A week and a half ago, the Capital exploded in vaguely anti-government sentiment. Tuesday was supposed to be the anti-Glenn Beck crowd's rejoinder: 150 health care rallies around the country, sounding a clarion call for the public option. In Washington, a band of about 20 activists gathered on a barren strip of Pennsylvania Avenue while the occasional passerby scuttled past, probably late to lunch.
"We are fired up! We are ready to go!" an organizer yelled, as if trying to convince herself. Armed with a portable amp and flanked by a squad of white-haired oldies in hospital smocks and attachable fake rear ends--"Chances are your ass ain't covered!", their placards read--the little group paraded up to a faceless building where the American Heath Insurance Plans coalition is headquartered.
"It's these big insurance industries that are really in the way," said one of the smocked "patients," Danielle Greene, who wanted a single-payer system but was willing to settle for a public option in the interim. She said they'd gotten the taxi drivers on board with the cause, and many indeed honked as they drove by--though it could have been more out of fare-seeking than solidarity.
But the public optioners weren't alone. FreedomWorks, the group behind the 9/12 conflagration, had sent down some staff and interns to shift the message slightly: still protesting big insurance, but from a free-market perspective. "Choice Not Force!" blared their poster boards, mingled in with signs reading "Health Care NOW!" A spokesman, Max Pappas, said he had calculated that the Baucus bill would amount to $463 billion in subsidies to the industry over ten years.
Katrina Walker, a ponytailed activist in a teal tank top with a pro-national health care group called We Be Illin' ("find us on Facebook!"), took the mic and started interviewing the opposition.
"I'm curious to hear what the 9/12 Glenn Beck marchers have to say. Why are you guys here?" she asked.
"I'm not with Glenn Beck," one answered.
"Who are you with?"
"What's FreedomWorks?" Walker demanded, rhetorically. Dick Armey's group! the crowd yelled.
Walker yielded the mic to Pappas, who gave his spiel--corporate welfare is wrong, we should let people buy insurance across state lines--while the audience booed and shouted its objections. By this time, the whole group had turned in on itself, away from the street and the office building behind them. A FOX cameraman was rolling.
The protest had degenerated into crosstalk, so activists commandeered the mic for stories about the evils of the current system. "He had cancer in his testicles, and no one would insure him," said one man of a relative, tearing up slightly. "What saved his life? The government!" That's right--the government! someone hollered. But the side skirmishes continued. At one point a speaker had to intervene to be heard. "Can I get your attention?" said a guy with the mic. "Stop arguing!"
Then, the finale. "OK guys, we're gonna go inside to demand a public option," Walker said, proceeding to 601 Pennsylvania's glass doors. The security guards wouldn't budge. "You have to let me in, we're the people," she protested. "Are you going to keep out the people? People are dying right now!" Let us in! Let us in! went the crowd. The security guards locked the door. "You can lock us out, but we're not going to go away!" Walker cried.
Then, in a faint echo of 9/12, the little band took up the cry, "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" They concluded with an off-key but gusty rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner."
Other than size, 9/12 differed from this comparative whisper of a protest in one key way. While the tea partiers two weeks ago weren't sure quite what they wanted--more freedom, fewer czars, an imagined return to the Founding--the world watched. The folks on Pennsylvania knew exactly what they wanted, but it wasn't clear that anyone, let alone their targeted audience, was listening.
Two doors down from the chanting, the Capitol Grille was filled to less than capacity with suited diners. The tables near the back windows were especially empty.