The security to get into Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed‘s
Town Hall constituent meeting, held in a meeting room at the RI United States District Court building near Kennedy Plaza was nothing short of ridiculous. As I approached, I saw that the east end of Kennedy Plaza had been transformed into a police car parking lot, with maybe two dozen officers from at least three different law enforcement agencies. Outside I saw homeless advocate Artemis Manie Butti Moonhawk with a small group holding signs that said “Stop the War on the Visibly Poor.” Artemis couldn’t get in because some in her group lacked ID and there were no signs allowed inside.
With Artemis were dozens of people brought to the courthouse by and as members of Indivisible RI, waiting for courthouse security to let them in.
Inside, nine security officers slowly processed every person through the metal detectors, confiscating cell phones from everyone but the press. For whatever reason, the press was allowed to keep their phones, as long as we didn’t use them. At all. No pictures, no video, no tweets, no recordings of any kind were allowed. No one could answer me as to why the press could keep their equipment but not be allowed to use it. Also, what makes the “press” as a class, entitled to greater rights than average citizens, I wondered.
A very nice older man told me that cellphones could be bombs in disguise, which is why they were taking them. I pointed to what looked like a hastily scrawled sign that said:
NO FOOD, DRINK
PHOTO ID REQUIRED
“Do they think political pins are bombs too?” I asked the man.
I got inside. Only a few people were ahead of me, not nearly filling a room that could hold about 160. Jack Reed was near the stage, talking to some constituents in front of a projected slide that said:
United States Senator
People trickled into the meeting room slowly at a rate of one or two per minute. The meeting started late because it took a little over 40 minutes to get about 100 people through the metal detectors and tag all their phones so they could be guarded in a hallway during the meeting. I took copious notes as fast as I could. Next to me, Selene Means, who turns out to be an amazing sketch artist as well as a photographer, drew pictures of the proceedings. We were doing old school 1860’s style journalism.
At least, that was the intention. As soon as Reed starting talking, I saw reporters with their phones out, recording the event. I saw WPRO and RINPR chasing Reed around with their recording equipment. I recorded the event on my phone. (see below)
Reed said that he started opposing Donald Trump‘s agenda before the inauguration, when he and Senator John McCain worked to expand the investigation into Trump’s Russian connections. Reed said that right away he started working to oppose the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) also known as Obamacare. His efforts since Trump took office have forced Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote of the Betsy DeVos nomination and forced Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary to withdraw, said Reed.
“Every day [of the Trump administration],” said Reed, “seems another attempt to undermine sound policy.”
“There are not too many immigrants here today,” said the man who asked the first question, who was judging as best he could by the number of white middle class constituents in the room, “a different location might allow for a wider representation in the future.” The man suggested holding a meeting in Central Falls at a time working people could attend, instead of at 1pm on a weekday.
The man asked about a bill by Senator Elizabeth Warren that would remove racist anti-Semite Steve Bannon from the National Security Council. Reed agreed, saying that he was meeting with Warren on Monday. Reed also noted that the National Security Council is in disarray.
The next question, about Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and Reed’s refusal to commit to voting against him, caused the crowd to get agitated. Reed said that it is important that the Democrats hold themselves to the same standard that the Republicans ignored when they refused to hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland.
“Why?” asked a woman in the crowd, incredulous.
“When we go out and criticize people for doing what is wrong,” said Reed, “we don’t do the same thing.”
“I have voted against Supreme Court justices before,” said Reed, who mentioned both John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
“We need to withhold judgement until hearings are concluded,” said Reed, who said that the Republicans must be held to the 60 vote procedural threshold, which would allow Gorsuch to be blocked unless too many Democrats defect.
Don Byer rose and said that he sees Trump’s attack on journalism, the election process and the courts as an attack on Democracy itself. Reed projected confidence in the system. “The 9th Circuit wasn’t cowered by Trump,” said Reed. Reed told the people in the room that he was proud of them, saying that the movement he saw represented in the room isn’t about “gimme this, it’s about the best ideals of our country.”
Even some of Trump’s nominees believe in the system, indicated Reed, mentioning Gorsuch’s response to Trump mocking the 9th Circuit as “so-called judges.” However, while Reed saw Gorsuch standing up to Trump as a point in the judges favor, the people in the room saw Gorsuch playing politics and scoring easy points. Reed saw patriotism, the people saw a con artist.
“Gorsuch should be asked if the courts will be responsible for the next terror attacks,” a man called out from the audience.
A woman stood and took Reed to task for not issuing a statement against Trump’s executive order endangering transgender schoolchildren by not protecting their right to use a bathroom consistent with their gender identity. She said that when she called, Reed’s “people” showed no interest in the issue. Along with Reed’s support of Ben Carson for HUD Secretary despite a long career of anti LGBTQ statements and Reed’s refusal to come out against Gorsuch despite his hostility to what Gorsuch labeled the “gay agenda,” Reed’s recent history of defending LGBTQ rights seemed lacking.
“I’m disappointed that you would trust Carson,” said the woman, “Why would you accept Carson’s one statement saying he would uphold the rights of LGBTQ people when he has a lengthy history of saying the opposite? … The LGBTQ vote is being taken for granted.”
Reed promised his office would issue a statement condemning Trump’s executive order reversal on transgender student bathroom use.
Joe Clifford told Reed that he was scared. “I’m more frightened of my own government than the Russians.” To Clifford, the problem is with the Democratic Party leadership. We want significant change in the Democratic Party leadership, said Clifford, because a lot of people don’t feel that you’re fighting for us.
Reed said that he is supporting Representative Keith Ellison in the upcoming election for National Democratic Chair, to applause. But more importantly, said Reed, he hopes to capture the House and the Senate in 2018, as an ultimate refutation of the Republican agenda.
Indivisble RI’s Jane Tucker brought the conversation back to Gorsuch, saying, “These are not normal times.
“It may go against your nature” to oppose the Gorsuch nomination, said Tucker, “I appreciate that.” But holding hearings for Gorsuch, normalizing the process, means “They would win. This is what they wanted.”
Before Reed could really begin to defend himself, Deborah Logan, also of Indivisible RI chimed in, “How can you even consider [Gorsuch]?”
“If Trump colluded with the Russians he doesn’t get to make a Supreme Court nomination,” said Justin Boyan.
As Reed tried to make a constitutional case for process, a woman interrupted, saying, “This is Treason!” in reference to Trump’s possible collusion with Russia.
When the next questioner rose to ask her questions, she began with an observation that, in her mind, Gorsuch is the “least bad” Supreme Court nominee Trump could have made. “You speak from a place of privilege with that comment,” said the woman who had asked Reed about transgender students mere minutes before.
The woman continued by asking if anything could be done about Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt now that emails have been released showing that Pruitt is “arm in arm” with the fossil fuel industry. Reed could not reassure her. “Republicans don’t play by the rules,” said the woman, “Why do you expect them to start?”
One problem, said Reed, is that “many of [Trump’s] nominees are not properly vetted.”
Darrel Moore reiterated that transgender students are scared under a Trump presidency. His partner, a schoolteacher, deals with the tears of transgender students every day. Moore asked about the Russian investigation. Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said Moore, must recuse himself. Russia is threatening United Sates allies such as Estonia and Finland, and Trump is saying nothing.
Susan Allen rose to ask about Standing Rock. “DAPL is not a good deal for the tribe or for the overall economy,” said Reed. “We are trying to get an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)” mandated said Reed.
More questions and comments from the crowd, as a sort of lightning round:
“Trump has de-legitimized the presidency,” said a man.
“Why does the system continue to cater to Trump,” asked a woman.
“2018 will be an important election…” said Reed.
“That’s too late!” shouted a woman.
“How many people will die before then?” asked another.
When someone asked about the surveillance state, created under Presidents George W Bush and Barrack Obama, that has now been handed over to Trump, no one commented on the irony of having to pass through an army of security to get into the meeting with Reed.
Corporate influence on our politics… Citizens United… Reed said he’s in support of a progressive income tax that hits the rich more. Reed won’t commit to eliminating the cap on Social Security payments or to eliminating hedge fund tax breaks.
The last speaker in the room was a woman asking Reed for a statement taking Trump to task for his stance on transgender student bathrooms. It was the third time the demand was made. Reed reiterated his commitment to issuing a strong statement condemning the administration.
After it was all over, Reed explained that the security of the building has nothing to do with him. He first moved his office into the courthouse building in 1997. After 9/11, of course, security changed. Reed’s people told me on the phone that setting up in the courthouse building is a measure of Reed’s fiduciary responsibility. It’s cheaper than office space downtown.
Reed’s people also explained that the event blew up from what was supposed to be a constituent meeting to what turned into a full blown town hall, with lots of media in attendance. Though they welcome the constituents and the media, the meeting got away from them.
Reed’s people promised that future meetings will be bigger and better – and will be coming soon.
As a measure of how much Reed listened, at 5:52pm I received the following statement from Reed in my inbox:
Reed Statement on Trump Revoking Protections for Transgender Students
PROVIDENCE, RI – After President Trump’s administration announced its intention to reverse landmark guidance regarding the accommodation of transgender students in America’s government-funded schools, U.S. Senator Jack Reed today stated:
“All students have a right to a public education that is free from discrimination. The Departments of Justice and Education are charged with protecting and defending that right. Tragically, the Trump Administration has decided to abdicate its duty to protect the rights of transgender students in our schools.”
Senator Reed, who is a cosponsor of the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination against students in any federally-assisted education program, also noted that the courts will have a say in the matter. He added: “Rhode Island’s law and policies protect LGBT individuals from discrimination. But a child’s right to grow up free from harassment and unequal treatment shouldn’t depend on the state that child is from. The Trump Administration’s rescission of these protections is short-sighted, and at odds with our shared values.”
Last year, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) issued statewide guidance on school policies to accommodate transgender and gender nonconforming students. This guidance, while not mandatory, affirmed that transgender students are entitled to use the bathroom, locker room, and changing facility of the gender with which the student identifies. RIDE has affirmed that the Administration’s rescission does nothing to change RIDE’s policy, and that it will continue.
The audio below is rough for about 2 minutes and 30 seconds, then Reed is given a working mic.