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

Image removed.
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 http://stlactivisthub.blogspot.com/2009/08/questioning-right-wing-story-on-last.html 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 [http://zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/22263, 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 [counterpunch.com/mokhiber08102009.html, 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 http://www.greens.org/s-r/32/32-02.html].

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] aol.com.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 08/17/2009 - 19:39


Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor looks at how pro-business interests teamed up with the far right to foment staged protests over health care reform--and why Obama's policies have played into their hands.

TOWN HALL meetings that were supposed to be forums to debate the merits of President Barack Obama's health care plan have turned into frightening exhibitions of right-wing demagoguery and thuggish attacks fueled by right-wing radio and Fox News in particular.

Yet the polarized debate surrounding Obama's health care plan has obscured the extent to which his plan is deeply flawed and insufficient to cover the overwhelming health care needs of tens of millions of people who currently lack health insurance. Indeed, Obama's health care plan is marked by the same corporate priorities as his other initiatives, such as bailing out the banks with trillions of taxpayer dollars.

But even Obama's business-approved proposed changes to the health care system go way too far for the Republican right. At one recent town hall meeting in Missouri, an African American woman who brought with her a poster of Rosa Parks was assaulted by a white man, who appeared to push her while ripping the poster from her hands. When the woman attempted to retrieve her poster, several armed officers swooped down on her and physically removed her from the auditorium.

At several other town hall sideshows, some white people have shown up with racist signs taunting Obama. The atmosphere is eerily similar to raucous campaign stops last summer for the McCain-Palin ticket, where shouts of "kill him" could be heard when Obama's name was mentioned.

So it shouldn't be surprising, then, that Sarah Palin stoked the atmosphere of racism and violence at the town hall meetings recently when she claimed that Obama's health care initiative would create government "death panels" to decide when old people should be put to death because their medical care was too costly.

In sync and on cue, right-wing radio host and prescription drug addict Rush Limbaugh went further comparing African American President Barack Obama to Adolph Hitler because of the fictional "death panels." This is lunacy. Unfortunately, it's not a laughing matter.

Limbaugh and his cohorts in right-wing cable news--including immigrant bashers like Lou Dobbs on CNN and Fox's Glenn Beck, who called Obama a racist in response to Obama's initial comments in the aftermath of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates--are whipping up a frenzied atmosphere in which the potential for racism and violence grows each day. At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, where Obama spoke in person, a middle-aged white man showed up to "welcome" the president with a loaded handgun.

The Republicans have been employing some aspects of this strategy for months now. Last April, they launched the so-called "tea party" demonstrations against incremental tax increases to the rich--which they also referred to as socialism. Most were staged events with backing from former Republican members of Congress and right-wing millionaires and billionaires.

These people know that in this economic climate, they don't stand a chance politically by forthrightly condemning all expansion of government programs, because the vast majority of Americans support such expansion. So the right-wing forces operate behind the scenes to make these protests--from the "tea parties" to the town hall melees--seem like they're part of a right-wing grassroots movement.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman rightly calls the organizations staging the protests "Astroturf"--as in fake grassroots. Unfortunately, their impact and effect has been magnified by the overwhelming media coverage, which has the effect of making these fringe organizations and individuals look like they are substantive part of the debate.

But it's not only the media that have helped fuel the atmosphere that has engulfed the health care debate. Also to blame are cynical politicians from Washington who brazenly seek to use racism and scapegoating to cover their general hostility to the notion of health care for all. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) claims Obama's health care reform will provide "free health care" to 6 million "illegal aliens"--to name but one example.

The new charges of "socialism" coming from the lunatic right are, in some ways, more sinister than last winter, when the right was hyperventilating about the $787 billion stimulus package. "Socialism" this time around has become the new word for "welfare"--and all of the racist connotations that go along with it.

When King makes the ludicrous charge that undocumented workers in this country will receive free health care, he knows full well that Obama's health care "reform" doesn't offer free health care to anyone, let alone non-citizens. Using such language is a conscious ploy to whip up racial animus and dodge the real discussion about the problems with the health care system in this country.

King and others like him want to promote the idea that any version of "national health care" will mean giving health care away to those who don't deserve it. The right-wing billionaire CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, recently summed up this attitude when he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "We are all responsible for our own lives and our own health. We should take that responsibility very seriously and use our freedom to make wise lifestyle choices that will protect our health. Doing so will enrich our lives and will help create a vibrant and sustainable American society."

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THIS IS really what the health care debate is about. By using racism and scapegoating to reframe the discussion, the right hopes to avoid a genuine discussion about real health care reform in the U.S. Central to this effort are the so-called Blue Dog--or more aptly, Blue Cross--Democrats, a caucus of conservatives in the party. This group is incredibly hostile even to Obama's watered-down health care reform, because they are bitterly opposed to the notion that health care should be a right and not a privilege.

The irony is that Obama has already bowed to business interests on health care, just as he has on other issues. While the Obama administration was willing to give the banks that created the economic catastrophe tens of billions of dollars and demand little or nothing in return, Obama forced auto manufacturers into bankruptcy while demanding that their unions give up long-held and hard-fought gains in health care, retirement and wages as well as agree to massive job loss.

Moreover, where Obama the presidential candidate vowed to fight for Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make joining a union easier, President Obama abandoned the legislation early on and has rarely even mentioned the bill's name.

Today, states across the country are facing bankruptcy, and budget cuts threaten thousands of state-funded social programs. Yet Obama stands by watching, effectively saying--as President Gerald Ford did more than 30 years ago when New York City was on the cusp of financial collapse--"Drop dead."

The pattern could not be clearer. Corporations and bank profits come first; ordinary people, last. This was not the "change" people were looking for when they voted for Obama. As the economy crashed last autumn, Obama rallied millions of Americans with the hope and expectation that his administration would represent a break with the status quo and would fight for real change in Washington. Today, though, the Obama health care initiative stands as only the latest example of how far Obama's policies have moved from his promises.

Back when he was an Illinois state senator, Obama favored a single-payer, Medicare-type health care plan like that of Canada and Western European countries. Presidential candidate Obama backed off his support for single-payer, but still supported some kind of publicly funded health insurance option that would guarantee that everyone--including the poor, the unemployed and the under-insured--received coverage. Ending the war in Iraq and taxing the rich--whose taxes had been precipitously cut by the George W. Bush administration--would pay for the plan.

Instead, when the corporations and insurance companies put up a fight--as one could only expect they would--the Obama administration continues to cave into their demands. Thus, the public option has been all but taken off the table. Yet if there's no public health care option in the midst of a recession, which will likely followed by a jobless recovery that will cause millions more to lose their health care--what exactly is the extent of the reform?

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THE PROBLEMS with the Obama agenda aren't just about dashed hopes or even broken promises, however. There's growing frustration over how the Obama administration's policies have paved the way for the right to reconstitute itself after its humiliating defeat in last November's elections.

A comeback for the right wasn't inevitable. The election of Obama and the rejection of the right on a whole number of social questions showed concretely how mass consciousness has moved to the left. The new administration had an opportunity to crush the right by aggressively pursuing an agenda that captured the mood of most Americans--nationalizing the banks, crafting a $1 trillion stimulus package for ordinary Americans as opposed to the banks and taxing the rich to pay for nationalized health insurance--something that a New York Times poll showed was supported by 72 percent of Americans.

Obama and the Democrats could have pushed for passage of EFCA, since polls show most American workers want to be in a union. They could have put a moratorium on foreclosures and bailed out people's mortgages through government-mandated refinancing. Popular support for such an agenda was there--the election gave Obama a clear mandate to forego "bipartisanship" and marginalize the Republican Party for a generation.

Instead, the Democrats, led by Obama, have gone in the other direction. They appeal to bipartisanship and cut deals with the discredited Republicans while sacrificing every opportunity to unequivocally come out on the side of ordinary working and poor people in this country--people who, for all the happy talk in the media about the recession drawing to a close, continue to bear the brunt of the economic crisis. Meanwhile, the money is there to maintain and expand the U.S. empire. Despite Obama's pledge to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, the Pentagon plans to remain there for decades, and Obama is rapidly escalating the war in Afghanistan as well.

All this is creating an enormous political vacuum in American politics today. If the left can't fill the vacuum, the right will try to do so--and this is what we're witnessing now in the town hall meeting "uprisings." The Republicans, devoid of any real plan to help working people in the economic crisis, have put their party behind the stewardship of the loony right, the congressional neo-Confederates of the South who led the fight against Latino Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and, most importantly, Rush Limbaugh. These forces are willing to use any rhetoric or tactic they can--from racism to scapegoating--to prevent expanding the role of government to help the mass of Americans who need it.

The right has an opportunity to grow right now, but not to the extent that the mass media would have us believe. Those of us on the left must marvel at how easy it is for right-wing fringe groups to get robust media coverage as they have with these "Astroturf" anti-health care organizations over the last several weeks, while legitimate grassroots single-payer activists are regularly blocked out by the same media. The media focus on these rightist groups and their manufactured protest movement makes it seem as if they represent a legitimate part of the debate.

They don't. The overwhelming majority of Americans have consistently, over the last several years, expressed the desire for some kind of national health care, even when it means higher taxes. When a non-profit health care group recently set up a free clinic in Los Angeles, more than 1,500 people showed up for everything from dental care to routine checkups, to mammograms and beyond.

This represents the real face of the health care crisis in the U.S.--not the boardroom-cultivated "angry white mob" threatening to hang the president and demanding "their country back." But despite the fringe nature of these protests and groups, even they can begin to attract a legitimate audience if there's no hope for the future.

The economic crisis of the 1930s--which everyone universally uses as a marker to judge the crisis of today--showed that rage and frustration in economic hard times can cut both ways, to the left and to the right. That's why our side must mobilize independently of the Democrats and demand more funding for the programs people desperately need in these times of economic hardship.

We must declare that if the federal government can flood the banks with money so that Goldman Sachs executives can once again collect multimillion-dollar bonuses, then surely that same government can pay for genuine universal health care--and tax the rich to pay for it.

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Submitted by Sheila Michaels (not verified) on Fri, 06/11/2010 - 12:40


"Insurance companies are terrified that this could be the beginning of the end for their leeching profits from a sick healthcare system."

Our healthcare system is atrocious in this country. I recently had to see an ophthalmologist for my presbyopia and had to pay a fortune, my insurance plan didn't cover the costs. I hope things will change, I believe it is a right not a privilege to receive health care in this country.