Representative Lloyd Doggett was the target of disruptions by screamers organized by Republicans, Teabaggers. and Americans for Prosperity, both at his office Friday, and at his appearance Saturday at a grocery store in South Austin. A Town Hall was scheduled for later Saturday afternoon in nearby Bastrop, and his staff was worried that there would be a repeat of the angry mob scene. Shouting, sign-carrying protesters did show up in Bastrop, and one later boasted that "Doggett did not get the reception he expected", which ironically is true since instead of an angry mob scene, Reresentative Doggett got two standing ovations. Bastrop's Town Hall demonstrates why it is so important for us to show up at these events, and how the screamers were prevented from hijacking the event, while freedom of speech was preserved.
Representative Lloyd Doggett is one of our heroes. He has never forgotten that he represents us, not corporate lobbyists. He is extremely popular in his district, which includes progressive Austin, and my home in nearby heavily Democratic Bastrop County, so it was unexpected when angry shouting protesters appeared at his Austin office last Friday evening. Staffers described their behavior as "thuggish", and fearing for their safety closed the office early. The next morning a a South Austin Randall's grocery store, Representative Doggett was holding " office hours" , something he has done for the past 15 years. Normally it is a time for constituents to meet with him about things like assistance with veteran's benefits. An angry mob of about 150 stormed the store , carrying signs that included one with Rep. Doggett with devil horns, and a marble tombstone with his name on it. Their shouting prevented conversations with constituents, including a father with his son, wearing a Boy Scout uniform, who had come to ask for Rep. Doggett's help getting the son into a military academy . The New York Times reported that the Randall's protest was coordinated by Heather Ligett, a local Republican activist, who in the past has coordinated with the Tea Party movement, and the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity. As Rep. Doggett said later, the protesters didn't come to have a conversation; they came to stifle discourse. As he attempted to answer their questions, they drowned him out with chants of "Just Say No" , and even pursued him outside blocking his entrance to his car. On the Austin Statesman's blog, one of them bragged that they had "tarred and feathered him". At least one of the protesters, a woman who has been a contributor to the Republican party, attended both the Randall's meeting and then drove to Bastrop to attend the Town Hall later that day, as reported by the Austin Statesman:
“The folks there thought their voices weren’t being heard,” said Kathy Acosta, a Bastrop resident who attended the meeting at Randalls and another one later that day in her hometown.
Concerned about a repetition of the intimidation at the Town Hall scheduled for that afternoon in Bastrop, Rep. Doggett's staff called our Bastrop Democratic Party Chair for assistance. Our County Chair first contacted the Bastrop police and requested security for the Town Hall. Next she activated a phone tree, calling all the precinct chairs, who called their precinct members and recruited supporters to attend, instructing them to come to the Town Hall early, and to fill the front seats.
What was that about?
- Stephanie Watson, videographer, Bastrop Community Access Television filming a ceremony disrupted by protesters at the Bastrop County Courthouse
Before the Town Hall at 5 PM, Rep. Doggett made a 4 PM appearance at the Bastrop County Courthouse, to announce a $200,000 appropriation to aid the Bastrop County Historical Society to convert the Main Street building into a new museum and visitor center. Members of the Historical Society were surprised when protesters carrying signs about health care and other national issues disrupted the ceremony.
Davis McAuley describes what happened as Representative Doggett moved on to the Town Hall:
The scene became perhaps more intense when events moved to the Kerr Center, which was packed with Democrats and others–including an estimated half-dozen hecklers who apparently hoped to disrupt the gathering. One Kerr Center official estimated the crowd at about 90 people packed into a building officially rated to hold only 80. And those friendly to the Congressman were better organized.
A number of them lined up shoulder to shoulder across the hall to block aisles and fill corners in an effort to separate the protesters from Doggett. A contingent of city police, led by Assistant Chief Matt Wagner, was also on hand.
By the time Representative Doggett arrived at the Town Hall meeting escorted by three Bastrop policemen the auditorium was full, and two more policemen stood at the entrance. The audience greeted Representative Doggett warmly with a standing ovation. Representative Doggett made it clear that he did not want protesters kept out of the meeting. Since the hall was already at capacity, when the group of a half-dozen protesters arrived, the County Chair could have denied them the right to come in, but instead said that were welcome to attend, but that they had to leave their signs outside. Several of the protesters had a heated shouting match with the police over the signs, shouting about their First Ammendment rights, but were told pointedly by one of the officers that although there was a good rationale for excluding them based on the capacity of the building, that our County Chair was allowing them to come in. Finally, they left their signs outside and entered, standing in the back, since there were no more seats.
Wagner said he feared the session could degenerate into physical confrontations and he asked one especially loud and persistent heckler to leave the assembly. He was shown the door and advised to use it.
The "especially loud and persistent heckler", was Bob Parmelee, who is active in the Bastrop Republican Party. He began shouting as Representative Doggett made his opening remarks. When he continued, he was taken outside by the police. The shouting could be heard through the open doors at the back. Eventually, Parmelee was allowed back inside, but continued to shout, and had to be taken out four times by the police. Each time he was allowed back in. At one point he tried to shove his way to the front of the room, but was blocked by two of the Democrats who stood in front of him. The rest of the group of protesters was fairly quiet, and remained standing in the back, apparently less brave now that they were no longer part of a mob, as they had been in Austin. Seen standing in this group was Art Kownslar, who in addition to being a Minuteman, is also Treasurer of the Bastrop County Republican Party. He was the organizer of Bastrop's July 4th Tea Party. In his account of the Tea Party in the Bastrop Advertiser, "Bastrop's Own Tea Party Brings Out Patriotic Group" , he wrote that "grassroots actions are an important opportunity for citizens to communicate their views." The irony of having organized a disruptive mob to deny others their right to be heard, seemed to be lost on him.
This was one Town Hall hecklers were not able to hijack to shut down discourse. As McJoan pointed out today, it is so important for us to show up. Health care reform is too important to allow mobs organized by the Republican party and funded by corporate lobbyists to stop Americans from hearing from their elected representatives and getting answers to their questions. In Bastrop, thanks to quick work by our County Chair and Precinct Chairs, and a big turnout , the screamers were outnumbered 14 to 1 by our better organized supporters. The protesters were admitted to the meetings , and were able to ask questions provided they behaved themselves. The Bastrop police deserve high praise for a professional job of providing security. I hope all of the officers who were there get a commendation.