During a protest over the weekend, organised by the conservative Tea Party movement, crowds attacked Democratic members of Congress present on the scene with racist slurs and abuses over sexual orientation, revealing an ugly side of the political polarisation in the United States.
The protests, centred around the healthcare reform Bill that Congress was scheduled to vote on, turned hostile as members of the Congressional Black Caucus were leaving the Longworth House office building from across the Capitol.
According to a member of staff for Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, Representative John Lewis of Georgia was subjected to racist slurs, a derogatory term relating to sexual orientation was hurled at Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, an openly gay Congressman, and Representaive Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri was spat on by a protestor.
In a statement to the Huffington Post Mr. Clyburn said: “It was absolutely shocking to me… Fifty years ago as of last Monday... I led the first demonstrations in South Carolina... And quite frankly I heard some things today I have not heard since… March 15, 1960 when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus.” Mr. Clyburn said that he had told one heckler that he was “the hardest person in the world to intimidate, so they better go somewhere else”.
He went on to add: “A lot of us have been saying for a long time that much of this … is not about healthcare at all. A lot of those people today demonstrated that this … is about trying to extend a basic fundamental right to people who are less powerful.”
In a similar vein, Mr. Frank was reported to have said: “I'm disappointed with the unwillingness to be civil … I was … surprised by the rancour. What it means is obviously the healthcare Bill is proxy for a lot of other sentiments, some of which are perfectly reasonable, but some of which are not.”
According to reports the Capitol police escorted the members of Congress into the Capitol after the confrontation. At least one demonstrator was reported arrested in connection with the spitting incident, though a spokesman for Mr. Cleaver was reported as saying that he would not be pressing charges.
Speaking on CNN's State of the Union programme on Sunday, Democrat John Larson and Republican Mike Spence, both from the House of Representatives, condemned the incident.
The Tea Party movement, which rose into prominence last year, is a fiscally conservative political group whose primary appeal was its opposition to the stimulus package of 2009 and expansionary social welfare policies such as healthcare reform.