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Opponents and supporters of health care proposals engage in battle of words and signs -- not fists

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 22, 2009 - Lots of signs, a few musical instruments and a couple bullhorns.

But for the most part, no costumes.

And according to participants and police, no punches.

That, in essence, was the upshot Saturday as hundreds of opponents of the Democratic proposals to revamp the nation's health care system gathered outside the local offices of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

The protests -- which ran roughly from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. -- had been organized by the St. Louis Tea Party, a loosely knit coalition of groups and conservative activists.

At both sites, the critics were met by smaller bands of supporters of health care change.

The two camps mingled shoulder-to-shoulder without incident outside Carnahan's office at the corner of Brentwood Boulevard and Manchester Road. The only trouble appeared to be the traffic jam that ensued at the busy intersection, as motorists slowed down to honk or gawk.

In the city of St. Louis, police kept the two sides separated on different sections of the median down the middle of Delmar Boulevard. Neither camp was allowed to picket on the sidewalk in front of McCaskill's office, shuttered as usual on a weekend.

Tea Party organizers had encouraged participants to wear costumes.  But no special attire was evident at the Carnahan event, where everyone -- regardless of views -- wore T-shirts, shorts and jeans. (Arguably, that may be in keeping with the Tea Party theme of "Fifth Grade Boys.")

At the McCaskill event, a few opponents wore Revolutionary War style garb (as suggested) and waved period flags, some of them the yellow "Don't Tread on Me'' versions that have become popular with conservative activists.

Meanwhile, several of the small band of McCaskill supporters dressed in formal attire in line with their gathering's tongue-in-cheek theme: "Billionaires for Wealthcare."

From their opposing medians, the two sides engaged in vigorous, but civil, verbal battles as the police looked on.

"Vote McCaskill Out!'' shouted the Tea Party activists. "Kill the bill!"

"Crazy people drink too much! Privatize water!" the pro-change group shouted back.

But what was key, for both camps at both locales, were their opposing views when it came to proposals now floating around Congress -- or those alleged by critics.

"If health care passed in its current form, the cost of it will be the nail in our coffin,'' said Greg Galati of Ballwin, among the opponents outside Carnahan's office. The coffin, he added, will contain "our freedom."

"Abortion. I don't want to pay for abortions,'' said Carol Walker of St. Peters, who isn't buying Democrats' and President Barack Obama's insistance that the changes won't lead to federal payments for the procedure.

Despite Democratic denials, Walker also is convinced that the proposed health care changes will lead to rationing. Her 77-year-old mother now is on tube feedings covered by Medicare.

Walker believes such care will stop if Congress acts, because of the Democrats' promises to curb the nation's health-care costs.

"I believe they're not going to pay $1,200 a week" for her mother's feedings, Walker said.

Just a few feet away, Gene Kane sat in a wheel chair. Kane, of St. Ann, supports universal coverage -- or, at minimum, a public option.

Kane, who suffers from diabetes and other ailments, is now covered by Medicare. But a few years ago, he was without insurance because he'd moved to Missouri from Colorado. The insurance he carried in Colorado wasn't available in Missouri, and he could find no insurer here who would cover him. "None, nobody,'' Kane said.

At the McCaskill event, "billionaire" Adam Shriver -- sporting a top hat -- said that he thought many of the critics were misdirecting their anger at Congress and the White House, when they should be upset instead at insurance companies who were raking in profits by "knocking people off their rolls and barring pre-existing conditions."

In any case, both sides at both sites made a point of noting that Saturday's rallies were held without violence or rancor. That's in contrast to a recent Carnahan forum, where both sides tangled, leading to six arrests.

This time, asked health care reform critic Terry O'Connor of Kirkwood: "Where are the angry mobs? Does this look angry?" 

She added that she hoped the larger size of the opposition's crowds would make an impression on area members of Congress. Despite what some Democrats say, O'Connor said, "We are not Astroturf. We do have roots."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.