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Nov. 16, 2011
WICHITA Protesters interrupted the second of Gov. Sam Brownback’s town hall meetings on childhood poverty Wednesday, standing up during the keynote speech and reciting some of their objections to Brownback’s policies.
One of the 14 protesters was arrested and another was detained for a short period.
The protest began as Robert Rector, a Heritage Foundation fellow invited to give the keynote speech, delivered his remarks advocating marriage as a key way to end poverty. Protesters, most of them members of Occupy Wichita, stood silently with their backs to Rector for about 10 minutes, then began chanting their grievances once he completed his speech.
Organizers stopped the meeting for about 15 minutes, resuming after the protesters had left the downtown hotel where it was held.
Rob Siedlecki, secretary of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, said he respected the right of the protesters to speak out, but wished they had participated in the process to seek solutions.
“They could have sat down with us and given us their ideas,” he said.
Others who attended the meeting seemed more sympathetic.
The protests illustrated how serious the issue of poverty is, said Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita.
“These people are using this as an avenue to voice their opinion and exercise their freedom of speech,” she said.
About 250 people attended the town hall meeting, listening first to Rector and two other speakers before breaking into small groups to talk about solutions.
Rector, a popular and outspoken figure among social conservatives, delivered essentially the same speech he gave in Kansas City, where the first meeting was held Monday. Rector said it is time to start talking about the “mystery factor” behind poverty.
“The number one factor behind poverty here in the state of Kansas is the death of marriage,” he said, noting that 38 percent of children in Kansas today were born to unmarried women, compared to about 5 percent in the 1960s. “This is the most dramatic social transformation in the 20th century.”
Citing a series of studies and pointing to charts illuminated on large screens, Rector said that 70 percent of all people living in poverty in Kansas are in non-married, single-parent families.
“Marriage is clearly a very strong factor in reducing poverty,” he said.
He dismissed suggestions that his theories have racist overtones.
“This is a long, long way from being a predominantly black problem,” he said, referring to the incidence of unmarried women having children. “Whites are catching up. They have a ways to go, but they’re coming along like gangbusters.”
Janice Bradley, who described herself as a retired teacher and full-time activist, was among those protesting the meeting. Bradley said members of Occupy Wichita had discussed the possibility of staging a protest but firmed up plans after hearing about Rector’s remarks at the Kansas City meeting.
“Suggesting that marriage is a solution to poverty while they’re cutting to the bones those programs that are a safety net for children, women and the elderly is unacceptable,” she said. “They are closing SRS offices, cutting benefits and services to Medicaid, and now holding a fake town hall meeting to feign concern about poverty with no real solutions.”
Bradley said that she was detained by police briefly after the protests and that one other protester had been arrested.
The third town hall meeting is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in Garden City. Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institute, will be the keynote speaker.
Siedlecki said the suggestions and ideas that participants come up with during the meetings would be compiled in a report to be delivered to Brownback and potentially used to develop legislation.