Week 49: Active Citizen Participation in an Uncomfortable Climate [Score +5]
A few times during an active legislative session, the representatives for my county gather for “Legislative Breakfasts”—open meetings with the public. I've seen these advertised for years but have never set aside time on my early Monday morning to go myself until now.
As I drove closer on that dark and cold morning, I pictured the scene in my head: I'd walk into a room with perhaps a dozen or so fellow citizens, and the organizers would greet me warmly because they would be so glad to see a new attendee.
You can imagine my (pleased!) shock when I approached the venue and saw a parking lot overflowing with 200 or more cars. At first I wondered if another event could be taking place concurrently (at 7:00 a.m. on a Monday), but I just hadn't given my neighbors enough credit.
I was a few minutes late, so I quietly entered the full room (didn’t expect it to start on time or be as formal as it was), skirted along the wall to check out the food (pretty terrible), and found a seat at a table near the back. While I listened to one of the representatives speak, I looked around the room to assess the makeup of my fellow attendees: perhaps 70% were men, 80% over the age of 65, and very few people like myself under 40. As a county with a strong agriculture-based economy, many of the citizens in attendance were farmers in seed-brand caps, plaid shirts, and denim overalls.
Each legislator took 5 to 10 minutes to give a recap of their latest accomplishments during the session and what they would be focusing on in the next. When each had spoken, the floor was opened for questions from the audience.
I felt uncomfortable very quickly. Confrontational town halls are commonplace on TV, but this was my first experience seeing how accurate those representations can be. Rather than use the opportunity to engage a legislator in dialog and ask questions, people used this chance to vent their frustrations. Topics of interest ran the gamut from medical care (with questions around opioids as the leading story) to school curriculum.
- “I had surgery and was only given Tylenol for my pain, but it didn’t work. This is ridiculous.”
- “Businesses in the area are having a hard time finding skilled workers. How are you going to help?”
- “Why can’t you make progress on redistricting? Pew Research says 42% of IN voters identify as Republican, but more than double our reps are Republican. What do you plan to do about it?”
- “The school curriculum is idiotic. Why is my daughter being made to learn how to spell ‘cognoscenti’? When has anyone in their life ever needed to know how to spell ‘cognoscenti’?”
One older man, a disabled veteran, held the floor from the back of the room for several minutes and released a colorful diatribe about his frustrations with the VA and his inability to “get in touch with any of the idiots in this bureaucracy.” He was upset enough that I found myself watching the two officers from the Sheriff’s Department in the room for their reactions (calm but alert).
I realized that this was the first time I'd been in a situation in which I was worried about angry, upset people having guns on them in the room. There'd been no security at the door to enter. No metal detectors, no bag checks. Nothing to prevent someone with a license to carry a concealed firearm from bringing it and their aggravation into the gathering.
I was nervous. I started thinking about what I would do if it became an active-shooter situation.
Thankfully everyone stuck to venting their frustrations verbally, and the moderator and legislators handled the confrontations with grace and professionalism. The event ended calmly, and they welcomed everyone back for the next Legislative Breakfast when they resume late in the year.
I was glad I made the effort to go; I found it interesting and insightful, and I appreciated the opportunity to speak directly with my representatives.
It's unfortunate that today's social climate makes me think twice about going again, though. I'm not going to be enthusiastic about going into another situation—an important situation—where I don't feel safe, and that's a shame. I may stick to contacting my representatives privately or in different forums in the future because of the experience.
- Did something outside my routine: +1
- Left the house: +1
- Did something entirely new: +1
- Signed up for an activity without knowing anyone else involved: +2