Think Before Pink: Why Town Hall Hecklers Bear Little Resemblance to Anti-War Group

From Jarret S. Lovell’s superb companion blog to his book, Crimes of Dissent: Civil Disobedience, Criminal Justice, and the Politics of Conscience.

By now we’ve all seen the footage: Angry citizens at town hall-style meetings heckling, berating, and otherwise shouting-down elected representatives with chants, slogans, and even the ocassional protest sign. Sound familiar? Some commentators think so.


Indeed, in the midst of all of the hullabaloo over whether these outraged citizens represent genuine activists or mere “astro turf” stand-ins, a new debate has emerged. When it comes to an assessment of tactics, are today’s Right-Wing hecklers the victims of an ideological double-standard by the Left? Aren’t these town hall heists by public health care haters comparable to the actions of the very public (and very Left-Wing) anti-war group “CODE PINK?”

It’s quickly becoming a common comparison. One headline in the blogosphere declares the town hall hecklers the new CODE PINK, while another blogger argues that today’s tactics are the same with one important difference: These heckles are relevant; CODE PINK’S were not.

As an advocate of a public health care system – indeed as someone who supports a single-payer system rather than the piecemeal approach adopted by the Obama Administration – I am certainly annoyed by the tactics adopted by some segments (admittedly small and non-representative segments) of the political Right. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder if I – someone who has attended many a CODE PINK rally – am not myself guilty of the activist double standard. After a bit of reflection, I’ve decided that I am not. Upon close inspection, the tactics of the town hall hecklers bear little resemblance to those employed by CODE PINK. Here’s why.

To be sure, CODE PINK FOR PEACE is a feminst, anti-war group that emerged in the lead-up to the war in Iraq when the Bush Administration (and yes – the Democrats) were scaring the nation into war using an incomprehensible color-coded terror risk chart and tales of imminent mushroom clouds. Among their protest tactics of choice was the disruption of Congressional hearings investigating such issues as “surge” troop levels, the definition of torture, and the policies of the Department of Justice. CODE PINKERS would unfurl a banner from the visitor’s section, remove jackets and sweaters to reveal sloganed t-shirts, and yes – they would often shout anti-war sentiments at the politicians before them.

So where’s the difference?

Let’s begin with context. The intent of the town hall meeting is to brainstorm ideas. It is not a forum where policy is made and decided; rather it is the arena that most closely resembles the marketplace of ideas. Granted, during election years our political leadership has made a mockery of the town hall with their hand-picked auidences and scripted spontaneity, but suffice it to say that what we are witnessing with the health hall meetings is closer in design to the traditional model. Conversely, congressional meeting rooms are the locus of policy formation. They represent the site where federal (and sometimes international) practice is set into motion. Quite simply: to heckle at a town hall is to stiffle speech; to heckle in congress is to stiffle action. The great historian of people power Howard Zinn reminds us never to stiffle speech, for it is only through exposure to speech that we can discover which actions to take.

Next on our list of differences is access. To a large extent, the town hall meeting is open to the public (seating permitted), and virtually any member of the public is welcome to attend and speak her voice. Contrast this with congressional hearings where the cards are largely stacked in favor of a specific position. For example, previous hearings into surge troop levels failed to give a seat at the table to anyone actually opposed to the war. When CODE PINK heckles, it is because anti-war groups have repeatedly been denied access to hearing rooms, to the roundtable discussions on Sunday morning televised talk shows, and even from Presidential debates (just ask Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney, Republican Party candidate Ron Paul, or Independent Ralph Nader.) A crash course in activism reminds us that protest should always be a last resort after access to legitimate means of persuasion have failed. Yet cable news and AM radio is currently stacked with conservative voices decrying the public health care proposal. There is simply no justification for the health care hecklers at this stage of the game which points out the now obvious difference of tactics in terms of timing.

Finally, as much as we may want to focus on tactics alone and avoid such questions as who’s really behind the hecklers – by now enough has been reported about the fact that the health insurance industry and health care lobbyists have been sending representatives as “citizens” to heckle leadership. Certainly constituents from within the health care industry have a right to free speech, but are they not misrepresenting themselves as everyday concerned citizens when they take to the mic and decry the emerging socialism before us? Contrast this with the membership of CODE PINK: activists who comprise the non-profit, NGO sector of America who are fighting not to save money for stock shareholders, but instead to save the lives of U.S. Soldiers and Iraqi and Afghan civilians.

When everything is said and done, and when examined closely, the fact remains that while the town hall hecklers are certainly colorful characters, one color they are not is PINK.