classical fascistic design by the most right-wing elements of the corporate ruling class.

It worked, for a while. The health care debate was poisoned by claims of “death panels” and “government takeovers.” People were confused, then disgusted. Many just wanted it all to end, polls showed. However, the day after the health care bill passed a new consciousness began to take hold. A new Gallup poll showed a big shift, with a 49%-40% majority now supporting passage of the bill.

One period appears to be ending, and a new period of people’s involvement, militancy, may very well be taking its place.

Labor steps up

Now revving up is the massive new coalition for jobs/relief led by the AFL-CIO. With over 80 allied organizations, the labor movement is setting up coalitions across the nation, calling on Congress to address the growing crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality in our nation.

Led by militant new AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, formerly of the United Mine Workers union, this young movement began this month by holding demonstrations in many cities, demanding jobs and relief for our suffering people. It organized demonstrations against the Wall Street banks that caused the economic crisis, demanding that they start loaning money to individuals and businesses, instead of hoarding the bailout monies. Demonstrations are being called for every month by the new Jobs for America Now Coalition. Demands include direct federal spending to create jobs and put our nation back to work, relief for those who can’t get work, aid for education and training, stopping foreclosures and developing new green energy jobs.

Danger – and opportunities

Certainly none of us have crystal balls, and our job isn’t to just sit and predict the future anyway. This new movement needs all of our help, our interest and our efforts on its behalf.

This is a dangerous period, as the fascist-like ultra-right appears ready to resort to violence. It calls for the people’s movement to widen and strengthen our levels of unity, as well as increase our vigilance.

Some on the fringes of the left are focusing on attacking the administration. This is diametrically opposite from what is called for.

Huge opportunities are now open to pass an array of progressive legislation, to advance the people’s agenda. Our job is to make certain that this happens, to drive a stake through the heart of the right-wing machine, and help our people fight their way toward a better, more just and progressive future.

Photo: Ben Sears


Bruce Bostick
Bruce Bostick

Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and labor activist in Ohio.