Outside Supreme Court, protesters have already rendered health-care verdicts

March 26, 2012

There was the argument inside and the argument outside, and they shared little in common at the Supreme Court on Monday.

Inside, nine justices sat in a quiet, camera-less courtroom to hear reasoned testimony and weigh their opinions about health-care reform. Outside, hundreds of protesters paraded on the steps of the court, postured for cameras and shouted at one another through bullhorns. Reason gave way to political theater. Opinion was already in abundance.

“Save our sick babies!” chanted one group, as it held up pictures of bandaged infants in hospital beds.

“Save our Constitution!” chanted back another, waving copies of documents printed in Old English type.

The Supreme Court will spend two more days reviewing the 2010 health-care law, but everyone on the steps had already rendered a verdict. When it comes to a divisive president’s most divisive piece of legislation, public opinion leaves little room for middle ground. Monday’s rallies outside the court became a debate of liberals against conservatives; tea partyers against Occupiers; atheists against evangelicals; Rick Santorum against President Obama; women’s rights advocates against abortion opponents.

They faced off for more than seven hours, each trying to leave a more memorable impression than the other. Both sides sang their own versions of the national anthem. “Let’s make ours louder,” a leader of the second group said. Pastors supporting the law knelt on the steps to pray, followed by other pastors who oppose it, followed by more clergy members who prayed only for harmony between the two sides. One group of health-care proponents chanted in catchy rhymes until they ran out of them. “If you have a new cheer, please come over here!” they sang.

It was less a legal debate than a political show, where everything became a matter of stagecraft. Those who prayed sometimes did so into microphones, backing away from the steps to make room for the cameras that filmed them. A woman set aside a sign that read “Don’t Believe the Media” to give a stream of interviews. Doctors who had taken the week off to voice support for the bill wore white coats and, in at least one case, a stethoscope.

“We are looking for real people to tell their stories,” a leader of the pro-reform coalition announced early in the morning, and, one by one, real people volunteered to become “real people.” They were led to a nearby church, where 25 liberal radio hosts from across the country broadcast live interviews with advocates for reform. They shared their health-care calamities, rotating from one radio table to the next, telling their stories in five-minute slots.

“The real trouble for me started right before chemo,” one woman said.

“My first bill was $26,000,” said another.

“I just wish they would have passed this health-care reform in time for Don,” said a third.

As they kept talking, Ellena Young stepped to a small lectern at the center of the rally holding a 2-year-old son, dressed in a suit. The 31-year-old mother from Albany, N.Y., wore a sticker on her chest that read: “Ask me about my health care story,” but she planned to tell it unprompted. She had agreed to give a last-minute speech on behalf of a patients’ rights group, buying the suit for her son at Men’s Wearhouse and flying to Washington to give more than a dozen interviews in less than 36 hours.

Now she faced two dozen television cameras and a crowd that had spilled beyond the sidewalk and into the street. Behind her was a row of police officers, the marble pillars of the court and the closed doors behind which arguments continued inside.

“My son has a pre-existing condition,” Young told the crowd. “He has major immune problems. Nobody knows exactly what’s wrong with him, and that’s a scary situation.”

The child started to squirm in her arms. The opposing protesters quieted their chants. For a moment, at least, the crowd focused its attention on Young, a three-time cancer survivor herself, who had tired eyes and a sick little boy.

“What would happen to us without Obamacare?” she asked.

Then the chants erupted again. “Down with Obamacare!” one side said. “Obama really cares!” said the other. A gospel chorus sang “This Little Light of Mine.” Abortion opponents placed red tape over their mouths to represent voiceless fetuses. A conservative senator from Wisconsin walked through the crowd and shouted: “This is what I ran against! Wake up, America!” A group of eighth-graders from Iowa, visiting Washington to see the Capitol, wandered into the rally until their tour guide frantically signaled them back by shaking his green umbrella.

A motorcade pulled up to the courthouse steps a few minutes after noon, and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum stepped out of a black sport-utility vehicle. His aides cordoned off a section of the steps and carried over a banner that read: “Repeal Obama Romneycare — Better Health, More Freedom.” A dozen television cameras assembled in front of the banner. Santorum spoke directly to them, choosing not to use a microphone, ignoring the chanting crowd. “We can’t hear you!” a protester said, but Santorum continued.

“This is a very important day,” he told the television cameras. “The bill has far-reaching consequences. This is the most important issue of the election, and if you really want Obamacare repealed, there’s only one person who can make that happen.”

Santorum nodded and headed back to the motorcade, back to the campaign trail. The proceedings inside the Supreme Court had ended for the day, and now the protesters began packing up, too. The doctors left in their white coats. The tea partyers rolled up their gigantic flags. The “real people” returned to being real people.

“Please come back tomorrow for more,” said the last speaker at the microphone, a proponent of health-care reform.

It would be the second day of Supreme Court hearings, and two arguments were scheduled to resume.

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