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By Renee Sessions
UWIRE.com Student Editor
TAMPA, FLA — A town hall meeting in Tampa quickly turned into a circus Thursday evening as Floridians clashed with each other and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, over national health care reform.
Tampa police estimated a crowd of more than 1,000 people showed up for the event, however the Ybor City auditorium could only fit 250, leaving a sea of people waiting outside in the blistering summer heat.
Inside the meeting, the voice of Castor was barely audible over shouts and boos from dissident audience members and those trying to quiet them. Several scuffles and screaming matches broke out inside the auditorium and around its entryway, prompting police officers to close the meeting room doors.
Video shot by 10 Connects shows Castor being screamed at and talked over throughout the meeting. “Don’t be afraid to listen for five minutes, because I think there’s common ground here,” she said, to which audience members quickly groaned and cried “No!” Castor was escorted out of the building at the behest of event organizers shortly after the meeting began, according to Beau Zimmer of Tampa’s CBS affiliate.
Protesters unable to get in the auditorium chanted “bring it outside” from the street and began pounding on and holding signs up to the windows. At one point, the line of people waiting to get in circled the block.
The crowd was largely composed of opponents to health care reform. However, they lacked a central rallying point or complaint.
While several opponents brandished signs with slogans such as “Say no way to the USSA,” “No socialism” and other vaguely socialist/communist/Marxist-related memes, others held signs such as “No health care reform. No abortions” and “Congress, don’t fund euthanasia and abortion.” Some protesters invoked the popular tea party sentiment of “No taxation without representation,” while still others referenced classic Republican ideas such as “More government = less liberty.”
One opponent held a poster with the image of President Barack Obama as The Joker, an image some commentators have called cited as racist.
Only a handful of the proponents of health care reform had signs. The most prominent was a small piece of cardboard with the slogan “Health care for all” scrawled in black marker. Another proponent waved a banner declaring “Health care is a right, not a privilege” while another held a 2008 Obama campaign poster.
Protesters opposed to health care reform did unite for an oldie-but-goodie rallying cry of “Just Say No” — coined by famous 1980’s First Lady Nancy Reagan to discourage kids from drug use — their sentiments were scattered, at best, and vulgar, at worst.
When proponents of health care reform countered the chants of “Just Say No” with “Health Care Now,” opponents started screaming “Just say no to all the assholes” and “Go home.”
Confrontations among crowd-goers grew increasingly hostile when police closed the auditorium doors and started urging people to go home, many of whom had been waiting in line for more than an hour. As I tried to film the crowd of people amassed in front of the building, a woman grabbed my camera twice as a nearby protestor called me a Marxist.
While opponents of health care reform heard about the town hall meeting from various sources, many had been informed by conservative organizations. Several opponents carried signs with logos for SecondRevolutionVOICE (Vote Out Incumbent Candidates Everywhere), a Florida-based group that runs an e-zine with the mission “to elect new members into all branches of the government” and no longer “sit back and day by day watch our rights go away and America turn into a Socialist country,” according to its Web site. Many others were already acquainted, handing out business cards with links to Web sites containing “more information than Castor knows about health care” for attendees to share with their friends.
Conservative media also publicized the meeting and urged Floridians to voice their opposition. Radio host Rush Limbaugh mentioned the meeting during his broadcast Thursday, quoting an online post by Erick Erickson from RedState.com, who encouraged Tampa area residents to attend. “Just remember, the union goons are going to do their best to pick fights with you so they can get video for TV a proof that you guys are a mob. Don’t let them win, but get your questions asked,” Erickson’s post declared.
Many opponents also said they were encouraged to attend by the Tampa 912 activist group hailed by FOXNews personality Glenn Beck, while others said they received e-mails from the local Republican Party that urged people to speak out against health care reform and even offered talking points, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
Several of the proponents in the crowd were wearing Planned Parenthood t-shirts, and others said they heard about the meeting through e-newsletters sent from Planned Parenthood’s regional office. Opponents and proponents alike used terms like “our people” and “people on our side” profusely.
Ultimately, the violence, extreme hostility and inadequate preparation at Tampa’s health care reform town hall only exacerbated the “us vs. them” atmosphere pervasive in so much contemporary political discussion, rendering the event utterly futile.
Renee Sessions is a senior at the University of South Florida.
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