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As Chief Justice John Roberts announced the fate of the White House healthcare act inside, citizen activists from all ends of the political spectrum made their voices heard on the steps of the Supreme Court Building Thursday morning.
“I’m here today to hope these people have wisdom enough to know this is an unconstitutional mandate!” exclaimed an energetic William Temple, who was dressed for the occasion in full colonial garb. Temple, who led the Taxpayer March on Washington in 2009, recently returned from Wisconsin, where he campaigned for Gov. Scott Walker. Proudly displaying the signatures of Walker, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann on his yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, Temple spoke for the entire contingent of over 100 Tea Party Patriots present when he said, “I hope they just throw the whole thing out.”
At the opposite end of the Supreme Court steps were members of the Occupy movement, who seemed equally fired up for the pending decision. About 75 protesters, mostly students, marched in a circle and carried signs reading “We Love Obamacare!” and “Moving Forward: Protect Our Care.” Occupy and the Tea Party exchanged chants for the better part of an hour, although neither group seemed particularly keen on engaging the other.
Marching alongside the Occupy protesters was Kate, a college student from Maine who requested her last name be withheld. Wearing a tank reading “Proud to be Pro-Choice” and carrying a bright pink sign shouting “Stop the War on Women!”, Kate expressed concern that repeal of the healthcare act would be damaging for women in America. “I’m lucky enough to have health insurance,” she said, “but not all women are.”
There appeared to be dissension in the Occupy ranks over whether the healthcare act went far enough. The central group of marchers chanted their support for “Obamacare”, but a smaller faction camped out close to 1st Street NE rejected the individual mandate in favor of single-payer healthcare. Among the most liberal protesters were members of Nurses National United, which bills itself as “the largest union and association of registered nurses in America.” NNU members, in distinctive maroon shirts, carried signs reading “Love It! Improve It! Medicare for All!” signifying support for replacing private insurance with government-funded insurance.
Wedged between the Occupy and Tea Party contingents was a large group of pro-life activists, who were unanimously opposed to the healthcare act. ”We need to give Americans and Christians back their conscience and their rights and their freedom,” said Ryan Kemper, the youth outreach director of Priests for Life. Behind the Priests for Life camp, a minister led a group of Christian activists in Bible study and hymns. A few feet from the impromptu prayer service, protesters from Students for Life donned creative costumes, including the Grim Reaper and “Doctor Obama,” complete with scrubs, mask and hairnet.
Yet the vast majority of the thousands present weren’t affiliated with any group, and were simply there to take part in what felt more like a more of a politicized Mardi Gras than an organized protest. The steps and sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court had filled by 9:15, compelling Capitol Police to block off the area and forcing late arrivers to the other side of 1st Street. One of the observers lucky enough to snag a spot on the steps was Namita Koppa, who “just came out to see the level of enthusiasm and energy that people have for this healthcare issue.”
The enthusiasm only grew as the hour of judgment neared, and the protesters began nervously circulating rumors about the Court’s decision. As CNN mistakenly reported that the mandate had been deemed unconstitutional, a cheer went up from the Tea Party camp, with yellow flags waving in the humid late-morning air.
That excitement was short-lived, and quickly yielded to confusion as CNN retracted its statements, and conflicting reports spread throughout the crowd. Protesters reached for their iPhones and Blackberries–which were omnipresent–and scanned Twitter for the latest news, shouting out reports to their sympathizers and opponents alike. Perhaps the most poignant scene of the morning was a man in a purple SEIU shirt showing the screen on his smartphone to a woman holding a Tea Party flag as both attempted to make sense of the court’s ruling.
Within about 15 minutes of the original report, most of the crowd had learned of Chief Justice Roberts’ decision, and liberal protesters began to celebrate. “We’re so excited. The ACA has been so good not only for seniors but for families, and it’s the beginning of getting a handle on our outrageous healthcare costs,” said Barb Feldman, a sunny retiree representing the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. Feldman pumped her fist in delight as reports that the law had been upheld were confirmed.
Not all liberals were as happy. Charlotte Huster, a blue-haired student from Massachusetts in town to attend the Natoinal Young Leaders Conference, was disappointed that some provisions in the bill were struck down. “I’m pretty upset, actually. I think healthcare for everyone is a good thing. It’s really important to keep your citizens not dead.”
Yet most of the disappointment was on the conservative side. A visibly subdued Brenda Levy deferred to her sign, which featured President Ford’s famous quote, “A government big enough to give you anything you want is strong enough to take away everything you have.” She then gestured toward the gleaming marble of the Court, adding “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
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