Last night I drove through rush hour traffic for forty minutes so that I could attend the town hall meeting of my representative Jason Chaffetz. I’d never been to a town hall meeting before. I’ve been content to let others manage government while I just handled my life. Unfortunately enough political things have been scaring me that I feel obligated to be more informed and more participatory in my government. I thought I would sit in the meeting, listen to him answer questions and see if his answers changed my negative opinion of him.
The other reason I decided to attend was that I’ve been expressing more political opinions online. I’ve been retweeting things, and asking people to become more aware, educated, and active in their representative government. If I want avoid hypocrisy, I have to be willing to do more than just tweet from the comfort of my couch. I composed this sentiment into a tweet, which I sent out while putting gas in my car for the trip:
Sandra Tayler @SandraTayler
Democracy was not designed for personal convenience. It requires sacrifice or it goes away.
My first clue that the evening would not go as I had pictured was when I arrived at the location (35 minutes early) and realized that at least half the cars jamming up the street were going the same place that I was going. I could see four parking lots, they were all full. I managed to get the last curb space available off to the side of one parking lot. I had to back into the space and park a little closer to the car behind me than I usually would. As we both got out of our cars I asked “Am I too close? Will you be able to get out.” He answered “No you’re fine. It’s important for lots of people to be here.” That small interaction set the tone for all my interactions the rest of the evening. Calm purpose and camaraderie were the mood.
I walked up some stairs and was directed by a very polite police officer toward the front of the school building, where there was a crowd. I walked up just in time to hear the bullhorn announcement that all the seats were full and they wouldn’t be letting anyone else into the building. “You’re welcome to stay, please keep this sidewalk path clear for safety reasons.” And the crowd did. I have to compliment the local police and sheriff’s department. They are not used to handling this sort of event. They had to be nervous and stressed, but every officer I spoke to was courteous and efficient.
I didn’t feel disappointed about not getting into the building, though I’d pictured attending a meeting, not standing outside in a protest. I stood next to people I’d never met before and chatted. All of them were local. Everyone I spoke to lived in Chaffetz’s district. Some had traveled three hours or more to attend (the district is geographically large and includes some of Utah’s most iconic national parks and wildernesses.) Most of the people had never participated in a protest or a town hall before. They were there for reasons similar to mine, they’d realized that they needed to be involved because the stakes are high in American politics right now. America is changing, waking up, redefining itself. From where we are now, there are some terrible possible futures. The people in the crowd with me were there because they know it will take group effort to steer something as large as a country toward the better futures.
I spoke to people in pink hats and wearing LGBT pins. I spoke to Mormons and atheists. I talked to people who were passionate about wilderness, who wanted to see Trump’s conflicts of interest investigated, and who opposed the strict immigration stance that Chaffetz favors. I saw people with protest signs on opposite sides of the same wilderness issue who were talking politely together. I assume that some of the crowd was also there because they support Chaffetz positions, but I didn’t meet any of them. One guy near me had the livestream of the meeting running on his phone. He held it next to his ear and loudly repeated the things that were being said. It was the only chance that people in the outside crowd had of listening to the meeting.
It was strange being in a protest crowd. Mostly I stood still and talked to people who were nearby. Often we’d pause to try to make out what chant had begun close to the building and was rippling through the crowd toward us. It wasn’t always easy to figure out what the words were. Other times the crowd would erupt into cheers or Boos and we’d turn to each other trying to figure out what was causing the cheer or boo. Sometimes we figured it out. Other times we didn’t.
The moment that really defined the protest for me came after I’d been standing in the dark for about forty minutes. The sun had gone down and the building had only a few lights that where completely inadequate to provide light for the crowd. Suddenly it was as light as if someone had remembered where the light switch was an turned it on. I looked up and realized that a large portion of the crowd was holding up their cellphones in flashlight mode. I’m a short person and I wasn’t able to get a really good angle on the crowd, but I tried. The picture does not do the experience justice.
Sandra Tayler @SandraTayler
We’ve been standing in the dark, when everyone holds up their little cell phone light the whole area is illuminated.
Sandra Tayler @SandraTayler
Each light by itself is small, but together the world is bright. Shine on good people.
From everything I’ve heard, Jason Chaffetz did not have a pleasant experience inside the building. He got chanted at, booed, and asked questions that he tried not to answer. I was told by someone in the crowd that Chaffetz had put out a call for “the real majority” to show up to his town hall. I don’t think he was expecting what he got.
As the crowd thinned out, the positive feeling thinned a bit too. The people who lingered were the ones who were angrier. Everyone was still standing politely where we’d been asked to stand, but I could tell it was time for me to go home. The point had been made. Staying longer would just add to the cold in my bones. (I’d dressed for attending a meeting indoors, not for standing outside in a chilly wind.) Most of the crowd felt the “time to go” impulse at about the same time I did. I listened to groups of people as they walked to their cars. They were all talking about what they would do next: write letters, make calls, attend more marches, run for office. This wasn’t a feel-good protest where people vent their feelings and go back to their lives. Most of the crowd seemed to understand that ongoing effort is necessary.
So here I am today, writing one woman’s account of her experience at a Town Hall meeting turned protest. I hope that anyone who takes time to read this post will also take time to contact your representatives. Learn about the issues and then tell your representatives how they should represent you on those issues. If we have more people respectfully discussing their opposing viewpoints, we have a chance to pull our country back from the chasm of divisiveness and hatred which threatens to swallow us whole.