"Can we talk?"

Mar 3, 2017

Workers at the Federal Courthouse in Tuscaloosa are expected to see a familiar sight today. Protesters carried signs up and down the sidewalk along University Boulevard. They have one message and one man to whom they want that message delivered. APR’s Pat Duggins hit the streets…

Even after organizing two protest marches, the megaphone still takes getting used to…

“There’s obviously a large contingent of people who are not happy and are very worried and concerned," says Mona Ochoa-Horshok. She’s the unofficial spokesperson of the group gathering outside the Federal Courthouse in Tuscaloosa…

“We would for him to answer our questions, and also hear our concerns," she says.

The “him” Ochoa is referring to is Alabama’s senior U.S. Senator Richard Shelby. She and her associates want a town hall, and up to now they’re haven’t gotten one…

“Okay, everybody can you hear me?” asks Frannie James. Phone calls didn’t work. So, they went with plan B. That means protest marches.

Mona Ochoa-Horshok may be spokeswoman for today’s group, but James organized today’s march. Like everyone, she has something she’d like to discuss with Shelby… “I’d like to ask to him about certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act," she says. This subject hits home for James. Her daughter suffers from a bi-polar disorder. “Two things are about to happen. She’s about to come off my insurance, because she’ll turn twenty six," says James. "So, I would not be affected by dropping that, but I am very concerned about parents who have children who are twenty, twenty two, twenty three. And, I’m concerned about that clause…

About two hundred protesters are marching back and forth on the sidewalk in front of Tuscaloosa’s Federal Courthouse along University Boulevard. They carry signs with slogans like “show up Shelby” and “come out, come out, everywhere you are.” Cassidy Ellis carries one reading “not a paid protester.”

“Health care is a pretty big deal for me personally…” Unlike Frannie James’ daughter, she’s not on her parents’ policy. And she just graduated with a Masters from the University of Alabama… “I’m straddled with student loan debt, right? So, I can’t be straddled with health care debt as well," says Ellis.

She bought her insurance through the Affordable Care Act, and since that program is in the cross hairs of both President Trump and Republican lawmakers like Shelby, Ellis is nervous… Even though these voters are having difficulty being heard, others are having a little easier time of it.

Last weekend, three hundred and fifty Birmingham are voters gathered at city hall in Hoover for a town hall with Republican Congressman Gary Palmer. This group was organized too, with ground rules being passed along by the group…

“There is a limit," chanted the audience.

A limit of what?

“To the number of people," they responded.

Who can do what?

“Who can enter the building," they said.

Oh, and what happens once the building is full?

“Everyone else is welcome to remain in the parking lot…”

Organized maybe, but things got contentious…

“How do you and others justify de-funding Planned Parenthood, and how is this not a war against women?” asked one voter to the cheers of the audience.

“I totally support defunding Planned Parenthood, and will stick by that," responded Palmer.

“I’m Janet Terrano, also from Birmingham, Alabama and I’m a professor at UAB. I was disappointed in the questions regarding reproductive health and family planning. And I felt like he just wasn’t open to discussion to that.”

But, at least Terrano and the crowd in Hoover got to air their questions, ranging from Donald Trump, to revising the tax code, tougher gun laws, Black Lives Matter, reducing crime, and the Affordable Care Act. And it may be a while before protesters in Tuscaloosa get the same chance.

APR spoke with Senator Shelby’s office. His press secretary says the Senator is holding forums this year—but only to talk to constituents at local businesses about job creation and economic development. Frannie James, Cassidy Ellis, Mona Ochoa-Horshok and their colleagues may have to keep marching if they want answers to their questions.

Special thanks to APR newsroom student intern Allison Mollenkamp for her help on this story.