The visuals, however recent, are already becoming ingrained into the American consciousness. Protesters are picketing city halls like bands of angry mobs. Rallies are large enough to stop traffic dead in its rubbernecking tracks. And the irate man whose point-blank shouting in Sen. Arlen Specter’s face made front-page headlines.
Town hall meetings on U.S. health-care reform — the debate over the need for private vs. public insurance policies — have gone from moderated discussions to heated, and sometimes violent, melees across the country in the past month alone.
Now, following a tamer incarnation in Thousand Oaks last week, except for one minor fracas, Ventura County gears up for its own schedule of health-care panels within the next month, gatherings that many believe are dividing, rather than uniting, local residents.
Through the next few weeks, forums will take place in the cities of Ventura and Oxnard, with one this week to be held in Simi Valley. The first in Ventura County, at the Thousand Oaks Library on Wednesday, Aug. 12, attracted hundreds to a forum sponsored by an area Democratic club.
It was intended as an organized regular meeting of the Democratic Club of the Conejo Valley, joined by another Los Angeles-affiliated group.
“It’s a professional informational meeting. It’s not a circus like some people seem to be turning it into,” said Linda Sutton of the Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles.
Yet, by all accounts, it nearly reached said levels, as capacity crowds shut out of the library’s small meeting room resulted in one man, Grant Markus, being escorted away by police after the Ventura resident allegedly pushed a doctor congregated with others outside the building, nearly inciting a brawl.
Sutton commented that passions run high when sensitive subjects like health are broached.
“This is part of the craziness,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many Republicans outside a Democratic meeting.”
“It’s an emotional issue,” said Mary Baum, a Thousand Oaks Democrat who was shut out of the proceedings. “The bottom line, is nobody should be excluded from their basic right to health care.”
Ed Schrieber, a retired Marine Corps colonel who lives in Port Hueneme, does not support the idea of a public health system. But Schrieber, a conservative, did agree with liberals attending the event on one thing.
“You can see the passion this has evoked all over the country. People are scared and they’re concerned,” he said. “The next emotion after you’re scared is you’re mad.”
Some people expressed genuine fear at the idea of public health care reform.
“I’m very frightened with the thought of government getting involved with health care,” said one man.
Norman and Betty Eagle, longtime activists advocating for the Obama health-care plan, were also present at the Thousand Oaks forum. The retired Oxnard couple, who worked to generate 500 signatures of support at local farmers markets and the like, believe that the levels of emotion and energy at town hall meetings nationwide could mar the message presented on both sides of the health-care issue at upcoming panels in Ventura County.
“I think a lot of them are very confused. They do have a kind of push taking place,” said Ms. Eagle.
Even other groups outside the town hall meeting spectrum, such as one backing political activist Lyndon LaRouche, have had trouble sending their messages across locally, evidence that the communication problem of the health-care debacle goes beyond political lines, no matter how supportive or opposed to socialized health care.
A pair of LaRouche campaign supporters set up a table two weeks ago, outside the Santa Clara branch of the Ventura post office. Their pamphlets and literature, replete with scathing portrayals of Obama as a Nazi cavorting with Hitler and members of the Third Reich, generated insults from several people exiting the post office.
“The town hall meetings only reflect a much broader problem in the U.S.,” says Mark Calney, a LaRouche spokesman. “People are outraged. It’s not just Republican or right-wing groups.”
Herb Gooch, a political science professor at Cal. Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, said the health-care reform issue is a rare subject that blends politics, policy and emotion into one big storm.
“There’s a lot of frustration and anger, and a great deal of it is about the fears, and sometimes apprehensions, about health care,” he said. “People are on edge and worried about the economy. Health care has provided an opening for a lot of anger, frustration and worry.”
Depending on security levels and where meetings are taking place, Gooch feels that future town hall-style meetings have the potential to get out of hand.
“There are chances for a lot of rancor and disaffection to be voiced,” he said. “It could have a kind of demonstration effect, where people go to car races to watch the crash.”
The Ventura County Democratic Club will discuss health-care reform at its Tuesday, Aug. 25, meeting, 6:30 p.m., at the E.P. Foster Library in Ventura, as will the League of Women Voters on Sept. 10, 2 p.m. A rally supporting the president’s health-care plan will also take place Wednesday, Aug. 26, 5 p.m., outside the Ventura County Government Center on Victoria Avenue in Ventura. And Congresswoman Lois Capps, according to her office, is organizing a town hall meeting for sometime in early September, in Oxnard.