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United States: Industry-backed opponents of healthcare reform react with racism, violence

Elston McCowan. Photo by Don Fitz.

By Don Fitz

August 14, 2009 -- St. Louis -- Did you hear about the town hall meeting in St. Louis on August 6, where union thugs attacked a black conservative and sent him to the hospital with multiple injuries? Well, it didn’t happen exactly like that. In fact, events were the opposite of what talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly broadcast and what the corporate media relayed across the US.

The right-wing Tea Party group announced to the world that their supporter Kenneth Gladney was assaulted by Elston McCowan, who is an organiser for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Earlier this year I worked closely with McCowan, a black minister, when he ran for mayor of St. Louis on the Green Party ticket. Since nothing that I heard fit the McCowan I know, I interviewed him about the August 6 incident.

“I was one of six or seven SEIU members and staff who went to the meeting on ageing that [US House of Representative member] Russ Carnahan (Democrat, St. Louis) held”, McCowan told me. “When the forum started, the Tea Party people started yelling that they wanted to talk about Obama’s healthcare proposal. So we told them to stop shouting because we could all ask questions after the speakers.

“Then the Carnahan folks then said that you could only ask a question if you had written it on one of their forms. But they hadn’t given any of the forms to either Tea Party or SEIU. So both groups left the meeting in a bad mood.”

Walking outside, McCowan saw Gladney selling buttons of Obama in blackface and Obama smoking weed. Feeling insulted, McCowan asked why a black man would be hawking material denigrating the first black president as he pointed to one of the buttons.

“When I pointed at the button, Gladney slapped my hand. So I told him not to hit me and pointed at it again and repeated my question. He smacked my hand even harder, hit me several times and pushed me down. As I went down, I grabbed him by reflex to break my fall. I hit my shoulder and something popped. I lost consciousness for a moment but soon realised that Gladney continued to hit me.

“Another SEIU guy, Perry Molens, came over and told Gladney, ‘He’s a minister and won’t fight back. He can’t see out of one eye. Stop hitting him!’. When Gladney kept on, Perry tried to get him off of me and threw a punch in the process.

“I don’t know why Gladney had an attorney on hand, but his attorney came over yelling ‘You two attacked him!’. Gladney went off to find cops and told them to arrest us. The cops wouldn’t listen to us and did what the Tea Party people told them to do. They arrested me, Perry, a newspaper reporter and three supporters of healthcare reform.”

Media echoes right wing

The account you just read did not appear in St. Louis media or national reports that picked up the story and certainly was not addressed on right-wing talk shows or web sites. They all presented Kenneth Gladney’s story that he was peacefully selling buttons when a half dozen union thugs jumped him. They claimed that he had to be taken to St. John’s Mercy Center for “injuries to his knee, back, elbow, shoulder and face.”

Close examination hardly backs up this bizarre criminalisation of the victim.

A frame by frame analysis of the You Tube video seen across the country which is available at shows a large black man, who is McCowan, on the ground. Gladney claimed that four people attacked him, but the video shows only one person (McCowan) grabbing him as he was falling. It shows Gladney getting up unobstructed, which contradicts his claim of being attacked. It is especially hard to believe that McCowan hit him while McCowan lay on the ground.

In one interview, Gladney claimed that McCowan hit him in the face. Yet, the video has Gladney asking McCowan, “Why did you hit my hands?”. That’s an unbelievably odd question for someone struck in the face.

Another video clip shows a person in an SEIU shirt standing over McCowan to protect him, which also is not consistent with Gladney’s story. The video records Gladney saying “I’m gonna beat the shit outta him”, and shows a Tea Party person holding him back as his fists are clenched.

Despite evidence that Gladney was doing fine, he had an ambulance take him to the hospital. Tea Party transformed Gladney into a brutalised hero as they picketed SEIU headquarters two days later. The front page of the August 9 St. Louis Post-Dispatch carried a photo of Gladney in a wheelchair surrounded by adoring Tea Party supporters in front of the SEIU office.

The photo is interesting because the only hint of any injury is a bandage on Gladney’s knee. Whatever damage he suffered to his face and elbows was miraculously healed in less than 48 hours. It is also interesting that a person being pushed around in a wheelchair is the same person who appears on You Tube throwing punches, jumping up and getting cops to arrest union members.

Elston McCowan’s injuries are real. His shoulder was dislocated and his shoulder bone is chipped. He is perfectly willing to make his hospital records of August 6 made public. Would Kenneth Gladney also be willing to make his hospital records public so we could all verify the severity of injuries he sustained to his face, elbows and back? Or were they just a publicity gimmick to get on the Rush Limbaugh show?

Real Issue: healthcare reform

Of course, it’s the issue behind the issue that’s most important. Why is there such intense hostility to healthcare reform? And why now? Why do hundreds of people contort their faces into pure hatred at the idea of medical care for those with low and moderate income?

On the surface, it seems like a hatred for socialism or for a government providing anything for its people. Disdain for government programs can’t be the only reason, since half of Tea Party supporters at some meetings receive Medicare [, Paul Krugman, ``The Town Hall Mob’’, August 10, 2009].

A lot of it is simmering hatred of having a black president, with white racists lying in wait for what they perceive as a trigger to let them fire. The St. Louis episode shows that there is nothing that white racists love more than a black person doing their dirty work for them.

Part of the hate certainly stems from the fantastic stories being spread that the Obama healthcare plan would give free healthcare to immigrants with brown skin and euthanasia to elderly whites. Many are oblivious to the fact that the plan would actually do very little except prop up the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

Health insurance industry

Nevertheless, the insurance industry is behind the hate campaign. If you have never heard Bob Dylan sing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” please Google it and ponder the lyrics. Insurance companies are terrified that this could be the beginning of the end for their leeching profits from a sick healthcare system. So they feed every rumour and oppose every possible change, even if that change would do nothing to threaten them [, Russell Mokhiber, ``In Defense of Disruption’’, August 10, 2009]. The health insurance industry glues the other sources of hostility together.

Several themes run through the frenzy of anti-healthcare reform across the US. These themes are all too familiar in our history:

  • Business (in this case the health insurance industry) stirs up hysteria over mythical disasters that could unfold if there is reform;
  • Business interests prey upon underlying ethnic hostility (such as resentment over a black man in the White House);
  • Obsessing over the horrors of change, right wingers seek to shut out discussion by progressives;
  • The right projects their own violent urges onto the left, physically assaults them, and then denies, minimises and/or rationalises their own violence;
  • The right relies on the police and/or military to support them;
  • The corporate press extols the virtue of the police in defending the public order;
  • Supposed progressive politicians cave into the right (i.e., after the August 6 attack, the “liberal” University City neighbour of St. Louis cancelled a town hall meeting);
  • Like a dog chasing someone running from it, the right wing is emboldened as politicians cave in.
This cluster of events surrounding the Tea Party upsurge is reminiscent of anti-labour mobilisations throughout the history of union organising. St. Louis activists know how parallel the scenario was on a far grander scale following the great general strike of 1877.

The civil rights movement was, and still is, characterised by an amazingly similar set of tactics used against it. In recent decades, the right wing has trotted out the same script for attacking environmental movements. Most memorably for St. Louisans, when anti-genetic engineering activists mobilised for a 2003 conference, Monsanto persuaded the police to arrest protesters and shut down entire areas of downtown [see].

When under the gun, it’s tempting to say, “Maybe we shouldn’t ask for so much?”. But backing down only encourages them. After the fray in St. Louis, Democrat Russ Carnahan placed equal blame on “both sides”, indicating he has no intention of holding Tea Party accountable for Gladney’s actions. Part of the reason that Tea Party is so brazen is that the highest leaders of the Democratic Party will have doctors and nurses arrested for daring to speak on behalf of meaningful health reform.

Now is not the time to retreat on healthcare. If few progressives turn out at town hall meetings it is because Democratic Party proposals are so tepid, so boring and so protective of corporate profits.

If we had bold proposals to guarantee every person decent medical care – otherwise known as single payer healthcare or socialised medicine – many, many people would be excited and show up at public meetings. If they found themselves in a sea of people demanding meaningful change, the right-wing hate groups would become nothing more than a tempest in a tea pot.

[Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought which is published for members of the Green Party USA. He can be reached at fitzdon [at]]

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