This past Friday, March 31, HCHR-MD attended a town hall meeting with Representative Andy Harris, at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills, MD. As a person born and raised in Talbot County, a place not frequently associated with political protests, I was thunderstruck at the level of organizing and resistance that is taking place on the Eastern Shore. Chatting with an activist from Talbot Rising, I was told that the group already has over 900 members. After attending town halls across the state, it is clear that suburban and rural areas, even those that have been politically dormant for several decades, are mobilizing in numbers that have been unseen for generations.
The town hall at Chesapeake College was the first by Representative Harris since the election in November, and it was scheduled for one hour only. Warnings had been distributed through the media that disruptive behavior would not be tolerated. Signs over a certain size would not be allowed. Petitioning by advocacy groups would be forbidden. But once we arrived, we saw that it would be impossible to enforce these rules. As we entered the building, we were given red and green pieces of paper to raise in the air in response to the Congressman's comments. Whereas the audiences for Democrat town halls I've attended have been civil and compliant, on this occasion, it was a pantomime, more reminiscent of angry sports fans than the sleepy communities that raised me.
The evening was opened with a prayer by a local faith leader, who appealed to God to pacify the crowd. His prayers were not answered.
With only an hour to go, the crowd was eager to have their questions answered. When Representative Harris announced that he would start off the town hall with a series of slides to introduce his positions, the mood went from sour to openly hostile. And his paternalistic explanations towards the crowd did little to help.
At one point, Representative Harris demanded that a man sit back down in his seat or he would be escorted from the building. In response, a third of the crowd stood up. And, in an act of solidarity, when Harris asked if people on the Eastern Shore were happy with their taxes going to "underperforming Baltimore City schools", the crowd responded with a thundering "YES!", along with the biggest display of green cards of the night.
I returned to the outside of the building to speak with some of the people who had been locked out from attending. After the town hall ended, Talbot Rising hosted a rally outside of the auditorium entrance. Again, the level of animosity was unlike anything I'd expected to see on the Eastern Shore in my lifetime. Harris would later claim that the room at been filled with busloads of outsiders, but the majority of people I encountered were from Talbot County.
Among the crowd that gathered outside the auditorium, I ran into one of my cousins, as well as old family friends who informed me that an aunt of mine had advocated for single payer decades ago. As with many rural areas, the memory of the past is very strong on the Eastern Shore. And what has surprised me in recent years, especially since the election of Barack Obama, is a growing public consciousness among residents of Talbot, Dorchester and Wicomico counties (to name but a few) that our local history is defined by generations of Black struggle, and that the cultural identity of our bioregion is not set in stone. More and more, we see a revival of buried histories - previously passed down orally from generation to generation - that celebrates solidarity across race, class and gender barriers. And while social movements on the Eastern Shore have a long way to go in the service of justice for everyone, there is hope in groups like Talbot Rising.
Friday's town hall showed us that another Eastern Shore is possible, one based around the principle that we all should take care care of each other. What had been only a stream of consciousness prior to the 2016 election has now risen into a river of resistance. And I'm excited to find out where it will take us.
Brittany Shannahan is the Statewide Organizer for the Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign. An educator, social scientist and historian, Brittany has been involved in a variety of social movements in the US and the UK since 2009. You can follow her on Twitter at @ecoshenanigans.