ThinkProgress.org and MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann have recently reported that powerful, well-funded conservative political organizations with ties to the Republican party and corporate interests are coordinating conservative volunteers to harass public officials and disrupt public town hall meetings across the country.
Organizations like FreedomWorks, a 501c4 activist group chaired by former House Majority leader, Republican Dick Armey, and Americans for Prosperity, a group (chaired by David H. Koch, founder and current Executive Vice President of the notorious environmental law breaking megacorporation, Koch Industries) that has previously advocated on behalf of the tobacco industry and campaigned against legislation to slow climate change, are organizing and promoting anti-health reform protests that are designed to look like spontaneous grassroots uprisings.
As ThinkProgress notes, "A leaked memo from Bob MacGuffie, a volunteer with the FreedomWorks website Tea Party Patriots, details how members should be infiltrating town halls and harassing Democratic members of Congress."
The memo in question advises volunteers attending town hall meetings to create the illusion that their numbers are greater than they really are:
Spread out in the hall and try to be in the front half. The objective is to put the Rep on the defensive with your questions and follow-up. The Rep should be made to feel that a majority, and if not, a significant portion of at least the audience, opposes the socialist agenda of Washington. They need to leave the hall with some doubts about their agenda. The other objective is to illustrate for the balance of the audience that the national leadership is acting against our founders' principles which are on the other side of the debate - and show them that there are a lot of solid citizens in the district who oppose the socialist approach to the nation's challenges.
The memo also instructs volunteers on ways to disrupt the meeting without getting ejected, advising them to set the tone of the meeting as "informal and free-wheeling" from the beginning by shouting questions and having other operatives, dispersed throughout the crowd, shout briefly in agreement:
You need to rock-the-boat early in the Rep's presentation, Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep's statements early. If he blames Bush for something or offers other excuses — call him on it, yell back and have someone else follow-up with a shout-out. Don't carry on and make a scene — just short intermittent shout outs. The purpose is to make him uneasy early on and set the tone for the hall as clearly informal, and free-wheeling.
The memo then offers a list of prepared questions for volunteers to bring to the meeting -- a list that strongly resembles that provided in this official FreedomWorks press "Action Kit" memo released in June.
This is certainly not the first time since the election of President Obama that Republican politicians and wealthy corporate CEOs have mobilized astroturfed protests to create the illusion of a grassroots uprising against majority-supported Democratic policies. Many of the supposedly grassroots Tax Day Tea Party protests were organized with the assistance of not only Dick Armey's FreedomWorks and David Koch's Americans for Prosperity, but also the conservative-leaning Fox News Corporation.
The original Tea Party Facebook Group was started by Republican strategists with ties to both FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. The Americans for Prosperity website shows a list of early Tea Party events that were openly hosted and funded by the group. The FreedomWorks site boasts a proud thank you letter to attendees of the 2009 Tea Parties "Proudly brought to you by the FreedomWorks Foundation."
And even as big time establishment conservative lobby names like Americans for Prosperity — run by the billionare Executive Vice President of a giant oil and gas corporation — and FreedomWorks — run by an establishment Republican politiican — planned the Tea Parties back in April, a television news source run by a giant corporation, Fox News, promoted them, with Fox News television personalities speaking at and personally inviting their viewers to attend Tax Day Tea Party protests.
Yet conservative blogger Michelle Malkin called the Tea Parties "A grass-roots revolt against the culture of entitlement." The TaxDayTeaParty.com home page reads: "Organized in all 50 states by Americans from all walks of life, these "tea parties" were a true grassroots protest of irresponsible fiscal policies and intrusive government."
Organized in top-down fashion by activist groups run by Republican party operatives and corporate executives, and aggressively promoted by a major international corporate news conglomerate with an established interest in promoting a conservative, pro-business political agenda, the Tea Parties have been represented nonetheless by their promoters as spontaneously arising community-based grassroots efforts.
And now the same pro-corporate, anti-regulation, anti-consumer-protection groups are applying the astroturf protest model they used to create the Tea Party phenomenon to wage a proxy guerrilla protest war against health care reform, convincing ordinary concerned citizens who are worried about health care to storm political offices and public town hall meetings and argue preselected Republican Party talking points on behalf of corporate interests, as if these ideas and tactics were their own.
In my own state of Missouri, the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity recently helped organize two anti-health-reform protests in the style outlined by the leaked memo that present a near-perfect case study of how astroturing works:
The Missouri chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which is headed by a former Deputy Speaker of the Missouri State House of Representatives, Republican politician Carl Bearden, organized an anti-health-reform protest in front of the St. Louis office of Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill on July 17th. AFP organizers invited local conservative blogger Jim Hoft, of the Gateway Pundit website, to advertise and cover the event, and asked local conservative blogger, Tea Party organizer, and a local radio talk show host, Dana Loesch, who works for a Fox News affiliate station, to promote it.
When protesters holding "No ObamaCare" signs surrounded the Senator's office and reportedly began knocking on doors and windows of the building and repeatedly pressing the door buzzer, shouting "Where is Claire?" staff inside the office called local police, who asked the protesters to step back from the building and continue their protest from across the street.
This intervention caused the protesters to publicly declare that their civil liberties had been violated (despite the fact that the police did not actually break up their protest and in fact only asked the protesters to move the protest to the public sidewalk directly across the street from the office); protest attendees also reported that a McCaskill staffer had flipped them off through a window (though later McCaskill's office and local news confirmed that particular gesture came from a local business owner who shares office space in the building, not a McCaskill staffer).
In response to the protesters' public indignation at not being allowed to speak with the Senator (who was, in fact, not in or anywhere near her St. Louis office at the time of the protest), Senator McCaskill's office invited the Missouri chapter of Americans for Prosperity to attend an open, public town hall meeting with a key member of her staff, St. Louis area District Director, Michelle Sherod on Monday, July 27th, where the protesters would be welcome to share their views on health care in a venue that would theoretically be more conducive to productive discussion than a public street.
AFP, several local conservative bloggers and local radio talk show host Dana Loesch promoted the meeting on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to attract a crowd.
And on the night of the town hall, the protesters organized by Americans for Prosperity appeared, according to one St. Louis-area liberal blogger from Show Me Progress who was at the meeting, to follow the FreedomWorks town hall disruption plan outlined in the aforementioned leaked memo to the letter.
The protesters spread through the crowd. They immediately started to "to put the Rep on the defensive" and "rock the boat" by shouting their questions. As Show Me Progress blogger Hotflash reports:
To give them as much benefit of the doubt as I can muster, I'd say they were . . . passionate. Unfortunately, for many of them passion is indistinguishable from rudeness. Basically, every time Sherod opened her mouth, regardless of what she had to say or how tactfully she expressed it, several people in the crowd of — I don't know, 400? — shouted at her.
The AFP group shouted their questions. When one protester asked a question, others scattered throughout the crowd would yell in support or response:
After the meeting, Dana Loesch, the conservative talk show radio host blogger who had promoted and attended the town hall meeting, appeared on the Fox News Channel television show, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, where she was referred to as a "radio host" and Tea Party organizer; Dana's affiliation with a Fox News affiliate station was not revealed:
(Note Van Susteren's portrayal of the planned event as a spontaneous surprise. Note also Loesch's implication that the entire crowd at the meeting was there to protest health reform when, in fact, it was a public forum attended by several groups including the aforementioned Show Me Progress.)
Just as with the Tea Parties, these local health care protests were organized by a national conservative organization — Americans for Prosperity, through a local chapter run by a Republican politician. They were promoted and attended by an employee of a Fox News affiliate radio station, and given favorable coverage on a national Fox News television broadcast.
The Missouri protests fit neatly into a pattern, now being seen across the country, of loud, disruptive protests outside Democratic politicians' offices and inside public town hall meetings. Strikingly similar protests have "broken out" at several recent town hall meetings, including one held by Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett over the weekend, and just yesterday at a town hall organized by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
To a keen observer, the fingerprints of frustrated GOP politicians, big business, and big media can be seen all over these coordinated events.
And yet, I am personally convinced that the vast majority of individual volunteers who show up to these protests — carrying a protest plan outlined by Republican political operatives, armed with a list of questions written by anti-regulation corporate lobbyists, and followed by camera operators ready to email their footage directly to Fox News — are utterly convinced they were joining an actual grassroots protest. There a clearly a lot of angry conservatives out there who strongly believe that reforming the broken health insurance system will hurt them in some serious way.
While I believe that, as fellow American citizens, they have every right to protest legislation they oppose, as long as organizations like FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity and Fox News seem to be writing the script at these town hall meetings, the rest of us will have no way of knowing whether the "free speech" we're hearing shouted so loudly is coming from the protesters themselves, or Dick Armey and David Koch.