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On Disarmament, Or, How Congressman Larsen Made A “Town Hall” Work August 16, 2009

We’ve all been hearing the “Town Hall Meeting” stories the past few days, and the images presented have been of gatherings where you might see some current or former official “death panel” for the benefit of the crowd, where the few people who shout the loudest bully the rest into silence, and where threats of physical intimidation are part of the debate.

I attended one of these meetings, and based on what I saw I’m here to tell you that it is possible to hold an event that features none of the images previously described.

Instead, what I say was an event where people asked their questions, the Congressman answered—and from time to time the angry members of the audience got their shout on, too…but not in a way that was able to ever take control of the venue.

There were helpful lessons that can be applied by others who want to have these meetings, and today’s conversation examines what can be done to make them work for you, too.

Let’s start by meeting the players:

Rick Larsen is the Member of Congress representing Washington State’s Second District. A Democrat, he first won his seat in the 2000 election, and in 2008 he defeated former Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart by a 62-38% margin.

The (mostly rural) Second District is bordered by Puget Sound on the west, British Columbia to the north (Vancouver is just a short drive from the I-5 border crossing at Blaine, Washington), the Cascade Mountains to the east, and Seattle’s northern suburbs to the south.

From south to north, major cities include Everett (former fishing, lumber and harbor town), Mount Vernon (the largest town in a region known for tulips and eagles and agriculture and formerly, commercial fishing and lumber), and Bellingham (college town, and, again, former fishing and lumber town). All three towns grew substantially as a result of the Alaska Gold Rush of the 1890s.

There are numerous Indian Tribes within the District, as well as two significant military installations: Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and Naval Station Everett.

Larsen had held a previous Town Hall in Mount Vernon that attracted a crowd that was several times the capacity of the venue, so at the last minute Everett Memorial Stadium was booked for this event.

(Fun Fact: this stadium is the home of the minor-league Everett AquaSox, one of the few sports teams to ever take the field in tie-dye uniforms.)

By my count, roughly 2500 were present—but there was an interesting distribution: it appeared to me that the “Diamond Club” seats right behind home plate, and the two sections on either side, were thickly populated with supporters of reform, with opponents “flanking” them to the left and right. The main entrance is on the third base side, and the seats filled up from that side as well, with the seats out past first base being the most empty.

It was not “high summer”, by any means, and at “game time” (5 PM) we had a cloudy sky and a temperature of roughly 65 degrees.

Larsen stood on the field near home plate, and as soon as he started speaking you could see he had three advantages: the large outdoor venue meant that no single person could shout down the meeting, Larsen’s access to the PA system meant that he could always be heard even if a group tried to “chant out” the meeting, and his use of “runners” to take the microphone to each questioner meant no “in your face” screaming matches were going to take place.

Another smart move: Larsen limited his discussion to one specific bill (HR 3200), which allowed him to avoid having to speculate as to what might or might not be in any other possible proposal.

Beyond that, he made it clear in his opening remarks that he would be willing to spend up to 2 ½ hours to answer questions and that the microphone would be getting to every section, in turn, as much as needed; this seemed to remove much of the concern that people would be shut down and left unable to ask questions.

Additionally, he was more than willing to challenge those with whom he disagreed, as evidenced by his answer to one question from the crowd:

“I’ve got facts on my side and you’ve got Glenn Beck on your side…”

At the same time, he was able to use the PA and personal attention to his advantage during questioning. The “runners with mic” system made sure that all questions, from supporters and opponents, could not be drowned out, and by giving real attention to each questioner and presenting a “non form-letter” response (the PA assuring that his answer also could not be drowned out), Larsen was able to show that this was indeed a conversation and not a shouting match.

The crowd also acted as a moderating influence. A number of the questions came from people who seemed as reasonable as they could be, and when some extremist language was presented, the crowd exerted its own influence.

Here’s an example: a questioner asked the Congressman and the crowd to try to come up with one example of Government ever doing anything right, or words to that effect. The crowd offered some supportive cheers.

A couple of questioners later, a man stood up and told the crowd that he did not appreciate the last 20 years of his life being disrespected. He pointed out that the United States Navy, in which he serves, is the finest military force of its kind on the planet (this, in what is today very much a Navy town)…and all of a sudden, the “Government can’t do anything right” supporters, many of whom appeared to be military retirees (based on their age and choice of hats), found themselves…moderated.

About 90 minutes in Larsen called for a “7th inning stretch”, but much of the crowd took that as an invitation to leave, particularly as it was beginning to get cold, and it was starting to rain. Within a few minutes roughly 1500 of the original 2500 people had left.

The event, all in all, was kept under control, and those who came to disrupt were unsuccessful in creating an environment where that could happen…and a lot of that was because of the efforts of Larsen and his staff.

The goal of this exercise is not to go through all the questions and answers and crowd reactions, but I will tell you that I heard a woman behind us asking out loud about what would happen to senior citizens if the Government ever took over Medicare, which I found both profoundly humorous and profoundly sad.

So what can we make from all of this?

First off, a large venue makes it much tougher for any individual or group to take over the event.

Getting your people into a cohesive group near the center of the action is also quite helpful.

Ensuring that the PA is loud enough to always overpower any “disrupters” is vital.

Making sure the crowd understands that nearly everyone who wants to will get to ask questions matters—and it also matters if you appear to be giving reasonable answers to reasonable questions.

Be a bit of a parent, and call the kids out when they deserve it.

Finally, if a questioner says Government can’t do anything right—ask ‘em why they want to disrespect the brave men and women of our Armed Forces. If you’re in Texas…or North Carolina…or California…or Florida—ask ‘em twice.

If you are going to have to campaign for office every two years (and as a Member of Congress, you do), creating a positive image that transcends electoral cycles can be a great thing. These Town Halls offer that opportunity—and if you do it right, you’ll be able to say that you “listened to the voters” and “stood up for the People” and “made the tough decisions”, despite the efforts of special interests to “hijack the process”, for years to come.

And that, Future Candidates, is not a bad image to take on the campaign trail.

SPECIAL NOTE: We note today the recent passage of Les Paul. Many will remember him as the man who made the electric guitar famous, and still others will remember his work with Mary Ford…but if you have ever stood behind turntables or made a mix or a mashup, you should know that everything you’re doing today also came straight from the mind of Les Paul, who was just about the only person on the planet Earth making 24-track overdub recordings all the way back in 1951.

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Obama, Lipton, To Seize World’s Teabags August 11, 2009

WASHINGTON (FNS) – In a startling development related to the recent disruptions of town hall meetings, FNS is now able to confirm that the Obama Administration, with the assistance of Unilever Group and Queen Beatrix, both of the Netherlands, PepsiCo, Skull And Bones, and the Bilderberg Group, is unleashing a secret plot to dispatch fleets of unmarked aircraft and helicopters to prevent teabag protesters from having access to teabags.

The goal of the plot: to disrupt protesters’ plans to save America from the destruction of our health care system.

FNS reporters have been following a trail of information that includes airport noise abatement records, classified documents, and the testimony of insiders, some of whom are now willing to be publicly identified.

We’ll begin our story by reporting on three events that occurred the evening of Friday, August 8th.

Residents near the Suffolk Plaza complex in Suffolk, Virginia reported seeing unmarked black helicopters landing in the industrial area just to the east of the Suffolk Golf Course. According to our informant, the helicopters settled in behind the truck parking area of the Unilever/Best Foods distribution center. This facility, in addition to distributing Lipton Tea products, is the largest tea processing plant in the United States.

It’s reported that the helicopters spent nearly five hours loading inventory at the location before departing just before sunrise, and that before they left certain records had been erased from the memories of the Markem SmartLase systems used at the plant to encode lot, packdate, and expiration date data onto boxes of teabags before distribution.

A similar sighting was reported the same evening at another Lipton distribution center, the International Food Solutions facility in Wichita, Kansas. In this case, however, after the helicopters landed an unmarked locomotive and three box cars moved to a position just outside the plant gates. Several forklifts carried pallets out the entrance normally reserved for employee parking to the train, which was located roughly 100 feet north of the driveway on South Water Street.

The loading process took almost seven hours, we are told, after which the helicopters and the train left the area. Security guards at the Pepsi plant across the street reportedly kept plant workers away from the west side of the building during the operation.

The third Lipton distribution center to be hit that evening was the Unilever/Best Foods facility in the City of Industry, California. An eyewitness sighted two helicopters, landing at the very end of Otterbein Street. A few minutes later several unmarked tractor-trailers approached the loading docks. Two hours later, the trucks drove away, heading for the Pomona Freeway.

There are rumors that other facilities were being targeted, but we were unable to obtain official comment from representatives of Unilever/Best Foods, nor from Celestial Seasonings, who operate a processing and distribution facility Boulder. Colorado, nor from R.C. Bigelow, Inc, who process both the “Constant Comment” brand and their line of herbal teas from their Boise, Idaho location.

We were able to obtain noise abatement records from the Ontario International Airport and the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport that confirm that aircraft were operating at the times reported by our informants, and that no other air traffic was operating in the area at that time.

Who is organizing all this? That information was recently provided to us by an informant who has only recently agreed to come forward. Harry Paratestes is an Assistant Program Manager who was previously employed by FEMA but now works for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management (ASAM) at the Department of Health and Human Services:

“I was assigned to the ASAM Program Support Center (PSC) in March, after the Tax Day protests. The ASAM PSC is a clandestine office that was charged with coordinating with another clandestine office (the Administrative Services Division of the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis), the HHS Office of Global Health Affairs, FEMA, and the White House to shut down any efforts by citizens to prevent the Obama Administration from socializing the larger American economy; and we had finalized the plans that were used Friday night in early June.

From the beginning we were aware of the powerful impact of the Tea Party protests, and we knew we would have to block access to those tea bags if we were going to nip this in the bud.”

Who stands to profit from all of this?

There are rumors that Queen Beatrix and members of the Bilderberg Group hold enormous investments in Sanofi-Aventis, AstraZeneca, and Hoffmann-La Roche, three of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and that the Queen influenced Netherlands-based Unilever to cooperate.

In addition, confidential sources have reported to us that during President Obama’s spring visit to Europe he was offered membership in the Bilderberg Group, as well as a multimillion-dollar “recruitment package”, in a late-night meeting at the US Embassy in Paris (along with agreements to allow “rendition” of Tea Party protesters to secret French tropical prisons if necessary) in return for guarantees of future access to the US market on favorable terms.

To summarize: so far we have been able to substantiate that the President has ordered secret seizures of a major portion of the national tea bag supply in just one night, that the plan is part of a larger Federal program to shut down the Tea Party protests, that France has agreed to accept “renditioned” Tea Party protesters, and the this President has agreed to join the Bilderberg Group as part of his plan to “internationalize” American health care.

The best advice we can offer to patriotic Americans is to immediately purchase any remaining tea bags at your local grocery store and to make the purchases in cash, in case Government agents use Federal Reserve Bank records to direct FEMA agents in their future home seizures of the tea bags—and Tea Party protesters.

 

On Making Money, Or, Art Can Help New Orleans August 7, 2009

The long, lazy days of summer are upon us, and it’s time to have a little fun—but it’s also a great opportunity to volunteer a bit of spare time for a good cause.

So imagine how cool it would be if you could combine the two…and even better, do it in a way that doesn’t take a bite out of your wallet…and even better yet, if it was something you and the kids could do together.

Imagine no more, because it has been done; which is why today we are going to be talking about lead in the soil of New Orleans, Operation Paydirt…and Fundred Dollar Bills.

So here’s what’s up: in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina all sorts of specialists went to New Orleans to see how they might help. Among those were environmental artist Mel Chin (who had previously participated in the GALA Committee’s project to “sneak” original works of conceptual art into the show “Melrose Place”).

Chin studied the community, and came to the conclusion that a huge problem existed that had nothing to do with Katrina: lead had contaminated the soil…and it was collecting in the blood of the children living there.

This is not good: lead poisoning in children has been linked to anemia, permanent nerve damage, mental retardation…and behavioral disorders that can result, literally, in a life of crime.

As it turns out, lead had been accumulating since the 1920s, either as lead paint scrapings or paint dust had fallen to earth or as the exhaust smoke from automobiles burning leaded gasoline settled to the ground. (It’s estimated that every year as much as five tons of lead were deposited in New Orleans’ soil as a result of the volume of vehicle traffic before leaded gasoline was banned.)

Hotspots exist throughout the city, but the worst contamination is to be found in the city’s Uptown, Downtown, and French Quarter Districts, with levels as high as 1200 parts per million (ppm) reported in some soil samples (levels below 150 ppm are considered “lead-free”).

The Department of Health and Human Service’s Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry reports that in 1993 nearly half of the city’s children (44%) were designated as “lead poisoned” by virtue of having blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL). 14% of the children tested had levels above 20 ug/dL, double the “not poisoned” standard.

“The disaster was in the soil before the disaster.”

Mel Chin, March 2008

Are you thinking “I’m glad that’s not my city’s problem?” Are you sure about that? Boston, Baltimore, and Minneapolis/St. Paul are among the many US cities known to have serious contamination issues. (The locations most likely to be affected are older cities with higher traffic volumes.)

Until now, no one has been willing to provide the money to get a cleanup underway…and that’s where Mel Chin—and you, Gentle Reader—come into the picture.

Chin has begun a project that seeks to gather 3,000,000 “signatures”, if you will, to an “art petition” that he intends to present to Congress this fall in an effort to shake the money loose.

Art petition, you say?

That’s exactly correct: Chin wants you to create what he calls “Fundred Dollar Bills”, which are made from blank “templates” that resemble US $ 100 bills. You, the kids, and more or less 3,000,000 of your closest friends do your part by first downloading and then filling in the templates with designs, drawings, personal statements…pretty much any darn thing you can fit into a seven by four inch space…and then returning the completed bills to the nearest collection center.

The bills will be collected and transported to Washington, DC. Chin hopes to “exchange” the $300,000,000 represented by the Fundreds for $300,000,000 in real live Congressional appropriations to start the cleanup process in New Orleans (“Operation Paydirt”, as he’s calling it).

This had been promoted, in a big way, as a classroom project, and lots of schools and arts organizations around the country are joining in the effort.

“…we’re asking children [to produce the art] not because we want to use them, but they are the most affected by lead, and they have a right to have some expression in this.”

Mel Chin, March 2008

The pickups are scheduled to begin in November, which means it’s time to get out the crayons, or gel pens (or, if you really take your conceptual art seriously, a garden pond pump, bucket, hose, sprinkler, and several colors of acrylic paint; the idea being to create the perfect Jackson Pollock effect), design some Fundreds, and let’s see if we can’t help make lives better for some kids that have been dealing with this for so long that some of them are today collecting Social Security.

So how about that?

A project that seeks money to clean up soil that is causing brain damage to the kids of New Orleans…money that, as far as I can see, is the truest form of “stimulus spending” there could ever be…and you get to help create the art petition that could really make a difference in deciding whether this happens or not.

All in all, that’s a pretty good way to spend a lazy summer day.