observations. relevant & important. hats.

Milton, MA.

I spent four hours yesterday evening at a town hall meeting held by our congressman (MA-8th). The auditorium was nearly full, with over 400 audience members for an event scheduled to run 7–9pm on a Friday night. “I was in Washington all week, and have to be back there on Monday morning, so it was either tonight or on Sunday.”

The audience at the start was at least 80% women, and he acknowledged that he could see “a few pinks hats out there in the audience.” One person literally held up a pink hat that they were knitting while listening to the discussion.

He told some introductory stories outlining his history working to bring refugees to the US. He knew the processes and procedures and efforts over many years working on vetting and assisting of refugees. He explained what it was like to be a refugee in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Ethiopia, Tanzania or Afghanistan trying to get to America. He reminded everyone that getting to America is not the 1st choice of most refugees. “America is about #10 on the list — for many reasons” — the biggest being that there are large existing refugee communities in many European countries. He pointed out that the largest fraction of the refugees don’t even want to leave at all — they just want to return to their homes and to their businesses — they stay in the refugee camps by the borders in hopes of being able to return to their own homes. Only after they have given up on their ability to return, have realized that they cannot return to their past lives, do they consider resettlement.

The specific vetting process to come to the US then involves 18 distinct steps, with 5 different US agencies involved — plus the UN agencies and others helping locally. The process takes 14 to 16 or 18 months.

He then turned to the situation locally, with a lawyer from the ACLU speaking about the airports and current court orders. After receiving a standing ovation from the crowd — “that keeps happening, people chant A-C-L-U wherever we show up; we’re not used to that, not used to the chanting” — the lawyer thanked everyone for their support and was surprised at “all the food people keep sending to our offices; people send us so much food to keep us going; mostly sugary stuff.”

The MA order had not been extended — negative ruling just after 5pm — and that was a disappointment, but “other orders are being pursued around the country” — news of the WA ruling was just spreading at that point and the audience had better information than the speaker whose “phone ran out on the way over here, and was charging in the back.”

After the ACLU lawyer spoke, they turned it over to questions from the audience — either from the microphones or written on pieces of paper and read out by the congressman’s chief of staff.

Topics ranged, but most were about Trump and the recent orders.

At the 9pm notional end of the session, there were still over a dozen people lined up at the microphones and the congressman addressed every question and finally turned his own mic off at 10:05. The crowd had reduced to about 60 or so by the end.

Two of the early questions asked “what can we do?” and the congressman was unable or unsure to provide many specifics. This made the crowd audibly grumbly. Then later questioners asked him “what will YOU do?” and he was sometimes defensive, but eventually came to realize that the people were asking for a bias toward action that he was not used to.

He noticeably changed his attitude as the questions continued, and said as much to a reporter at the end: “this is a new time, we gotta be much louder than we have been before, even if that isn’t out comfort zone.”

He has been a congressman for many years, and has spent much of that time in the minority. He started to explain how being 55 votes down (in the House) doesn’t help get things done. Initially he spoke about getting ready for 2018. As the questions went on, he came to realize that this was not enough. One woman in particular at the mic kept insisting that he “should just sign on to it” (a bill that he argued, and she agreed, was unlikely to get passed). Others in the crowd supported “just sign it, just sign it” and he agreed on the spot that he would indeed sign onto the bill in question — he would register the protest that his constituents were looking for: “maybe I gotta stop thinking like a lawyer and just sign on to the bill.”

Immediately after the session, he told a reporter that the evening had been a “teachable moment” for him — he had been truly surprised by the high turnout — “expected maybe a few dozen” — and by the depth and specificity of some of the questions that were asked and the comments made: “they knew specific bill numbers and had done their homework.”

The ACLU lawyer was telling someone that “the people keep asking HIM [the congressman] what HE [the congressman] is going to do; they don’t seem to realize THEIR OWN power to affect change”.

Some quick points to summarize:

  • keep sending letters, keep calling — it makes a difference
  • go to town halls and other office visits — it makes a visible difference
  • stay informed, be informed, be specific
  • join activities and help where you can, how you can
  • consider sending kale chips or spinach pies, not cookies to the ACLU offices ;)
  • knit more hats !
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