Anger, Remorse, and Health-Care Reform
Denver, CO (Thursday August 6, 2009) — I'm two blocks away and ten minutes early, and I can already tell that the corner of Broadway and Stout is chaos. Scores of people stand on either side of street. Most hold signs. Some carry balloons. There's even a few strollers and small children mixed in with the crowd, but the atmosphere is anything but family friendly. People are chanting and yelling at each other, sometimes across the street, but just as often at their neighbors. The hot, dusty intersection feels a bit like a room on the verge of a brawl.
The focus of all this commotion is inside a low, nondescript building on the north corner of the intersection, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless's Stout Street Clinic. The clinic received funding earlier this year from the federal stimulus package, which it used in part to build an electronic record keeping system intended to cut down on duplicate paperwork. Today two of Colorado's representatives, Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, as well as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, are visiting to learn more about this effort. Afterwards they're scheduled to give a press conference about the health-care reform bill recently passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which DeGette vice-chairs.
It's easy to guess why the crowds are here. After all, no one ever gets very excited about electronic medical records.
I'm bad at estimating numbers, but my guess is that there are 200 - 300 people jammed in front of the clinic and on sad-looking concrete island in the middle of the intersection. Perhaps 50 more are spread out along the west side of Broadway, though there's a lot less signs there, and some are obviously onlookers. I hadn't been expecting this many people, even with the campaign by Michelle Malkin, Glen Beck, and others to disrupt events like this during the August congressional recess. If I rounded up every person I'd met this summer at demonstrations for health-care or environmental reform, I don't think I'd have half this many people.
I stop in front of a pub called the British Bulldog to ready my gear. As I check my camera, a man sitting outside leans over towards me. I'm only a few feet away but can barely hear him over the demonstrators' dueling chants of "Yes we can!" and "Just say no!" His name is Lucky, and he's not happy with Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, or really anyone else right now.
"Nancy Pelosi [is going to come] out and [say] that it looks like they're all shopping at Brooks Brothers," he gestures at the demonstrators. "I don't see anyone looking like they just came from Brooks Brothers."
I'm not entirely sure what to make of this. "Yeah, they're..." I begin to respond, but he cuts me off.
"Real people." He says. I decide to try a different tact.
"Did you see [Pelosi] go in yet?"
"You'll know when she [gets here] because her 'culture' pearls will be shining in the Colorado sunlight." He pauses for a moment, and then grows darker. "She's an idiot... It drives me crazy. A whole bunch of rich people in congress are telling us what we have to do with our lives. It's driving me crazy. They're not willing to sign up [for their own health-care proposals]... Obama won't [sign up]... 'I'm president, don't you know who I am?'"
To the best of my knowledge no such exemption exists in HR 3200, but it's also something of a non-issue. Under the current proposal no one is required to give up their existing health-care plan, and both Congress and the Presidency already have coverage. Lucky seems unimpressed when I mention this though.
"It still comes down to [the fact that] government is not very good at running anything. They can't even start their limos, they've got to have someone come in who can start their limos. Medicare, Medicaid, the post office, Amtrak..." I almost mention that there are fundamental differences between Medicare and Medicaid on the one hand, and Amtrak and the USPS on the other, but Lucky's on a roll. "Those programs, they're not going to save me any money. What they're going to do is drive out my insurance company and force me into their insurance company, and then they're going to come and say to me, 'Mr. Lucky, we know you've got a bad left knee... You're not a spring chicken anymore, so maybe you should just take drugs and die so we don't have to pay for surgery.' This is going to reduce services and it's going to cost us a lot of business."
An uncomfortable moment passes between us. I quickly say good-bye and begin walking across Broadway.
I take the opportunity to take a closer look at the crowd as I walk passed the island and turn north on Broadway. There are few friendly faces there — signs proclaim "No socialized healthcare!!!" and "Euthanize Obamacare not seniors", and a few yellow "Don't tread on me" flags can be seen closer to the center of the crowd. The few folks standing on the west side of Broadway are at least quieter, though what they lack in volume they make up for in a sense of grim determination. A family rests under the shade of a lone tree, each child carrying a sign reading "Homeschool family against socialized healthcare." A bit closer to me stands a man carrying a mass of red, white, and blue balloons and a sign reading "Community organizer vilifies citizen organizing." As if to emphasize the point, the crowd on my side of the street breaks out into a short-lived chant as I pass him.
"Hey hey! Ho Ho! ACORN is a criminal!"
It doesn't flow very well, and the enthusiasm for it seems to ebb pretty quickly.
I cross a side street and stop again to take stock of the situation. As I stand there watching the crowd, an older black man to my left turns to me. Tall and neatly dressed, he leans heavily on a cane as he asks me if I know what's going on. I tell him about Pelosi, DeGette, and Polis' visit. He's silent for a moment as he surveys the crowd with me. Finally he sighs. "I gotta get my heart checked," he says.
I wonder if the man finds the crowd as intimidating as I did when I first arrived. Without even thinking I blurt out, "if you want, I can walk across the street with you."
I instantly wonder about my motivation for making the offer. I don't know anything about this man, and yet I've already assumed a great deal about his feelings and experiences. Does my offer infantilize a man old enough to be my father? Are my words unintentionally racist? Or is the concern I feel simply naive but well-meaning?
Whatever the case, the man just chuckles at my suggestion. "Oh, I ain't worried about them," he says, looking back at the demonstration. "Thank you much."
I bid farewell and continue north along Broadway. After half a block the crowd thins out considerably and I cross back to the east side of the street, intent on making my way into the mass of demonstrators outside of the clinic's entrance.
The "organization" of the protest is clearer now that I've made my way around two-thirds of its perimeter. What had at first appeared to be a single mass of anti-reform demonstrators is in fact mostly made up of reformers, but the unlike other demonstrations I've seen there are no clear separation between the two sides. The extent of the mixing makes it difficult to get a feel for the exact composition of the crowd, but somewhere between half and three-quarters appear to be reformers, the majority of whom are clustered around the clinic's entrance. A healthy number of anti-reform demonstrators are mixed in with them as well, with the remainder occupying the island I walked passed earlier and the west side of Broadway. So while the reformers make up more than half of the crowd, their opponents are spread out over almost three times the area. It's surprising how effective this tactic is — I'd known about it before I arrived but was still fooled until I'd closely inspected the crowd.
There's also a noticeable difference in the quality of the signs between the two groups. Many of those who have come out in support of Pelosi, DeGette, and Polis are carrying glossy pre-printed signs, and those with home-made signs have generally opted for simple, almost boring designs. The signs of the anti-reform demonstrators are generally far more creative, but most have a certain haphazard quality to them. Many contain painful spelling errors or attempt to fit too much text into too small a space. A few of anti-reform demonstrators don't even seem to be aware of what they're carrying, proudly holding more than one sign upside-down.
Aesthetic divisions aside, the entire crowd is remarkably homogeneous from a demographic perspective. It's as if someone had gathered together everyone from the suburb I grew up in, stripped out all the Latin American and Asian immigrants, and handed them a collection of signs loosely organized around the theme of health-care. Excluding onlookers and the clinic staff, I've only seen one person of color so far. Like myself, the majority of those present are white and lower-middle class.
Except, apparently, when they're not. As I near the front of the clinic the crowd begins to move around the building toward Stout Street. (I learn later that this is in response to the arrival of Nancy Pelosi, who entered the building through the back door.) I follow them around, and that's when I see the suits. I pass one as I walk around the corner of the building, and then see another — an balding, rotund man wearing a bluetooth earpiece — as I cross to the far side of Stout. Like myself, the older suit is intensely interested in what's going on, but neither of us can really make out what's happening through the throng. He's not very interested in talking to me, a point he makes clear by turning away whenever I get near. Perhaps he found my press pass intimidating.
I drift further south and bump into middle-aged man getting ready to leave on his bike. His name is Raphy, and he shares my initial assessment of the demonstration. "It's really nuts," he says. "I'm really glad to hear the 'hey hey, the status quo has got to go' chant overpowering the other people."
I agree. "When [I] started out," I say, "I had a hard time figuring out who was who. Everyone was mixed in."
"It's very weird..." Raphy gestures to an antiwar sticker on his breast. "I got a lot of snide comments, [people saying health-care reform was] socialism, and a lot of just catch-phrases and catch-words. Really a completely unnuanced look at the situation... Because of the artificial 'fake' protesters they've got here, [the breakdown between the supporters of health-care reform and those opposing it is] probably almost 50-50. They're loud, and they're people that are angry because Bush was a criminal, and they know it and they don't want to admit it, and they don't like it that a black man got elected president and that the Republicans are so completely... trounced."
As we talk, a man walks by carrying a "No socialism" sign. Raphy is apoplectic. "Look at this guy with his 'socialism' sign! Okay, no socialism. I'm all for that. No socialism! Let's get rid of the health-care corporations! Let the corporations run free! Let the corporations run free and roughshod over the American people! Ugh." He shakes his head and looks back at me. "What were you saying?"
Suddenly Raphy reminds me a bit of Lucky, sitting in front of the British Bulldog and cursing the rich incompetents in Washington. Raphy may be more articulate, but his anger is just as real. He quickly recovers himself though.
"We have to admit that all modern governments are a blend of socialism and capitalism," he says. "The ideal is to create and to find the right mix. We can't have this kind of romantic, novel-esque Ayn Randian fixation on these absolutes that completely cancel each other out, that there's no room for compromise. We have a little of both. We need a free market, but we don't need a free market that just runs roughshod over people."
Given his outburst just moments before, Raphy's sense of pragmatism is a little surprising. He feels that the mixed system he describes is historically justified. "We saw what happened in the 1890s when J.P. Morgan and those people got so much power and controlled all the newspapers, and were working people 15, 17, 18 hours a day for 20 cents an hour, things like that. We see what happens when capitalism is allowed to just run completely unfettered. It's very destructive. And the same way with socialism. Socialism, total socialism, destroys incentive for everybody. I think we need a mix between the two."
"[This] is really hard for a lot of Americans to get," he continues, "because Americans are not very subtle thinkers. They just tend to think of things in extremes, and see things in just extreme opposites — black and white and nothing in between. That's partly because our education system is so degraded. Which," he adds conspiratorially, "was an intentional plan by the Republicans starting back with Reagan — to destroy education and dumb down the country."
Raphy isn't the first person to present this idea to me, and while I don't believe it myself I'll admit that there's a certain appeal to the notion. Raphy doesn't have time to convince me though. He has to get back to work, so I take a few quick photographs and then turn back towards the clinic as he rides off. There's still a tight cluster of people around the back of the clinic, but the chants and arguments that have dominated it until now have died down considerably. Perhaps this is because everyone has been out in the heat of the day for the better part of an hour now, but at least some of the reason for the crowd's increasingly amiable disposition is probably due to the desertion of the "don't tread on me" crowd, who have been slowly wandering off while Raphy and I were talking.
Now that there are less people around I manage to spot a familiar face in the crowd — Tina, a woman I know through my work at Colorado Indymedia. She's standing on the concrete island that was packed by anti-reform demonstrators only half an hour ago, but is now deserted except for her and a middle-age woman whose sign reads "Politicians are pond scum." The woman with the sign is apparently fond of her slogan, as she periodically yells it out at passing motorists.
Tina has first-hand experience with how broken our current health-care system is. "I just go without health-care. I have most of my life. I could never afford it. Even when I worked for a company that offered it, I couldn't afford it. I had it for a while and they wouldn't pay for anything. And then I got rid of it — and this is with two kids in tow — and it [meant] that I could go to the doctor, write a note, pay her later, and then I could get... medicine... [When I got rid of my health insurance] I could pay for what we needed, for a while... [Now] they won't let you sign a note. If you don't have cash up front, you can [just] die."
"[Some clinics] will still do stuff that they can get paid for through some program for research purposes," she adds. "And if you don't need any of that, then [that's it]. In some places you literally have to sign up for drug experiments to get any kind of minimal health-care, and then you don't really get what you need. They'll give you a physical, and that's what you get for free. If there's something wrong with you they'll tell you what it is, but they don't do anything... And that's been going on for decades. The last one we caught them at was Tuskegee. And it's still going on." Just as the prison-industrial complex requires a constant stream of new prisoners to survive, Tina suggests that the medical research establishment — which often has close ties to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries — requires a constant stream of desperate souls in order to find new subjects for its research.
"Politicians are pond scum!" The woman on the far side of the island is still yelling at passing cars. Tina pauses and looks over at her.
"Look at this. She can't talk about the issues, but she talks about Obama taking six months to pick out a dog."
"Everybody's got their pet issue," I say. "On both sides." The demonstration today was about health-care, but many of the signs I saw had been at best tangentially related, attacking abortion, asking for Obama's birth certificate, or demanding that Bush and Cheney be prosecuted for war crimes. Neither side seemed very good about staying on message.
"They don't want to talk about the issue," Tina says when I mention the anti-abortion signs. "I personally think [that] if we do away with capitalism, there'd be a lot less abortions. Women wouldn't be in the position where they have to make that choice... Women need more choice, not less. That will cut down the rate of abortion. If they really, really [care] about that issue, then [they should talk about] eliminating capitalism. Everything for everybody. That's the way to go... Then women have a choice. Everything for me, or everything for two of us. That's a whole lot better choice than [having] a baby and both of you starve, and [then] your life is over with and your kid's life is over with... Or bite the bullet."
As she says this a woman walking by shouts at us. "Socialism kills kids!"
Tina whips around. "So do Nazi pigs!"
"Capitalism rocks, baby!" The woman pumps the air with her fist.
Tina lets loose, and the two women yell uglier and uglier obscenities at each other until the interloper reaches the other side of Broadway and turns away from us. "Go die!" Tina spits. I just stand there, overwhelmed by the intensity of anger and hatred I've just witnessed.
There's something about this confrontation that sums up the entire afternoon for me. There should be common ground here. After all, it's grown impossible to deny that the social support systems in the US have become frayed over the years (health-care is just one aspect of this). At the same time, any proposal to create a more centralize system raises legitimate concerns about transparency, accountability, and control. In all likelihood both Tina and the woman walking way from us share many of the same worries, but are separated by an unbridgeable chasm of slick propaganda, decietful organizing, and their own increasingly polarized communities. I've seen the same interaction, the same anger, the same intense hatred, play out again and again today. There's no dialog here, only domination. The entire discussion has been reduced to just another skirmish in a cultural cold war whose relevance is increasingly restricted to those who are white and relatively secure.
That the same basic story is playing itself out at town halls and forums across the country fills me with a deep sense of foreboding. I want to be somewhere else right now, anywhere else except this hot, dusty intersection. I want to look away, but I can't. Behind the clinic a small knot of reformers still mills about, absorbed in themselves. The other side of the building is deserted except for an old black man sitting alone on a bench. Tall and neatly dressed, he rests his hands wearily on a cane as he looks back at me.
I don't think he ever got his heart checked, and I never did ask him for his name.