Those who’ve confronted representatives with vitriolic language speak out

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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Jared Loughner’s question for Gabrielle Giffords was utterly incomprehensible. When the Arizona representative couldn’t makes sense of Loughner’s nonsense during a 2007 rally, it set the alleged Tucson gunman off (“Can you believe it, they wouldn’t answer my question“). Loughner felt ignored and then the questions stopped.

In wake of the Arizona tragedy, however, there is one question that needs to be asked: Where’s the line between enough security and not enough liberty?

South Carolina Democratic Rep. James Clyburn wants special treatment at the airport. Republican Indiana Rep. Dan Burton* wants to corral the public behind bullet proof Plexiglass when they view proceedings on the House floor. And who knew the creaking, grinding jaws of a thousand pundits would sound exactly like Charlie Brown’s teacher after a 90-hour Meth bender?

The best Panel of Experts — experts on rhetoric, vitriolic language and freedom of speech — are those who’ve tested the boundaries. They disrupt committee hearings, stage protests, and occasionally “act alone.” Often, they get arrested doing it.

The Daily Caller spoke to some of these protesters who’ve pushed the idea of free speech to its limits. They come from all political persuasions. They use vitriolic language. They each have their own issues, their own reasons for speaking up: The war, or health care, or abortion, or gays or a Kenyan president planning a New World Order.

These are the mainstream “anti-government extremists.”

It’s impossible to miss Code Pink whenever they show up. They’re kind of a big deal on the disruption circuit. Dressing in bright pink helps. For the most part, they’re a spry, ethnically homogeneous group of post-menopausal urban-lite liberals whose all-natural, cruelty-free perfume smells suspiciously like Eau-de-Smug. God couldn’t make a more stereotypical lefty (if She existed!)

Rallies, protests, congressional hearings: If they’re not there, the event ain’t big and they’ve been at it since 2002. Ostensibly, they want to end “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” but really, it’s any war. They’ll even protest House panels about AIG and BP — all part of capitalism’s War on Us.

Code Pink gets mocked a lot for its unashamed eagerness to disrupt. Incidentally, they also get arrested a lot, too. Co-founder Medea Benjamin said she’s been arrested or detained in and around the Capitol “probably about 10 times.”

During their peak years, when the Iraq invasion was still fresh and liberals had something to hate, Benjamin said Code Pink counted about 500 yearly protesters among its ranks.

Just because they’ve waved hands covered in red corn syrup at then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, doesn’t mean the reign of George W. Bush was all bad. In fact, Benjamin said the administration was relatively accommodating in the days just after 9/11, especially compared to President Barack Obama.

“Under Bush, the first three years when [Congress] was Republican-controlled, they were pretty nice to us in the hearings,” Benjamin told TheDC. “I mean, they would come and ask us to stop doing this … but they wouldn’t have us arrested. They would just ask us to leave, which I think is the nicer way of doing things.

“I think we assumed that when the Democrats took over the Congress that they would be nicer to us. And it’s not the case. We’ve been arrest many times [in the past two years].”

Often treated simply as nameless “protesters,” by the press, the organic fluidity between outspoken advocates and government representatives frequently gets ignored. Benjamin said the relatively respectful confrontations with Republicans was a product of accessible government officials with whom they became familiar.

Or perhaps repeated expose to blinding flashes of bright pink, for some, eventually lead to contempt. (Totally understandable).

When Code Pink first started loitering outside Nancy Pelosi’s office, Benjamin said the Speaker’s people were “sweet as can be.” Nothing says “sugar” like frequent chats with the chief of staff, but it became clear to both Pelosi and Code Pink that things just weren’t working out when “in the end, we did get arrested at her office.”

Now, it’s Speaker John Boehner’s turn.

“We were in John Boehner’s office two days ago and came with our protest message and they were extremely nice and said ‘come on in, what would you like to drink? Let’s talk.'”

It’s early though, so perhaps Boehner shouldn’t keep his giant gavel under lock and key.

According to Benjamin, what actually qualifies as a disruption during hearings is at the discretion of committee chairs. Sometimes, the protesters are treated with hostility throughout the hearing. Other times, chairs will approach Code Pinkers before a hearing and have a pleasant discussion, an understanding of sorts. Benjamin said the past-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was, by far, “nicest guy.” Nothing gets it jivin’ like Sen. Joe Biden.

Each chair is different and thus each committee. “The [House] Judiciary Committee, tends to be the worst, ironically,” said Benjamin. “It’s the one that gives us the least ability to have an expression of free speech even if it’s just holding a tiny sign or wearing a pin.”

Until recently, the House Judiciary Committee was chaired by Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. Not that that means anything.

“It depends on the chairperson,” said Benjamin. “What we have been told is that we can’t have any kind of protests in the halls of Congress and that it becomes a police issue then. But once you’re inside the hearing room it is up to the chairperson of that hearing.”

Benjamin said becoming familiar with the U.S. Capitol Police also made protesting easier. At first, USCP was very confrontational but now “know us by first names.” These days, a disruption doesn’t necessarily mean arrest, just dismissal.

“I think at the beginning, they said they hadn’t had these kind of protests in a long time. And secondly, they didn’t know who we were and were worried we would be violent. ”

Having lawyers on Call Waiting is probably a good reminder, too.

Sgt. Kimberly Schneider of the U.S. Capitol police told TheDC that officers treat every disruption equally.

“We’re never complacent. We never let our guard down and we don’t differentiate between any group,” said. Sgt. Schneider. “For us, our awareness level and our threat level remains unchanged.”

Sgt. Schneider said that if “someone is telling you that Capitol Police operate in a certain way with different committees and subcommittees, then you need to call those committees and subcommittees to find out about their rules.” The USCP’s job, said Sgt. Schneider, is the same, regardless of the situation.

According to USCP’s just-the-facts, officers made five arrests on the Capitol grounds last year for “disruption of congress.” Since 2002, there have been a total of 47 such arrests.  The highest was eight, in 2007 and 2009. In 2004, there was one arrest, the lowest number during that time period.

Over the years, Code Pinkers have been detained, fined, ordered to serve community service and even told to stay away from the Capitol for various periods of time. Benjamin said it’s worth it.

“Yeah, sure, we cross that line when we feel it’s important to make a bigger statement,” she said. “You always get people who disagree with what you’re doing. But we feel very committed and we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t…Our tactics are very tame and certainly [Code Pink is] extremely committed to non-violence. But we do believe in speaking out against policies that our government has been doing that we feel have been terrible.”

Benjamin is well aware of all the scorn heaped on Code Pink but said it was essential that citizens ensure their voice is heard.

“I want to be clear to you that we’re not a bunch of hippie protesters,” said Benjamin. “We’d much rather be doing other things.”

In 2009, Tea Partiers hated the idea of more taxes. They hated the idea overhauling the American health care system even more. Coverage of their supposed vitriolic language and violent hatred was the smirking fodder for many respected publications.

They may have received plenty of press for their numerous rallies and unproven spittle-blasting, but the phenomenon of conservative protests against the government is relatively new. For liberals, though, it’s in their blood. Some of them hated the proposed health-care bill so much they made a stink, within the Capitol’s compound, to boot. And nothing says “disruption” like having CAPITAL LETTERS in your organization’s name.

As the health-care debate escalated, Healthcare-NOW! made minor headlines when it disrupted a Senate Finance Committee chaired by Democrat Max Baucus of Montana. Healthcare-NOW! advocates (advocated?) a single-payer system. Like Healthcare-NOW!, other lefty critics of the bill said that neither the legislation nor the Democratic lawmakers went far enough in insuring (get it?!) medical assistance for everyone. SinglePayer.org was so upset, they called Democrats “a corporate party, rotting from the core.”

“Pretty early on in the discussion, elected officials in the House and Senate were saying, ‘well, everything is on the table except single-payer,'” Katie Robbins of Healthcare-NOW! told TheDC. “Our response to that was, ‘well, what’s on table?'”

Healthcare-NOW! had done its due diligence. It had the backing of physicians, experts, faith leaders and unions. Democratic leaders wouldn’t listen, though. It was like giving directions to a donkey.

“We were making the demand to have our experts heard and that was not happening,” said Robbins. With that, Healthcare-NOW! went forward with their first intentional disruption in May 2009. It included nurses, doctors and advocates. The next week, said Robbins, they disrupted another Senate Finance Committee hearing, demanding that lawmakers at least give advocates a chance to make a case.

“We felt that by leveraging the exclusion of single-payer advocates and calling to the public’s attention that we were not at the table, that would shine a spot as to what was going on.”

Until then, Healthcare-NOW! had pursued “traditional avenues” to redress the government, including lobbying elected officials and petitioning for their experts to be included in the panel discussions. Like Code Pink, Healthcare-NOW! had very clear purpose in causing a disruption. They were depending on media coverage. With reporters paying attention, lawmakers might be confronted with journalists’ questions that had previously been ignored, said Robbins. The advocates didn’t want to harm the lawmakers or make things difficult. They wanted to change the narrative.

“Our protests are always nonviolent,” said Robbins. “We feel that it’s the ultimate model of direct action to be where you’re not supposed to be and say what you’re not suppose to say to make sure the position of justice is elevated.”

In the end, single-payer advocates failed in their ultimate mission. Even rabid, lefty congressmen like Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich backed down from a fight. Robbins, though, was upbeat about the group’s work. Robbins said Healthcare-NOW! was successful in having several of its health care experts testify before House and Senate panels.

There was another silver lining to HealthCare-NOW!’s disruptions. They got a cool nickname that Sergio Leone would appreciate: “The Baucus 8.”

As less-strategic protesters than Code Pink and Healthcare-NOW! can attest, expressing your grievances to government officials don’t always go as planned. Sometimes, you face the scorn and mockery of more “civil” members of the audience. Sometimes you’re escorted out, detained and given a court summons. Sometimes, you get tasered. Bro.

Andrew Meyer made national headlines when he spoke out at a forum featuring Sen. John Kerry in Sept. 2007. During a Q&A, Meyer, a journalism student, repeatedly and forcefully asked why Kerry conceded the 2004 presidential election to Bush, despite multiple reports of voter fraud.

For refusing to back down from a question he felt was not being properly answered, Meyer was dragged away from the podium by campus police. When three gun-wielding arm-yankers didn’t achieve the desired affect of calming him down, the 21-year-old got tasered like a brawling drunk on a whiskey rampage. His screams of “Don’t tase me bro,” became a national sensation and — perhaps even more importantly — an internet meme.(The remix is sick, as in nauseating.)

Potential penalties for getting tasered by Florida police are harsh. Meyer was arrested for inciting a riot and charged with disturbing the peace, as well as the felonious resisting arrest. Meyer knows about causing a scene and told TheDC that the Arizona shooting was “not a random outburst.”

“[The shooting] is the most noticeable effect of the way we care for one another,” said Meyer. “We must listen to each other, understand each others needs to create a society without chaos. If the people around the Arizona shooter had listened to his pain, the tragedy may have been avoided.”

The nation’s general consensus now is that Loughner is bat-shit crazy. Insane. He’s a mentally-ill human who “would have shot John McCain,” if given the chance.

The relatively safe lawmakers are not entirely convinced. But more security, said Meyer, can only have negative effects.

“Today’s security is often intended to curb free speech, such as when peaceful protesters outside the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions were attacked and arrested without cause by police,” said Meyer. “‘Free speech zones’ are another example of security trampling on freedom of speech.”

In the end, Meyer got 18-months probation after issuing several letters of apology. He’s since been weary of making a public scene or advocating any such reaction. That doesn’t mean peacefully speaking out isn’t important. It’s a “natural effect of the political system,” he said.

“Most of the politicians in office are not listening today because they are paid by ‘special interests,” said Meyer, who advised people to “organize your community if you really want to make a change.”

Meyer also advised others to be mindful of the language they use in public discourse.

America, after all, is the land of great freedoms coupled with great responsibility. It’s also the land where those freedoms allow anyone the chance to “make it.” In fact, after his arrest, Meyer began making it a business. At TheAndrewMeyer.com, 1st Amendment enthusiasts can buy the official, Don’t Tase Me, Bro!™ t-shirt. God Bless America.

Like Loughner, there are the occasional “lone wolves” making a public scene. Unlike Loughner, they don’t harm anyone. This includes those whose complaints may seem as peculiar as Loughner’s theories on currency, language and mind control.

A day before Rep. Giffords was shot, a “birther” was forcibly removed from the House’s public gallery after she disrupted the House’s reading of the Constitution. As Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey read the requirement that any potential U.S. president be a “natural born citizen,” Theresa Cao yelled “EXCEPT OBAMA.” Twice.

The House chamber, by the way, has great acoustics.

Cao is an experienced protester. Nearly every day for the past two years, she has been standing sentinel before the White House’s gates calling for “Heaven’s Bailout.” She’s a fervent evangelical Christian who loves the Jews and hates the gays. Her stance on abortion seems obvious enough.

After TheDC broke the news of her identity — she had yelled it, pleaded for help as she was being carted away in handcuffs, while TheDC was having a much-needed cigarette — Cao spoke at length about her outburst, its repercussions and free speech, among other interesting topics.

Cao, a D.C. resident of five years, got tickets for the public viewing like anyone else — from her representative. It’s all pretty normal, as is the tight security. She says she passed through a metal detector, was thoroughly searched and wasn’t allowed in with so much as pen. S.O.P for USCP.

Cao had never seen “Congress: Live In Concert” before and said she considered the reading of the Constitution a “historic” event. As the representatives began, Cao said she “started to sense such a surge of emotions,” which climaxed as Rep. Pallone spoke.

“It was accumulative. I was assessing how much I had accomplished in the time that I’ve been here and I was just so compelled to understand that I had not done enough,” said Cao. “I knew that if I did not make this personal stand for myself, then I would essentially be aiding and abetting the tyranny that is taking place in the U.S.”

And with that, Cao let it fly.

Just as Rep. Pallone began reading Article II, Section 1, Cao burst out with “EXCEPT OBAMA.” According to Cao, security was so quick that they grabbed her arm before the encore. She did manage one more comment before being detained.

“When I was led out, I had actually meant to say, ‘Mr. Boehner, help me!,'” said Cao. “But obviously, it’s clear … that I said, ‘Help me, Jesus!’”

Thoroughly questioned and issued a court summons for disrupting Congress, Cao said she would “absolutely not” attempt another such outburst. Not ever again.

“To me, this was a one-time event. They already proved to me that they are not going to uphold what they have promised to uphold — the law of the land,” said Cao. “So there is no reason for me to revisit them.”

That doesn’t mean Cao — who said she had never been arrested before the outburst — is not going to stop “utilizing my 1st Amendment rights.” She’s even looking into “new strategies.” For Cao, redressing the government for grievances is an absolute.

“The venue I have used previously is for primarily for the public and so I believe what’s been key all along is to continue taking this message to the American public … that the government is the problem,” said Cao. “They’re not going to be a part of the solution. So the answer lies with We The People.”

As for the shooting, it was a sign.

Long story short: After her arrest, a “Jim Ross” friended Cao on Facebook This Jim Ross is a “friend of Bill Ayers” →”It’s not everyday a terrorist tries to get into my Facebook” → Jim Ross is a “a front, obviously” for either/or/and Ayers and/or Obama, but definitely part of a → “terrorist underground network” of “cold-blooded killers.”

Ayers, Soros, Obama and the “banking elites” want to create chaos, said Cao. They can train people to kill to achieve this goal. This could very well include the alleged Arizona shooter. Loughner called it “mind control.” Cao calls it “brainwashing.” An assassination attempt on Giffords, according to Cao, serves two purposes. It creates Chaos and distracts The People from the fact that They are stealing this country. Also, Giffords is one of the few Democrats who “stood against Obama” when it came to opening up the boarders.

But this isn’t “all written in stone.”

“Well, you know, I cannot be specific, obviously, because I don’t know,” said Cao. “But from all of the clues I’ve been seeing …  it was too much of a coincidence.”

This sounds like New World Order talk. It sounds a lot like Loughner. TheDC tells Cao exactly that. If “they” are taking over, why hasn’t Cao taken more direct, violent action?

“I can’t believe you’re asking that question,” said Cao. “I have never had cause for civil disobedience because that would have been futile for my cause.”

The woman who’d been voicing her anger and frustration about the government and “evil forces,” the one who said she would continue to “express my 1st Amendment rights,” was understandably pissed off at TheDC.

She answered the question, anyway.

“If he does believe in a New World Order and I believe in a New Word Order [it doesn’t matter because] I’m not violent,” said Cao. “There is no need for violence.”

Last week, a nine-page memo offering guidance about free speech and related public safety concerns was sent to congressmen from an organization that has the distinguished honor (or dishonor, depending on your point-of-view) of defending Nazis, gays, prayer-hating heathens, the 2nd Amendment, and a public that doesn’t enjoy getting a cup-check from TSA officials.

“Avoiding disruptions by protesters is not always possible, nor can it be in a free society that encourages and relies on open debate,” wrote Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. The letter continued, saying, “Having said that, mere political speech, even if unwelcome, should always be protected and differentiated from conduct that breaks local and federal laws.”

The ACLU offered advice on how lawmakers could ensure their safety without infringing on the necessity of U.S. citizens to cause a ruckus once in awhile. And this is probably objective advice. The ACLU successfully defended Benjamin Gitlow in 1926, whose vitriolic “anti-government” rhetoric about violently overthrowing the government would have been quotable gold for the current crop of mouth-flappers like Ed Shultz and Keith Olbermann. Never mind the fact that Gitlow was a raging socialist.

As for the present-day protesters, some work in groups, while others are “lone wolves.” Some are as different in their strategies as they are in their political positions. They obviously have very little in common.

Robin McGehee, director of the gay-rights advocacy group GetEqual told TheDC that her group “will not stop organizing” until they finally get what they want. It was important, she said, for groups to look at “non-traditional means of bringing attention to your issues” in a civil, nonviolent matter. McGehee said GetEqual has “studied the methods” of Code Pink. Unfortunately, Code Pink — unlike GetEquals’ message-driven disruptions — are promiscuous media whores.

McGehee said the Code Pinkers were just about “wanting to go out and nail a cause.”

As for freedom of speech, well, McGehee can’t defend it enough. It’s great. Except for the vitriolic, “vile,” “hate-filled” language of Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers who might have started to “cross the line.” For McGehee, the real issue is watching what we say because “unstable” individuals with mental health problems may totally miss the point.

Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, totally agrees.

“I don’t think those people are sane, not in the true sense,” Newman told TheDC. “Because if you’re sane, if you’re thinking logically, then you have a very well-reasoned argument.”

The only problem is, Newman was actually talking about agitators like GetEqual and Code Pink, who disrupt congressional hearings. As a very Christian, anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue is about as far-right to Get Pink as is politically possible.

“We’re a free speech- – not a belligerent speech — America,” said Newman. The best way to change the dialogue is to quietly and politely connect with lawmakers and “raise public awareness.”

“I think they’re dreaming, and here’s why,” said Newman. “When you’ve lost all political influence … the last thing you can do is be disruptive.”

Newman said causing disruptions at hearings is a “guttural form of protest,” but remembers “feeling the frustration that these groups feel.”

That’s probably because Operation Rescue used to hold “hundreds” of public protests every year. The kind that feature pictures of aborted fetuses. Protesters blocked the doors of abortion clinics until a federal law had to be passed prohibiting such action. It’s had some famous former members who’ve disrupted highly televised  hearings.

Not anymore though. (And to his credit, Newman was by far the most rational-sounding interviewee.) He was confident because, after all, “we’re winning this fight.” McGehee feels the same way.

So these agitators do have some things in common. Sort of.

Benjamin and McGehee both think nonviolent disruptions are essential to democracy — except Code Pinkers are a little too flamboyant for GetEqual. Robbins, too, supports the “ultimate model of direct action,” unlike Meyer. Then again, she’s probably never been zapped with 50,000 volts. Healthcare-NOW! and Operation Rescue both advocate having their expert witnesses included on congressional panels, although they probably argue about the existence of the “death” ones. Newman and Cao, however, sound like a perfect match, if Newman didn’t believe in the legislative process or logical thought. Perhaps Cao and Meyer could get along. If she were a “bro.”

Some citizens write letters, sign petitions or gargle complaints at the local bar. Others, however, toe that line between civic engagement and public disruption. For these citizens, taking action is necessary. Occasionally, it’s impulsive. They use rhetoric and, yeah, sometimes it’s vitriolic, damnit. But they’re not crazy. Unlike Loughner, they’re not violent. These citizens are actively shaping a democracy meant to handle disruptions and abrasive redresses of grievances.

“You can poll the other side on this issue, they would say we’re winning. Clearly. Hands-down. But we don’t do it by being annoying,” said Newman. “Well, maybe sometimes we’re a little annoying.”

*Correction: The article originally incorrectly stated that it was Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Robert Brady who pushed the Plexiglass proposal.

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