I'm baffled by the "successes" of Republican disrupters as they shout down efforts to discuss healthcare reform at town halls across the country. It's time for somebody to ask the obvious question. Why is parliamentary procedure not being enforced at these town meetings? We now know that these "protesters" are mostly lobbyists and political pros sent by right-wing organizations like Americans for Prosperity. When these disrupters get out of order, why aren't they being escorted out of the meeting by security? That's what should happen! So...why is local government acting so strangely and eerily weak and submissive to this thuggery?
More to the point -- why are these shocking incidents being allowed to happen? In just a few days, their impact has sunk deep into the psyche of our so-called democracy, and sent us reeling towards a new Dark Ages. If this awful trend isn't nipped in the bud, we will shortly see similar disruptions at Congress, in state legislatures and political conventions.
The trend is nothing new. We first saw its ugly face in Miami, right after the November 2000 Presidential election, when the so-called "Brooks Brothers Riot" actually succeeded in halting the vote re-count and ensuring that George W. Bush got the White House.
The fact is, those 2000 "rioters" were not voters who were spontaneously acting out of personal passion. As reported by MSNBC the other day, they were actually Bush campaign personnel who organized the "riot" -- who were associated with Americans for Prosperity, the same right-wing lobbyist organization that is organizing the town-hall disruptions today. The fact that these political saboteurs were never exposed for who they really are, or prosecuted for their obstruction of a legitimate electoral process, has already contributed dreadfully to the breakdown of due process in the U.S.
I just got a desperate email from the Service Employees International Union, which supports healthcare reform. The SEIU was complaining about the town-hall disruptions. They said: "Last night in St. Louis, Missouri, a reverend and staff member of SEIU was assaulted at a town hall. The incident, along with a town hall in Tampa, Florida, has been all over the radio and cable news shows. Watch the video with footage from these events.....Cable news channels are broadcasting images of neighbors turning against one another in chaotic, sometimes frightening town hall meetings."
The SEIU concluded their message: "Enough is enough. Click here to sign a pledge for civil, honest debates about health care reform: http://action.seiu.org/townhall."
So sorry, but signing pledges won't solve the problem. These town halls already have a power that exists to solve problems like this. But they're not using that power for some strange reason. It's called parliamentary procedure. Use it, and the disruptions of healthcare forums will stop. Don't use it, and you lose it...and our country will veer into deeper chaos.
Historic Need for Order at Meetings
One of the first things that human civilization ever learned was this: you can't have a civilized public discourse for "the people" without rules of order.
In an empire, of course, there is no debating issues -- the emperor rules by decree, and anybody who disagrees is put in prison or killed. But the minute a government moves towards "the people" -- democracy or republic -- everybody should have the right to make their opinion heard in government without threat or disruption. This is why certain protocols of parliamentary procedure have come into use around the world -- whether at the United Nations or a city council meeting in the smallest American town. In their modern form, the protocols are called Robert's Rules of Order.
Some Americans like to think that this idea of "order" at a public meeting was the brilliant invention of white Europeans -- the Greeks in their city states, the Romans in their forum, the English in their parliament. This is simply not true.
All over the world, enlightened peoples have figured out that they have to keep order at meetings if their society is to stay on an even keel. In pre-contact North America, for example, the Haudenosaunee of the Six Nations was the world's oldest standing democratic government, and ran its council meetings according to the "Great Law of Peace," where disruptions were not allowed. Ditto the Cheyennes, whose different bands met at a great central council every four years to renew their laws. And their Dog Soldiers escorted you out of the meeting if you got out of order. Indeed, many First Nation peoples still use the device of the "talking stick" -- you have the right to speak freely as long as you are holding it, and the stick gets passed around to everybody.
Robert's Rules of Order were first published in 1915, and represented many centuries of parliamentary thought and evolution in the West. The Rules are now in almost universal use around the U.S. -- or at least they were until this gory healthcare debate came along. Under parliamentary rules, everybody who attends has the right to speak and voice their opinion. But they have to do so within certain limits. To prevent windy speakers from monopolizing the microphone, there are some meetings, like city councils and boards of education, where a time limit is imposed. You can speak for two or three minutes, and then you have to step aside for the next person.
My Experience as a Parliamentarian
In the late 1990s, when I was serving in Los Angeles Unified School District as a commissioner of education, a new Human Relations Education Commission was created by the board. The school district, second largest in the U.S., was torn by a lot of hot issues. Ethnic issues, especially, are dangerous in this city that has made itself world-famous as a ticking time-bomb for wide-scale breakdowns of law and order (notably the L.A. Riots of 1992 and the Watts riots of 1965). So the new Commission's organizers were being extra-careful to make sure every ethnic group could be heard. I was one of those appointed to the HREC, and was also chosen to be on the committee that drafted the HREC's constitution and by-laws. Later I served as one of the HREC's parliamentarians.
In Part II, under "Legal Rights of Assemblies," Robert's Rules says:
"Every deliberative assembly has the right to decide who may be present during its session; and when the assembly, either by a rule or by a vote, decides that a certain person shall not remain in the room, it is the duty of the chairman to enforce the rule of order, using whatever force is necessary to eject the party.
"The chairman can detail members to remove the person, without calling upon the police. If, however, in enforcing the order, any one uses harsher measures than is necessary to remove the person, the courts have held that he, and he alone, is liable for damages, just the same as a policeman would be under similar circumstances. However badly the man may be abused while being removed from the room, neither the chairman nor the society is liable for damages, as, in ordering his removal, they did not exceed their legal rights."
Most government bodies (including our U.S. Senate and House of Representatives) and civil organizations have an officer called the "sergeant at arms." This person has the power to walk you out of the meeting, if the chairperson has found it necessary to declare you out of order and eject you. In more volatile situations, ejections have to be done by security or, in extreme cases, by the police. Due care has to be exercised, so the person being ejected isn't injured.
The point is this: Disruptions of the meeting, or efforts to prevent anyone from speaking, should never be allowed. This is why ejection is not censorship, or a violation of anyone's free speech. At a public meeting run by parliamentary rules, everyone is allowed to speak, but they have to do it within the framework of the rules, and in a spirit of respecting others' right to disagree.
What Would I Do?
So -- if I was one of those Congresspeople who had gone home to talk to my constituents about the President's healthcare reform, I would suggest kicking the ass of anybody who tried to disrupt my town hall. Right at the start of the meeting, I or my chairperson would remind attendees that the meeting would operate on parliamentary procedure. All questions would be taken and answered, and all who wished to speak their minds could do so. But at the first disruption, I would have the disrupters ejected immediately. And I would continue to eject disrupters till all of them were outside the hall.
If I had to have my town hire extra security or police to get the job done, I would do it. Under no circumstances should a town hall ever be stopped in mid-meeting, or taken over by mob rule, through disruptions like the ones that are raging around healthcare debate.
Whether it's healthcare or same-sex marriage, Republican right-wingers operate off the twisted logic that they are justified in shouting others down because they're "right," while the people they're disrupting are "wrong." Today, for example, Sarah Palin has done her bit to encourage mob rule in our country by saying that the President's healthcare plan is "evil."
Unfortunately the "I'm right and you're wrong" attitude is precisely why disruptions of meetings are so dangerous to the public good. Any human community is made up of a range of opinions and viewpoints. The moment that one side's point of view can't be peaceably heard in public debate at a meeting, or in council, is the moment when a country and a people begins to slide towards anarchy.
And the United States is sliding down that slippery slope of anarchy right now.
How to Run a Town Hall Meeting
Robert's Rules of Order
Great Law of Peace