It’s the week before Mardi Gras, and my friends and I are on the road with several large cardboard tombstones in the backseat. We’re on our way to Senator Bill Cassidy’s town hall meeting at the Jefferson Parish Public Library in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. Not that we’re expecting to get inside the meeting—or, if we do, that we’ll be allowed to ask questions. The room has a capacity of around two hundred, and people started lining up at nine o’clock this morning to discuss the Patient Freedom Act, the latest attempt by Cassidy and other Republican senators to replace Obamacare. It’s now one o’clock in the afternoon.
Our tombstones memorialize the things the Trump administration is killing in Louisiana. Healthcare, the environment, racial justice, prison reform, and public education—the list goes on. Suffice it to say, we have a lot of tombstones, which my friends plan to set up outside as an act of protest and, perhaps, for a bit of political theater. En route, they plan their line of attack. “I’ll ask him what his healthcare plan is going to do for me if I get diagnosed with cancer,” says one friend, who was able to obtain insurance after Louisiana accepted federal funding to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.
The Patient Freedom Act is the embodiment of compromise: it leaves neither side happy. Not hard enough for hardliners on the right, it still rolls back too much for Democrats set on preserving the Affordable Care Act. As such, it has little chance of passing into law—and it will soon be eclipsed by another doomed Republican plan, leading to a major defeat for Trump, though Republicans will persist in their attempts to repeal and replace the ACA, leaving the future of Obamacare uncertain.
In Metairie, you’ll still hear a “real” New Orleans “y’at” accent—from the common expression “where y’at?” Yet for all its regional particularity, Metairie might be Anywhere, USA. The word is thought to mean farm in French, and the original settlement served as a center for agriculture and trade in colonial New Orleans. Beginning in the 1940s, the population grew as technology allowed the swamps to be drained and developed. Jefferson Parish subsequently became a destination for whites fleeing Orleans Parish—a migration fueled by overt racism and also by the same top-down practices that encouraged de facto housing segregation anywhere else. The ongoing racial tension that fueled its growth is such an open secret that Dirty Coast, a purveyor of t-shirts that boost New Orleans civic pride, produces one lampooning suburbanite anxieties about urban crime with a cartoon of an SUV and the caption “Metairie: It’s Safe Here.”
Today’s demonstration is about more than Cassidy’s bill. It’s a chance for citizens in this white-flight suburb in a red Southern state to show just how angry they are at the Trump administration, and especially Republican attempts to repeal the ACA. It also testifies to the fact we live in a unique moment, one in which people who don’t usually feel energized to take part in politics recognize their stake in the system.
By any measure, the ACA has been a boon for Louisiana. By the end of February 2017, more than 400,000 Louisiana residents—about 10 percent of the state’s population of 4.7 million—had enrolled. The number testifies to the ease of signing up, conservative carping about bureaucratic inefficiency notwithstanding. Critically, it also illustrates the importance of healthcare across lines of race, class, and gender.
Probably because the scheduled start time is 3:30 p.m., the crowd today skews older, as well as white and female. Seventy and diabetic, one of the women I meet in line is an ovarian cancer survivor. Another retired after working for the federal government from the Ford through the Obama administrations. In a working class New Orleans accent, she expresses her indignation at Donald Trump’s rhetoric about federal workers.
“The Secret Service men who stand in front of him to protect his life are federal workers,” she says. “John Glenn was a federal worker. People talk like we’re greedy, just because we want to make a decent living. Federal workers invented Teflon. They invented concentrated frozen orange juice. They invented permanent press fabrics at the Robert E. Lee facility in New Orleans, and they never got a cent for it.”
People are carrying homemade signs. Several read, “Paid Protester—Still Waiting for My Check.” One contains a checklist: “Southern, white, male, veteran, Trump voter.” Only the last isn’t ticked.
By now, it’s 1:30 p.m., and the sun is beating down. Apart from the group of four holding Repeal Obamacare signs, everybody here seems to have a gripe, whether it’s with Cassidy’s healthcare bill or his vote to confirm charter school advocate Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. A woman hands out bottled water. Tubes of sunscreen make their way down the line. A stack of DIY signs circulates, and I take one, a picture of Cassidy with the caption “Senator for Sale—$70,000.” That’s the sum DeVos contributed to Cassidy’s campaign. It might not seem like much compared to other contributions, but in order to get around campaign-finance laws, she had family members make numerous smaller donations.
I didn’t grow up in Louisiana. I’m from New Hampshire, which the late Louisiana-born short-story writer Andre Dubus described as a “redneck state, though the natives don’t know it.” Whether that explains my affinity for Louisiana (I’ve lived here twice, and I married into a New Orleans family) or my unease among the highly educated white urban liberal demographic I’m part of, I don’t know.
I’m at this protest for complicated reasons. I don’t usually show up to protests, in part because it feels futile, in part because I find aspects of left activist culture self-righteous and alienating, and in part because these issues never really hit home for me. But like the people around me, I’m realizing I can’t remain passive about something I tell people I care about.
My stake in healthcare is more personal than most. My wife is a doctor, a faculty member at a medical school in New Orleans and a teaching hospitalist at University Medical Center, which replaced Charity Hospital after Hurricane Katrina, not without controversy. (The excellent documentary Big Charity tells the story.) That means she’s seen firsthand the effects of the Affordable Care Act and what it’s meant for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens in New Orleans. I also envy the ways her work directly reflects her political views. A fiction writer and a freelance editor, I spend most of my time when I’m not teaching alone in a room, interacting with imaginary people. In this moment, that doesn’t seem enough.
A National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer takes a headcount. She tells me I’m number one hundred fifty. She points out number fifty, a friend who is also a retired university professor and widely published poet and nonfiction writer. “If they don’t let you in,” the Legal Observer says, “that might mean anything. Maybe someone cut in line, or people were in there ahead of you.”
I see at least a dozen other familiar faces, people I know from the writing world, the art world, the healthcare world, and my neighborhood bookstore in New Orleans. With one foot in the world of art and literature, one in the world of education, and married to a doctor, I find my communities overlapping. Like me, these friends tend to the left, but they don’t often turn out en masse for protests, and to see them here is heartening. Many of my wife’s medical students are also here. They’ve been prepping all week to confront Cassidy, who is a doctor himself. The people in front of me are retired teachers who live in Metairie, and the people behind me drove here from Kenner, the next suburb up the river. Considering my position in line, I estimate attendance well in excess of 600—and there’s still an hour before the doors open.
Eventually, a woman from Metairie Indivisible, a grassroots organization opposing Trump’s policies, announces that signs greater than eight-and-a-half-by-eleven inches have been banned in the meeting room. People boo. A few minutes later, she announces that signs have been banned altogether. More boos. “When he says something you don’t approve of, stand up and turn your back on him,” she says, to enthusiastic cheers.
“Of course they plan this during Mardi Gras.” The federal worker rolls her eyes. “I know it’s their recess, but I’m missing Nyx for this. I wanted to get a purse this year.”
Glittery purses are among the prize throws at the parade put on by the Krewe of Nyx, one of the societies that organize Mardi Gras parades. With less than a week to go before Fat Tuesday, we’re in the throes of carnival season, making this turnout all the more impressive. New Orleans is not given to public protest, though resistance has long been part of the culture in, for example, bedrock working-class African American institutions such as second line parades and the social aid and pleasure clubs that organize them.
I give the other woman sips of my water. We agree to hold her place in line while she sits in the shade.
A tall white man wearing a Make America Great Again hat cuts in line. Several people, including the former federal worker, confront him, but he refuses to leave. When we start moving, the red hat bobs ahead of us. Despite dozens of people shouting at him, he continues to the door, and he becomes a focal point for our collective rage. “Just like a goddamn Trump voter,” people keep saying. At last, he walks away.
I don’t get inside the building, either. While several of my friends and the cancer survivor are admitted, the former federal employee and I end up leaning on the barricades around the perimeter of the library. When I tell the cop manning the gate I was number one hundred fifty, he laughs.
“That’s what that lady, like, twenty people ahead of you told me, too,” he says.
Surveying tornado damage in New Orleans East, Cassidy is running late. Inside and outside the building, the crowd chants, “Where is Bill?” I feel invigorated by the collective power of our voices. Once Cassidy arrives, we follow our Twitter feeds and a livestream of events inside the town hall from local channel WWL on our phones. The senator answers questions. The meeting dissolves into chaos when he stands in front of the room and tries to make a PowerPoint presentation about the Patient Freedom Act.
The police let out a woman wearing a Preaux Life t-shirt. When I ask if they’ll be letting someone in to replace her, the cop working the gate shakes his head. By now, rumors are circulating about Cassidy staffers admitting non-protesters through other doors, though the cop denies this. A black man in his forties, he wears a badge that says “Katrina 2005.” He and the federal worker seem simpatico. She tries to explain her presence here: if she’d known they were going to repeal the ACA, she says, she wouldn’t have retired last year.
A white Yankee from the rural North, a prep school dropout with a GED and two master’s degrees, I’ve lived all over the country, and New Orleans and Louisiana in general remain the warmest, most welcoming place I’ve ever lived. I married into a family whose politics sometimes differ from mine, yet that has never failed to make me feel like anything less than a son and a brother. Nevertheless, as any transplant will tell you, perhaps because this culture is so riven with contradictions, you can live in New Orleans for fifty years and still feel like an outsider. Watching whatever tacit understanding pass between the cop and the federal worker, I am experiencing that feeling now.
In a crowd where the protesters outnumber the Trump and Cassidy supporters one hundred to one, the reporter from the local Fox affiliate chooses to interview somebody in the Trump camp: a guy in a brown suit who starts arguing with a protester about immigration.
“We deport the illegal ones,” the guy says. I find myself drawn into the fray, telling him about García de Rayos, one of the first unauthorized immigrants to be deported under Trump’s initial executive order on immigration. She’d been checking in dutifully with ICE for eight years before she was taken away from her teenage children and whisked out of the country.
“Exactly,” he proclaims triumphantly. “We deport the illegal ones.”
After standing in the sun all day, I’ve been reduced to bumper-sticker slogans: “No human being is illegal.” My knees are shaking and I’m going to say something I regret, so I walk away. On the edge of the crowd, I see the guy with the checklist I was admiring earlier, the Southern white male veteran non-Trump voter. I tell him I like his sign.
“Next time you get in that argument,” he says, “tell whoever you’re talking to that that woman had a fake social-security number, which means she was paying into the system.”
We talk for a while. He’s got a wad of tobacco in his jaw. He identifies as politically conservative, but he thinks Trump is incompetent, and he’s furious at Republicans like Cassidy, whom he views as kowtowing to a corrupt administration. Like a lot of Sanders voters I know, he and his girlfriend seem angry at a system that rewards the wealthy and powerful.
“I never thought I’d be standing out here with all these dreadlocked hippie protesters,” he says, though there’s not a person with dreadlocks in sight.
Once the crowd disperses, I sit on a stone bench in front of the library, next to an elderly woman with a cane. She takes interest in the posters I’m carrying, including the one that reads “Senator for Sale,” and I imagine an aging radical, someone like the writer Grace Paley.
Her breaths are labored, like those of people I’ve met with advanced lung disease. She tells me she’s waiting for the bus, which will take her to Sav-A-Center, then home.
“I voted for Trump.” She throws up her hands. “I don’t know. I think he’s doing a good job. I just showed up today because I wanted to see the senator. I’ve never seen a senator before.” She laughs. “I didn’t know all these people were going to be here.”
I give her my posters, struck by the fact that we might as well live in two different worlds, separated only by a parish line.
Protesters gather at the back door, waiting for Cassidy. A library employee makes her way to her car, and we clear a path. I feel like I’m living in a different time, like we’re waiting for Richard Nixon. A phalanx of elderly white men—but no senator—emerges, and walks in a line to a sheriff’s car.
I’ve always believed, perhaps naively, that more unites than divides us. Without minimizing the scourge of historical injustices or present-day racism and sexism—without eliding identity from the conversation—we can recognize our shared interests. By and large, the individual and the collective good are the same when it comes to healthcare, a field in which doctors routinely balance public health with individual need.
Even the ACA represents a compromise, at least for those of us who believe in a single-payer healthcare system. If there’s hope for the United States, it seems to lie in connecting with people outside our political ken: the women I was standing in line with or the Iraq veteran. It’s also in changing the way we talk to ourselves on the left so we don’t patronize each other, especially those who don’t share our beliefs in every way, as well as connecting hashtag resistance with the sometimes centuries-old ways marginalized communities have survived. In New Orleans, for instance, African American cultural institutions have long provided for neighborhoods what government does not.
As the battle over healthcare policy continues, we are all the better for a broad political movement that transcends traditional categories of liberal and progressive or even left and right, and that recognizes how much people on the margins and in the mainstream share—and how much we all have to lose. As the Republican Party continues its attempts to repeal the ACA, or to sabotage it by destabilizing the health-insurance marketplace, it does so in defiance of the will the people.
If the majority of Americans are one accident away from ruin, most having less than a thousand dollars in savings, then perhaps the moment is ripe for a popular revolution that doesn’t look like fascism.
On the way back to New Orleans, my friend says she got to ask her question. Then a person who had been diagnosed with cancer asked the same question. “It was pretty overwhelming.” My friend sounds exhilarated.
The driver is impressed by the fact that Metairie Indivisible is—according to its website—four hundred strong. “In fucking Metairie,” she says.
Yet, as we cross the canal back into Orleans Parish, I reflect that things aren’t that different here. Though New Orleans went for Hillary Clinton by a margin of just over 80 percent, one needs only witness the furor surrounding the removal of four Confederate monuments to recognize that things don’t change completely at the parish line, and that the past has kept its stranglehold on the present day.
Paradoxically, that gives me hope. After all, Metairie is where the holdouts went. Yet as today’s protest suggests, like all of New Orleans, Metairie is more complex than it seems. I can’t help but feel I’ve underestimated the place, too.