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March Madness on Capitol Hill

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March Madness, the frantic round of tournament showdowns to determine which team will emerge as the top college basketball unit in the nation, has nothing on the Capitol Hill Madness that occurred over the weekend.

Outside the domed deliberations over health care Saturday, so-called Tea Party protesters shouted the n-word at several African-American congressmen, including John Lewis who was brutally beaten in Selma, Ala. as part of the Selma to Montgomery March that led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Another Black representative, Emanuel Cleaver II of Kansas City, Mo., was spat on by one protester, who was arrested by Capitol Hill police.

According to the McClatchey News Service, one colleague walking with Lewis to the Capitol heard the chants of, “Kill the bill, kill the bill.” When Lewis told some protesters that he supported the health care measure being voted on in the House, marchers taunted him, saying: “Kill the bill, nigger.” One Black lawmaker said he heard the n-word 15 times.

“They were shouting, sort of harassing,” Lewis told the wire service. “But it’s OK. I’ve faced this before. It reminded me of the ‘60s. It was a lot of downright hate and anger and people being downright mean.”

Cleaver experienced that meanness when a protester spat on him.

“This is not the first time the congressman has been called the n-word and certainly not the worst assault he has endured in his years fighting for equal rights for all Americans,” a statement from Cleaver’s office said. “That being said, he is disappointed that in the 21st century our national discourse has devolved to the point of name calling and spitting.”

Cleaver, an ordained minister, former mayor of Kansas City and ex-organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), refused to press charges against his abuser.

Some of these lunatics are out of control. Can you imagine the national reaction if an African-American protester spat on a White member of Congress in public and called him or her a racial epithet? Michael Steele, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and several GOP leaders in the House have denounced the abhorrent actions on Saturday, but were quick to characterize them as “isolated incidents.”

The venom was not isolated to African-American lawmakers.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), an openly gay member of Congress, was called a “homo” and a “faggot.”

He told the Boston Globe, “I was, I guess, surprised by the rancor. What it means is obviously the health care bill is proxy for a lot of other sentiments, some of which are perfectly reasonable, but some of which are not.”

Frank added, “People out there today, on the whole, were really hateful. The leaders of this movement have a responsibility to speak out more.”

But the rancor was not limited to a few “isolated incidents” outside the Capitol.

Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan threatened to vote against the health care bill until President Obama agreed to issue an executive order maintaining the current federal ban on the use of federal funds for abortions except in the case of rape, incest or when a mother’s life is threatened.

When Stupak urged Democrats to reject a Republican anti-abortion amendment, someone from the Republican aisle yelled, “Baby killer.”

John Campbell, a Republican from California, acknowledged that the person yelling the comment sat in the row behind him, where Texas Republicans usually sit.

“The people who know won’t give it up,” Campbell told reporters.

The March Madness over the newly-signed health care law will probably carry over into the November elections as Democrats and Republicans seek to prove that they reflect the position of most Americans.

The 178 House Republicans unanimously voted against the health care measure, which passed 219-212. On the Democratic side, 34 voted no, including five who supported health care reform when the House first passed it on Nov.7.

Obama has launched a series of high-profile events around the country to increase support for the legislation. Meanwhile, Republicans plan to continue using the newly-passed health care law as a political issue, depicting the measure as unaffordable and unpopular.

The venom expressed over the weekend shows no sign of abating.

The Web site gawker.com carried the headline, “Right-Wing Bloggers Demand Apology From Lawmakers Called ‘Nigger’ By Tea Partyers.”

It noted that conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds posted the following comment: “Does [Rep. James] Clyburn Owe Tea Party Protesters an Apology? The bogus racism card has been played so often that I no longer find such charges very credible. I’m sure, however, that, true or not, they’ll be played much more loudly than the indisputably true statements about the antiwar movement.”

Referring to Black lawmakers who were called the n-word, conservative blogger Ann Althouse wrote, “It’s outrageous for them to pose as victims without very good cause. So what if some idiot said a bad word?”

First, it was more than one idiot. Second, more than just a bad word was uttered. But none of that matters in March Madness. Let the games begin.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge

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