Notes & Photos: Tom Reed Visits Ithaca

Categories Ithaca, Media, Politics, Protest

Words & Photos by Josh Brokaw

The phrase “pseudo-event” has been rattling around my head a lot lately. It probably made its way there from an Atlantic story last December, because once that Very Serious magazine re-discovers a popular 1950 or ’60s bit of political wisdom, it likes to use it at least twice.

To say “pseudo-event” is simply to say an event is put on by an entity with power, for the purpose of getting media attention. Congressman Tom Reed’s town hall meetings are obviously such an event. Even the most dedicated anti-Reed folks lining up before 5 a.m. on Saturday, March 11, admitted to the Ithaca Voice they didn’t have much hope of getting anything but canned answers from Reed. Another person who’d attended a Reed town hall in February told the Times after an hour of town hall talk that none of the representative’s answers had changed.

Now more than ever, with such limited resources for media, figuring out what’s worth the energy is important. Sometimes, just because a person is a Public Figure doesn’t mean everything they say or do needs to be reported – and quite frankly, if “extreme Ithaca liberals” wanted to make a real statement about what they think of Reed, they would have stayed home. (Certainly Bill Jacobson wouldn’t have been able to manufacture a “Lone Trump Supporter Heckled” post on the Legal Insurrection blog if no one was in the Southside gym but Dr. Tom Taylor in his “Make America Great Again” hat.)

But after such a fuss was raised about getting Reed to visit Ithaca last month, the right-wing blogosphere likely would have made hash out of a Reed town hall boycott, pseudo-event or no.  And while everyone from the political neophyte activated by Trump’s election to the veteran peace activists who occupied Reed’s office last month likely don’t expect him to all of a sudden support single-payer health care and call for defense budget cuts, there’s probably some democratic value to putting several hundred constituents in a room with a congressman who mostly discounts their views – no matter how often he repeats he cares.

So this reporter, despite doubting the need for Just One More reporter there with all sorts of outlets throwing all of their two or three reporters at video and photos and livestreaming, despite wanting very much to take a morning off after sitting through two weeks of National Labor Relations Board hearings, this reporter showed up at the Southside Community Center on Saturday morning in the cold and did the reporting thing. I’ll have a radio piece on WRFI later this week, and shot lots of photographs, 30 of which you can see below. I took no written notes – unless you donate to Truthsayers today, this outlet is a two-handed, one-person operation! – but did get a good, close look at Reed for the first time, following him in as he walked through the crowd outside and into the Southside gym. The verdict? The man is pretty damn good at this “being in public” thing. Canned answers or no, whether you consider him a real far-rightist or no, he’s got that patina of reasonableness that’s so valued by liberal columnists at the New York Times and other mainstream outlets. He’s not blustery; he shakes hands; he smiles; he’s got one of those “I’m listening seriously to you” faces that doesn’t overdo it on the furrowed brows, but has an ability to cut someone off when he’s ready to talk that’s well-honed by years of being an attorney and mayor. In other words, as a friend put it at Food Not Bombs lunchtime service later that day, “he’s slippery.” There’s a reason he’s done more of these town halls than 99 percent of his congressional colleagues, as the Times noted in its editorial this week: The guy’s good at it.

The most notable question of the day was the last put to him outside the Southside Community Center, by board president Dr. Nia Nunn. In her typically cheerful way, Nunn told Reed she wouldn’t let him leave without saying “Black Lives Matter.” Reed’s first response was “All lives matter, and black lives matter.” Boos were his response – the crowd outside was more vocal than those inside. Nunn gave him a second chance, after explaining that Black Lives Matter did not mean other lives don’t matter, but that the distinction is important. Reed came up with a response that ended in “Stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter,” earning him some cheers. Give Reed some credit: the man is good at the politicking thing.

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Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.

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Twitter: @jdbrokaw