In the hours leading up to the Sunday’s climactic healthcare reform vote in the House, congressional Republicans helped foment an atmosphere that helped spark a subsequent rash of violence that’s struck at Democrats who supported the legislation, according to the leader of one of the nation’s oldest and largest organized labor organizations.
“When I was at the Capitol on Sunday, I saw Republican lawmakers come out onto balconies and egg on hateful crowds like giddy teenagers, waving signs and chanting to fire up the protesters,” says Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “They set the foundation for a dangerous climate, and they must take the lead in stopping it.”
Like other unions, the AFL-CIO played an active role in pushing to enact healthcare reform.
So-called “tea party” demonstrators protested loudly outside the Capitol last weekend lawmakers geared up for a final series of votes that saw the reform legislation narrowly approved and sent to President Obama. Obama signed the bill into law Tuesday at a packed ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Some conservative protesters resorted to directing racial and homophobic slurs at Democrats even in the run-up to Sunday’s vote, including insults to Reps. John Lewis of Georgia and Barney Frank of Massachusetts. An African-American, Lewis was nearly beaten to death during the Civil Rights movement while Frank is openly gay. Both have been strong proponents of healthcare reform.
The violent backlash against healthcare reform supporters only has spread since, as at least 10 Democratic lawmakers have reported vandalism, death threats and other intimidation. These representatives reportedly have been offered Capitol Police protection usually only afforded to congressional leadership.
Incidents have included a brick thrown into Rep. Louise Slaughter‘s New York district office; a shattered door at Rep. Gabrielle Gifford‘s office in Tuscon, Ariz.; and a gas line cut at the Virginia home of Rep. Tom Perriello‘s brother. A tea party activist posted the brother’s address by accident, thinking it belonged to the congressman, along with a suggestion that reform opponents “drop by” to show their displeasure over the healthcare vote.
“In America, thankfully, we all have the right to make our voices heard. We in the labor movement are no strangers to protest and civil disobedience,” Trumka says. “But many of the chants and signs I heard and saw were those of an ugly mob, not participation in the political process.
“Racial and homophobic slurs, death threats and guns have no place in civil discourse. Nor should differences of view on abortion rights and funding lead to name-calling and violence,” he adds.
Nor are the outbursts of violence from healthcare reform opponents are not just “par for the course” for controversial decisions, according to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
“We’ve had a lot of serious disagreements on tax bills, on war and peace, and other matters. And I haven’t seen the level of, frankly, threats or anger, or threatening of violent acts that I’ve seen recently,” Hoyer tells CBS News. “I think in part it’s because the rhetoric that has been utilized with respect to this bill is far beyond, I think, legitimate debate.”
The leadership of both parties have a role to play cool a situation which is sparking the violence.
“I think all of us in leadership need to make it very clear to the American public, very few of which I think are participating in such acts on either side, we need to make it very clear that that’s unacceptable in a democracy,” Hoyer adds.
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.