BALTIMORE - Several hundred community and labor activists rallied at the historic Senator Theater, demanding that Congress pass heath care reform that includes a public option.
A rapper, salsa dancers, a singer songwriter and the Smoth Teaze Singers, along with a Do Wop group, provided entertainment while a dozen speakers, including Congressman Elijah Cummings, Maryland AFL-CIO president Fred Mason and Baltimore NAACP president "Doc" Cheatham, called on Congress to act now.
The evening closed with karoke for, as one participant remarked, the brave and the uninhibited.
The event was chaired by City Councilman Bill Henry.
Attempts by a dozen "tea-baggers" to disrupt the event failed miserably. One activist remarked that their presence fired up the crowd and sharpened the political character of the event.
"If they hadn't showed up, we should have paid somebody to act like them." he said.
The stark reality of the American health care system was described by the NAACP's Cheatham.
"Insurance companies have raised their premiums 87% over the last decade. At the same time, 880,000 African-Americans have died because of lack of insurance. We can't afford to wait any longer."
In her remarks, event organizer Caroli Mullen targeted "moderate" Congress people who were sitting on the fence, telling the audience that "Democrats better get some spine,"
According to Mullen, reform must be based on the premise that health care is a right, not a privilege.
Mullen told the World how the event was conceived. "We were literally sitting around the kitchen talking about how the 'tea-baggers' were getting publicity by disrupting town hall meetings. The media was ignoring the majority of us who favor reform. We needed to stage a public event to let Congress know Baltimore supported a public option."
Mullen said that while she supports a public option, a single-payer system was the best way to provide comprehensive, universal care.
One theme of the meeting was the pernicious role the health care industry was playing in the national debate.
According to Dr. Joseph Adams, a primary care physician and MoveOn.org leader, the insurance industry has four lobbyists in Washington for every member of Congress.
Congressman Cummings pointed out that two Maryland companies - BlueCross-BlueShield and United Heathcare, control 80% of the private health care market.
Cummings said "what good is having choice if you can't afford it? A public option gives us real choice because it will bring down costs."
One often overlooked aspect of the health care debate is the somewhat bipartisan attempt to tax "premium" health care plans.
The AFL-CIO's Mason pointed out that union workers often gave up wage and pension increases to save their health care coverage.
Mason called for a plan that covers the 47 million uninsured without punishing insured workers "who have already given and given."
The Senator Theater, which closed this year, was the last of the "single-screen" movie houses in Maryland. It seated 900at capacity. Over the years it was the scene of many movie premiers, including several by Baltimore director John Waters.