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Iowa man joins protest against Obama and health-care reform

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; A01

IOWA CITY, IOWA -- He had no plans to throw bricks, issue death threats, spit in faces or scream racial slurs. But Randy Millam, 52, intended to make a scene, so he woke up early Thursday morning to prepare for President Obama's visit.

Millam sat at his kitchen table in Lowden, Iowa, with 14 Sharpie markers and a piece of foam board, working to condense a year of frustration into a 3-by-3-foot catchphrase. "Chains We Can Believe In," he wrote, drawing the communist hammer and sickle on the poster's top left corner. Then he grabbed an American flag, inserted batteries into a megaphone bought on the cheap for $25 and guzzled a 24-hour energy drink. Just as Obama took off in Air Force One for Iowa City, Millam loaded into his muddy Ford Fusion and drove 50 miles across the cornfields of eastern Iowa.

"The president just about declared war against the American people last weekend," he said. And it is a war Millam intends to fight.

Millam's resolve Thursday was reinforced by the sense that he was taking part in a movement -- a rising tide of anger, fear and vitriol in the wake of the health-care overhaul signed into law by Obama this week. Millam joined a chorus of discontent surrounding the president's visit: a warm-up protest Wednesday night, a greeting party of protesters waiting at the airport and hundreds more with plans to chant outside the downtown arena while Obama spoke. In the hours before he left for Iowa City, Millam watched reports on Fox News Channel about vandalism at Democratic offices and visited a Web site of the conservative "tea party" movement, where he was inspired by a Thomas Jefferson quote about how bloodshed might be necessary to protect a country from tyranny.

"I'm not ready for outright violence yet. We have to be civil for as long as we can," Millam said. But, he added, "we are watching the infrastructure of this country crumble under our feet. The government doesn't want to hear us. We have to make them listen."

With that as his goal, Millam arrived in Iowa City wearing an "Army Dad" T-shirt and a cap inscribed with the words of the Second Amendment. He parked his car and joined a crowd of about 300 protesters, who carried signs that addressed most of Millam's frustrations. "America's Disastrous Economy," read one; that was the economy that had contributed to him losing a job on the assembly line at Kraft Foods a few years ago and had left him unemployed since. "Insane Overspending!" read another; that was the overspending that made him fear for the futures of his two teenage children: a high school honors student and a daughter who recently enlisted in the military. "Obama Lies!" was the reason he no longer trusted government, stockpiling firewood and bricks and starting his own vegetable garden. "ObamaCare," was what he considered the final insult to the Constitution. Even though he has health insurance through his wife's job, the politics of the past few weeks confirmed his fears about the direction of his country and gave him a "locked-and-loaded focus."

He walked to the front of the protest crowd and lifted the megaphone to his mouth.

"Fellow patriots," he bellowed. "We are standing outside the arena right now because the president controls the crowd, controls the message, controls the people of this country. That is not freedom! That is not democracy! That is not the America I grew up in!"

The demonstrators cheered and began to gather around Millam, and two police officers came to stand nearby. "If you're going to deny me my constitutional rights, you can arrest me," Millam told the officers. Then he leaned into the megaphone and started shouting again.

"I got news for you, Barack," Millam said. "You can't blame everything on Bush anymore. You either are the president, or you're not. We've got 17 percent real unemployment. Home sales are at historic lows. . . . And now the most pro-choice president this nation has ever elected is forcing us to have health care. Every single person's body in this whole country belongs to the government now."

Millam swayed from side to side, waving the American flag and catching his breath. He was silent now, but the crowd continued to swell around him. Tommy Leforce, a 19-year-old student at Cornell College in Iowa, tapped Millam on the shoulder and asked for the megaphone. "My dad is unemployed right now," Leforce shouted, "but this government is more focused on what their political party wants instead of what Americans need."

Another person took the megaphone: "I want nothing to do with Washington, D.C."

Another: "It's communism!"

Another: "Obamunism!"

By now a group of about 200 Obama supporters had stopped to watch and listen, congregating across the street from the protesters. Seven police officers stood in the middle of the road, monitoring both sides. On one sidewalk: Obama T-shirts, health-care-reform advocates, and students from the University of Iowa, one of whom held a sign inviting Obama to join him at a local bar for Thursday night's $1 you-call-it drink special. On the other sidewalk: college Republicans, middle-aged conservatives and retirees who waved homemade signs, bullhorns, doctored pictures of Obama and yellow tea party flags, which showed coiled snakes under the motto "Don't Tread on Me."

Millam looked across the street at the students and shook his head. "They don't understand that our government doesn't listen," he said. He had spent the past week calling congressional offices and the White House to tell them about his feelings on health-care reform, waiting through hold times only to reach answering machines and busy signals. Maybe he could enlighten these Obama supporters. He stepped closer to the street and raised the megaphone.

"I voted for a Democrat once," he said. "I was young once. Kumbaya and all that. Then I grew up. If you believe in freedom, you need to come to this side of the street."

Nobody moved.

"If you don't think it takes 2,700 pages to explain a health-care plan, come to this side of the street."

Still nothing.

"If you haven't given up on our Constitution, on our founders, on the hope and dream of a free country, then come to this side of the street."

Finally, one student walked across. He wore dark sunglasses and carried a poster-board sign, made moments earlier. It read: "These People are Idiots." He stood with the protesters, his sign mocking them, while he listened to an iPod.

Millam rested the megaphone on his stomach. His voice was getting hoarse, and his legs ached. He'd been shouting for almost two hours now, and some protesters were beginning to leave. "Where is Obama?" he asked. Another demonstrator told him that the president had finished his speech, entering and exiting the arena through a different entrance, and Millam snorted in disgust.

"Why does the president of the United States have to sneak in the back door to avoid seeing the real people in this country?" he shouted into the megaphone. "That's not right. That's just not right."

His words died out. The rally was over. He turned off the megaphone and walked to his car. While the president flew back to Washington, Millam drove home on the rural highways of Iowa. He wondered: What would it take to be heard, and what would he try next?

He carried the sign and megaphone into the house and stored them in the closet, knowing he would use them again.

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