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Tea party and other anti-health care protesters in Washington denigrate African-American lawmakers with racial slurs, one African-American congressman is spat upon, and a gay congressman is called an anti-gay slur by another protester.
'Kill the Bill, N_gger!' - John Lewis (D-GA) and Andre Carson (D-IN), both members of the Congressional Black Caucus, after leaving a Democratic caucus meeting with President Obama, encounter a large and angry crowd of tea party and other protesters. According to Carson and a number of staffers accompanying the lawmakers, protesters first scream and chant, “Kill the bill!” referring to the pending health care legislation, then alter the chant to say, “Kill the bill, n_gger!” When Lewis confirms that he supports the bill, protesters shout, “Baby killer!” Police quickly escort Lewis, Carson, and their staffers into the Capitol building. Carson later tells a reporter that he heard the first slur from a single individual: “You see one or two tea party people kind of look at him, and then you hear it again as we’re walking. Then we walk across [Independence Avenue], and that’s when it starts getting deeper.… You heard it in spurts, in the midst of ‘Kill the bill. Kill the bill.’ One guy, I remember he just rattled it off several times. Then John looks at me and says, ‘You know, this reminds me of a different time.’” Lewis confirms Carson’s account of the racial slurs, and adds, “People have been just downright mean.” Heath Shuler (D-NC), a white congressman, also confirms that he heard the racial slurs.
Lawmaker Spat Upon - Another African-American congressman, Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), is spat upon by an unidentified protester; police arrest the man, but Cleaver declines to press charges and the man is later released.
Lawmaker Called 'F_ggot' - Protesters in the same rally accost Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA), who is openly gay, inside the Longworth House office building; one, an elderly white man, shouts, “Barney, you f_ggot!” causing many in the group to laugh and a woman to shout, “We don’t need that.” CNN reporter Dana Bash later says that her producer personally witnessed the homophobic slur towards Frank. When Capitol police threaten to expel the protesters from the Longworth building, according to one reporter, the police are “outnumbered and quickly overwhelmed.” After tea party protesters equipped with high-end video cameras arrive to film the encounter, the police relent and allow them to continue protesting inside the building.
Rhetoric Similar to '60s Civil Rights Protests - Frank later says of the protesters: “I’m disappointed at a unwillingness to be just civil. [T]he objection to the health care bill has become a proxy for other sentiments.… Obviously there are perfectly reasonable people that are against this, but the people out there today on the whole—many of them were hateful and abusive.” Frank puts some of the blame for the incident on tea party organization leaders and Republicans who align themselves with the organizations, and notes that today’s incidents are not the first of their kind (see June 30, 2009, July 28, 2009, July 28-29, 2009, August 4, 2009, and August 11, 2009). “I do think the leaders of the movement, and this was true of some of the Republicans last year, that they think they are benefiting from this rancor,” he says. “I mean there are a couple who—you know, Michele Bachmann’s rhetoric is inflamatory as well as wholly baseless. And I think there are people there, a few that encourage it.… If this was my cause, and I saw this angry group yelling and shouting and being so abusive to people, I would ask them to please stop it. I think they do more harm than good.” Frank tells another reporter: “The Republican leadership is making a mistake not doing more to disassociate from this.… It’s a mob mentality that doesn’t work politically.” House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), an African-American, says: “It was absolutely shocking to me, last Monday, I stayed home to meet on the campus Pomford University where 50 years ago, as of last Monday, March 15th, I led the first demonstrations in South Carolina, the sit-ins… quite frankly I heard some things today that I haven’t heard since that day. I heard people saying things today I’ve not heard since March 15th, 1960, when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus. This is incredible, shocking to me.” (Beutler 3/20/2010; Russert 3/20/2010; Hall 3/20/2010; Washington 4/13/2010) Anne Caprara, the chief of staff for Betsy Markey (D-CO), says of the protesters: “I’ve been in politics for 10 years and it was like nothing I’d ever seen. To be amongst that crowd outside and to see some of the people who walked into our office, these people were very unhinged.” (Stokols 3/25/2010) The New York Times later publishes a correction to a follow-up article that notes it is impossible to prove that actual tea party members were the ones hurling the racial and homophobic epithets, nor is it clear that it was a tea party member who spat upon Cleaver. (Bai 7/17/2010)
Tea Party Supporters Claim False Accusations - Conservative bloggers quickly accuse Lewis, Carson, Cleaver, and the “liberal media” of lying about the incidents (Baker 3/20/2010; John Hinderaker 7/25/2010) , and are joined by Bachmann (R-MN), who will falsely inform an audience, “No witness saw it, it’s not on camera, it’s not on audio.” (Washington 4/13/2010)
Videos Surface - A blogger at the liberal Daily Kos posts a video of the protests. (Daily Kos 3/20/2010) Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart later posts a video claiming that it proves no such incidents took place; further examination proves that the video was shot over an hour past the time of the incidents. Breitbart will offer a $100,000 contribution to the United Negro College Fund if anyone can prove to his satisfaction that the incidents occurred. After stating flatly that his video proves the incidents “didn’t happen,” Breitbart later partially retracts his denial, saying, “I’m not saying the video was conclusive proof.” Other conservatives will accuse Lewis, Carson, and Cleaver of deliberately walking through the crowd of protesters in order to provoke a reaction. (Washington 4/13/2010) Days later, another video surfaces, showing Cleaver walking through a crowd of angry, shouting protesters, then suddenly jerking his head back and wiping his face. (EurWeb 3/29/2010)
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK), a Fox News contributor and generally accepted leader of the far-right Tea Party movement, posts an image on her Facebook page that depicts gunsights (crosshairs) on 20 Congressional districts and lists the Democrats who currently represent them. The image reads: “20 House Democrats from districts we [Republicans] carried in 2008 voted for the health care bill.… IT’S TIME WE TAKE A STAND. Let’s take back the 20 together!” The liberal Huffington Post calls Palin’s image and rhetoric “decidely militant.” Conservative commentator Elizabeth Hasselback calls the use of gunsight imagery “despicable,” saying: “I think the way some Republicans are handling this is nothing more than purely despicable. The names that are next to and being highlighted by those crosshairs—I think it’s an abuse of the Second Amendment. I also feel as though every single person on here is a mother, a father, a friend, a brother, a sister, and to take it to this level is—it’s disappointing to see this come from the party, and I would hope that leaders like Sarah Palin would end this.” The image lists the 20 Democrats by name (noting that three are not running for re-election, and marking their districts in red):
Vic Snyder (D-AR, retiring)
Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ)
Harry Mitchell (D-AZ)
Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ)
John Salazar (D-CO)
Betsy Markey (D-CO)
Allen Boyd (D-FL)
Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL)
Brad Ellsworth (D-IN, retiring)
Baron Hill (D-IN)
Earl Pomeroy (D-AL)
Charlie Wilson (D-OH)
John Boccieri (D-OH)
Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA)
Christopher Carney (D-PA)
John Spratt (D-SC)
Bart Gordon (D-TN, retiring)
Thomas Perriello (D-VA)
Alan Mollohan (D-WV)
Nick Rahall (D-WV) (Huffington Post 3/24/2010; Huffington Post 3/26/2010)
After one of the listed Democrats, Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), is shot in the head by an apparent assassin in January 2011, Palin’s staff will remove the image from Palin’s Facebook page and issue the claim that the gunsights were actually intended to represent surveyor’s marks. However, Palin herself will call the gunsights “bullseyes” that “target[ed]” her opponents. After the November 2010 election, when all but two on the list have either retired or been defeated, Palin will post on Twitter: “Remember months ago ‘bullseye’ icon used 2 target the 20 Obamacare-lovin’ incumbent seats? We won 18 out of 20 (90% success rate;T’aint bad).” Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler will write: “[I]t’s silly for her aides to claim she did not intend these to be gunsights. They can defend it, or apologize, but they shouldn’t pretend otherwise.” (Tammy Bruce 1/8/2011; Kessler 1/11/2011)
In the wake of tea party anti-health care reform protests that resulted in protesters verbally abusing a disabled man (see March 16, 2010), hurling racial and homophobic slurs at lawmakers, spitting on a lawmaker (see March 20, 2010), and threatening Democrats with violence (see March 24-25, 2010), the leaders of some tea party organizations condemn the harassment and threats of violence their members are producing. At the same time, these leaders say that their members are responsible for the incidents they condemn. Politico reports, “There hasn’t been any hard evidence that the reported harassment is linked to the tea party movement, but Democrats have tried to draw the link between the harassment and the sometimes-inflammatory rhetoric that tea partiers and Republicans deployed in opposing the health care overhaul.” A group of Florida tea party organizers releases a letter to Congress and President Obama saying they “stand in stark opposition to any person using derogatory characterizations, threats of violence, or disparaging terms toward members of Congress or the president.” The letter calls the tea parties “a peaceful movement,” and says its leaders denounce “all forms of violence” and “support all efforts to bring [any perpetrators] to justice and have encouraged full cooperation within our movement and have asked for the same from the members of Congress who have laid such claims.” The letter is also signed by the Florida chapter of FreedomWorks, the Washington-based lobbying group that sponsors and coordinates many tea party organizations (see April 14, 2009). FreedomWorks spokesman Brendan Steinhauser, who helps organize local tea parties around the country for FreedomWorks, issues a statement saying, “Political violence is both immoral and ineffective, and will only set the movement back.” He says he is “reminding all grassroots leaders that it’s important to focus our efforts on peaceful, political efforts like protests, office visits, letters, petitions, and of course, voting.” However, Steinhauser says, there is no evidence that tea party members have engaged in any such actions: “We must remember that the folks committing these acts are small in number, extreme in their methods, and not yet proven to be members of our movement. But we must be diligent in denouncing all acts of political violence and racism, when they occur.” A Colorado tea party coalition issues a similar statement, which reads in part, “Tea party and similar groups across Colorado are saddened tonight to hear of threats made upon Democratic lawmakers in response to the passing their recent health insurance reform legislation, specifically… Rep. Betsy Markey.” Office staffers for Markey (D-CO) have reported at least one death threat from an unidentified caller. The Colorado release states, “[I]t does not appear that these threats stemmed from those within Colorado’s tea party movement.” However: “organizers and members alike are firmly denouncing any acts of intimidation or threat. Statewide, tea party leadership has encouraged disappointed members to get involved in the political process rather than dwell on the passage of the health care bill.” Lesley Hollywood, the director of the Northern Colorado Tea Party, promises: “I can assure you that myself and my colleagues will take immediate action if any of these allegations are discovered to be connected to our organizations. At this time, our internal investigations have not revealed any correlation between the threats and the Tea Party.” (Vogel and Sherman 3/25/2010; Fox News 3/26/2010) Of the threats directed towards Markey, Hollywood says: “Tea Party and similar groups across Colorado are saddened tonight to hear of threats made upon [Markey]. Although it does not appear that these threats stemmed from those within Colorado’s tea party movement, organizers and members alike are firmly denouncing any acts of intimidation or threat.… These threats are likely coming from rogue, outside sources.” (Stokols 3/25/2010) Days before, FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon said: “If the movement gets tattooed as at all sympathetic to those [racist and homophobic] views, I won’t want to be involved in it anymore. It’s very distracting not only to our side but also to the debate and the country.” (Vogel 3/22/2010) Atlanta Tea Party co-founder Debbie Dooley, a national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, says: “We support peaceful means.… There are so many tea party groups that are out there.… It’s like herding cats. It’s impossible.” James Clyburn (D-SC), a Democratic House member, accuses House Republicans of egging on abusive behavior from the tea partiers. “If we participate in it, either from the balcony or on the floor of the House, you are aiding and abetting this kind of terrorism, really,” he says. Steinhauser alleges that similar threats and rhetoric have come from liberal activists, and accuses the media of ignoring those actions. (Fox News 3/26/2010)
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