Town hall meetings called to discuss proposed health care legislation turned violent Thursday, with a meeting in Tampa, Fla., descending into shouting and one in St. Louis ending in arrests.
Close to 1,500 people came to the Tampa suburb of Ybor City to speak with Democratic State Rep. Betty Reed and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, an event that exploded into a near riot.
According to local media reports, the larger-than-expected crowd gathered outside the Hillsborough County Children's Board building, where several hundred people, most of whom opposed a government health care plan, began to loudly chant and scuffle with organizers posted at doorways after the auditorium filled to capacity.
A freelance videographer was roughed up in an altercation, which damaged his camera equipment and glasses, and at least one man was treated for minor injuries after a scuffle left his shirt partially torn from his body.
"That's the most violent anyone has been towards me," Mark Bishop told WTSP-TV. "It was surprising, to say the least."
In Mehlville, Mo., St. Louis police arrested six people, some on assault charges, outside another forum that was billed as a meeting on aging but was attended by activists on both sides of the health care debate.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the police showed up toward the end of the forum held by Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan. One conservative activist, interviewed at a local emergency room where he was being treated for injuries, said he was attacked by some of the individuals who were arrested as he passed out "Don't tread on me" flags.
A forum with Democratic Rep. John Dingell in Romulus, Mich., also got rowdy as foes and supporters of health care reform argued with each other and one man, with his son in a wheelchair, shouted at the congressman. A similar scene reportedly unfolded as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited a homeless clinic in Denver.
In Tampa, video shot outside the auditorium showed several people holding signs and posters, banging on doors and windows, while others argued face-to-face and were seen screaming at one another in the parking lot as police looked on.
Inside, Democratic lawmakers had a difficult time delivering their opening remarks, as they were met with shouts of "You work for us!'' "Tyranny! tyranny! tyranny!'' and "Read the bill!" the Tampa Tribune reported.
As tensions rose further, Rep. Castor was escorted out of the town hall by police after Reed encouraged her to leave.
"They're hiding from their constituents. She works for us and needs to listen,'' Karen Jaroch, a homemaker and organizer for the 9-12 Project told the Tribune.
"We said all along our role was to come and give an update on the bill in Congress. That's what Betty Reed asked us to do ... and that's what we did," Castor's spokeswoman, Ellen Gedalius, was quoted as saying.
Health care opponents said liberal organizers had tried to allow early admission to those who were seen as favorable to legislation making its way through Congress. Reed denied the accusations, saying those brought in were organizers helping to set up the town hall.
"I represent a number of people who ask questions about what's going on with health care, so I thought it would be good to put on a meeting and have the congresswoman come in and give an update," Reed told the Tribune. "When you get to the point of possible violence, you've gone over the edge."
Top White House officials counseled Democratic senators Thursday on coping with disruptions at public events on health care this summer, officials said, and promised the party and allies would respond with twice the force if any individual lawmaker is criticized in television advertising.
In the week since the House began its break, several town hall-style meetings have been disrupted by noisy demonstrators. These episodes have drawn widespread media attention, and Republicans have seized on them as well as polls showing a decline in support for President Obama and his agenda as evidence that public support is lacking for his signature legislation.
About 20 protesters gathered in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Thursday to let Democratic Rep. Scott Murphy know they oppose the health care plans in Washington. They carried signs saying: "Obamacare Seniors beware! Rationing is here," and "If socialized medicine is best ... why didn't Ted Kennedy go to Canada?" Motorists honked as they drove by. Kennedy is battling brain cancer.
So far, three House committees have approved health care legislation, and a measure is expected on the floor this fall. One committee has acted, and a bipartisan group of senators on the Finance Committee has been at work for weeks trying to draft a compromise plan.