On the Ground in Belgrade: A Guest Post
(Cynthia, a Missoula resident, was on the ground for more than 5 hours at President Obama’s town hall meeting in Belgrade yesterday. Contrary to national media reports, events on the ground were downright hostile at times. I thank Cynthia for taking the time to write this post. – jhwygirl)
by Cynthia Wolken
I was one of the pro-reform protestors in the free-speech zone outside of President Obama’s town hall meeting yesterday on healthcare reform in Belgrade, Montana. I am shocked and disappointed at the mainstream media’s coverage of the protest and declarations that both sides acted ‘civilly’. Many of the anti-government protesters used violence, threats of violence, and intimidation to stifle the pro-reformists in the exercise of their first amendment right to assemble and protest.
In context, there were two groups with permits to protest on a few acres outside the Gallatin Field Airport that were set aside as a free-speech zone. The pro-reformist group was comprised of protesters supporting some form of healthcare reform – from those supporting the President’s proposal to those advocating for a single-payer system. The other group, organized by the Gallatin County Tea-baggers, was ostensibly there to oppose any legislation reforming the current healthcare system. I say ‘ostensibly’ because it was clear by their signage and rhetoric that most tea-baggers were merely using the forum to further an anti-government agenda by using violence and intimidation to stifle a true public debate. Their members included members of the Republican Party, right-wing extremists, and skinheads. Their messaging was on everything from abortion to second amendment and militia rights.
I saw the following signs from tea-bagger protestors:
— “Go Back to Kenya!”
— Multiple pictures of Obama as Hitler
— Racist caricatures of Obama, including a sign depicted Obama with giant ears next to a pitcher of orange Kool-Aid
Many of the tea-baggers attempted to shout down, shove, and otherwise invade the personal space of pro-reform protesters. I heard multiple use of the words ‘f*ggot,’ and ‘n*gger, ’ as well as use of the words ‘b*tch’ and ‘c*nt’ directed at female protesters.
Much of the violence and intimidation occurred before the town hall as both sides were wrangling for space on the corner – which had prime visibility. Two or three male tea-baggers were shoving and shouting at the pro-reformists to move – calling the space in the free speech zone their ‘property.’ They were primarily raging at women, children, and the elderly. They told a law-enforcement officer that if he did not make the pro-reformists move, the tea-baggers would do it themselves. At this point, with clear threats of violence, I advised the law enforcement officer – a Montana Highway Patrolman – to call for backup. It was some time before any backup arrived, and when it did, the additional officers did not stop the men from shoving the pro-reformists. They did not arrest any of the men for assault. When I asked one officer why he did not arrest a tea-bagger man when the officer clearly saw him shove a woman, he told me that we should be expecting that kind of response for being there. Finally, after the man shoved several more people, he was arrested and taken away. I later found out he was charged only with misdemeanor disturbing the peace rather than assault.
While the above violence and threats were taking place, a tea-bagger attempted to drive his diesel water-tanker, with the word ‘Freedom’ written on the side in glitter, into the crowd of pro-reformists to intimidate them into moving. Some brave pro-reformists stood in front of the grill of his truck to prevent him from driving into the crowd. A few minutes later, with no one to stop it, the trucker began to drive forward again into the crowd – which included children and people with limited mobility. I ran over to stand in front of the truck to prevent it from plowing into the crowd. A Gallatin Airport official – I still am not clear whether he was an actual police officer – yanked me violently away by the arm and threatened to arrest me for standing in front of the truck. When I asked him why he grabbed me, rather than stopping the driver of the truck, he told me I was on private airport property and that I could not do ‘anything I wanted.’ I told him that I was in a free-speech zone, which has a special legal meaning. He clearly had received no training on what this meant.
Later in the day, one of the organizers was using a bullhorn to lead chants to the pro-reformists. The tea-baggers became irate at how vocal we were and one of them shoved the bullhorn into the organizer’s face, injuring him.
I witnessed the above acts first-hand. Undoubtedly, there are many more egregious acts of violence and intimidation that occurred that must be documented. I am asking others who were there to please tell their stories. The real heroes of yesterday are ordinary Montanans – they are the people who were scared and were intimated, but came and stayed anyway because they know how important it is to use and preserve our right to participate in our democracy.
In the words of Voltaire, “So long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men.”
Yesterday’s protest is over, but the long-term fight is not. Militia groups, hate-groups, and other right-wing factions in Montana are continuing to use the healthcare debate – and current environmental and land-use issues – to organize and strengthen. We must continue to expose their anti-democratic actions and agenda and hold the media accountable when they fail to do so.