I am a Tea Partier.
I attended my first Tea Party this past April 15th, even though I am, for lack of a better label, a Progressive. My intent was not to infiltrate the Tea Party, but rather to co-opt their message and get some of the media attention that is lavished upon them to spotlight the anti-war movement. My message fits in well with the Tea Party. They want lower taxes; end the wars and we can lower taxes. They want smaller government; since the military is the largest component of the government, reducing the military will reduce the size of government.
The anti-war movement has been eviscerated by the election of Barack Obama. While people have been standing on the sidelines hoping Obama will be the change he said he would be, he has continued our nation's involvement in Iraq, escalated the war in Afghanistan, and expanded that war into Pakistan. He saber-rattles at Iran, and he maintains support of Israeli war crimes against Palestinians. Any remaining activity by the anti-war movement is either ignored or marginalized.
I decided to engage the enemy. Perhaps through dialogue, we can educate each other. If nothing else, we can come to a better understanding of each others' concerns and fears.
I also wanted to subvert the Tea Party by drawing media attention away from their message and towards my anti-war message. I hoped that if we could get a few signs with an anti-war message on the news or a photo of our signs in the newspaper, it would be considered a victory, since most anti-war demonstrations hardly seem to draw any media coverage whatsoever, no matter how large. I wanted to take a page out of Howard Zinn's playbook: "Agitate, agitate, agitate."
There were two to three hundred Tea Partiers out that day, gathered at a four-way intersection in downtown Anchorage. With only a handful of people, our small anti-war faction was able to successfully co-opt the news coverage, earning equal billing on the local broadcast. When the KTUU anchor introduced the top story, she announced that there was a Tea-Party march and a rally against the United States' ongoing wars, making it seem as if the two groups had an equal presence. The segment included an interview with one of our members, a woman in her nineties who is a committed peace activist in the community. The local newspaper quoted directly from my sign, which read "Want Small Government? End the War-Fare State." Sure, it may seem unfair to the Tea Partier; however, the fact of the matter is far more people in this country oppose the wars in Iraq and central Asia than sympathize with the Tea Partiers, yet coverage of the anti-war movement has fallen out of fashion. Yet if you throw a Tea Party, you know the cameras will be rolling.
We certainly agitated the Tea Partiers. They complained to the media that we were getting too much attention. They tried to block our signs by putting theirs in front of ours. We simply said we were expressing our right to freedom of speech and thought they believed in that, too. That pretty much shut that tactic down. We also explained that we, too, were unhappy with where our tax-dollars were going. Some stood next to us holding signs that read "Alinsky Love Child," with an arrow pointing towards us. Others held signs reading "Infiltrator," not understanding that we were not infiltrating anything. I don't endorse the tactics of the Tea Party Crashers, a group whose members allegedly pose as Tea Partiers, then make outrageously racist and absurd statements in an effort to discredit the movement. If such a group exists (some speculate that the group is actually an invention of the Tea Party), it is unnecessary. The real Tea Partiers are plenty capable of making themselves look like fools. The Tea Party Crashers just allow them to blame their idiotic behavior on "infiltrators" when one of their members says something too overtly racist or threatens violence.
The moment we arrived, we were confronted by a group of Tea Partiers led by a belligerent nut-job in a black cowboy hat. This is our party, they whined. Why do you people have to ruin it? Ha! Mission accomplished within the first few seconds. They assailed us for our positions, and became more frustrated with their inability to fluster us or get us off message. One of the signs we had said "No More Tax $$ Supporting Israeli War Crimes," which really fired up Black Cowboy Hat. He became increasingly belligerent and loud as we gave him example after example of war crimes committed by the Israelis. It's not hard to rapid-fire such a list; we brought up the three-week assault on Gaza last year which killed 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, as documented in the UN's Goldstone report. Since it was a pro-military crowd, I referenced the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, which killed thirty-four U.S. crew members. See the video clip of me and the nut-job in the black cowboy hat having an impromptu debate--it was captured by KTUU News and posted on their website labeled "Tea Partier, Anti-War Protestor Square-Off."
There was lively discussion throughout the day, some threats of ass-kicking, intimidation, shouting, and name-calling. I was prepared for this. I often call a local right-wing radio-host and debate him on various issues, so their belligerence was not new to me. There were others in our group who were more appalled by their behavior. While I was talking with Black Cowboy Hat, an officer came over and warned that if we couldn't keep the shouting down, he would have to brake things up. Ironically, there was only one of us shouting, and it wasn't me.
I realize the chances that any of the Tea Partiers will about-face and adopt my positions are equal to the chances that I will adopt theirs. It was all too apparent that the architects of this so-called "grass-roots" movement prey upon people's fears and bring out the baser instincts of mankind. The prevalent demonization of the poor was startling. After my experience on tax day, I understand the perception that the Tea Partiers are racists and bigots, steeped in the hatred of people different from them. It would be difficult to draw a different conclusion. I urged my antagonists not to believe me, and to do their own research. "Google USS Liberty, Google The Goldstone Report" I said, over and over. Maybe someone will. Maybe.
Check out this video of racist Tea Partiers:
Click on the link below to Alaska blogger Phil Munger's site to see some photos from the rally, including a Tea Partier's sign that reads "Beluga: The Other White Meat," which is a reference to an ongoing controversy between developers and environmentalists regarding protection of beluga whales. No better way to alienate the rest of America than to support the slaughter of whales.
As with any group, the loudest, most obnoxious, and most egregious examples of behavior ended up representing the Tea Party as a whole. I did meet, however, individuals who were open and willing to engage and have honest dialogue. The most impressive was a young girl of about fifteen or sixteen. She wore a NObama shirt and a vintage "Reagan for President" button. She noticed my sign which read "More Wars is Not A Jobs Program" and remarked, "That's not a real program. What do you mean by that?" I explained that due to the poor economy, the high rate of unemployment, and a broken education system, there is a segment of our population with few choices when it comes to job prospects. The military provides health care and a decent wage, and enlisting may be the best or even only choice for too many Americans. We also talked about healthcare and poverty. She came with an open mind. She asked good questions. She wanted to see people take personal responsibility for their lives. It made me want to take personal responsibility for my convictions. She was right to make me explain the meaning behind my sign. It was good to see her engaging someone like me, who clearly had a different point of view.
Without engagement, you will not know if there is room for progress or even some measure of agreement. There were many Libertarians in the crowd, and Ron Paul's stance against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was a point of discussion, as was Paul's dismay at the bloated size of our military. The Libertarians and I agree that our government is broken. We agree that wasteful spending is amok. We agree that the vast influence of corporate money and lobbyists in government is out of control. I asked the Libertarian Tea Partiers I met if they complained during the last administration about things like the Patriot Act, rampant spending, and the growing, unchecked power of the Executive branch. Some did, some didn't. All of us should have complained louder.
I believe the Tea Partiers have legitimate gripes. The blame for their greviences is misdirected at "others" (blacks, browns, Muslims, immigrants, gays, liberals, the poor), and not at the true problem--the corporate villains and wealthy elites who control our government. The Tea Partiers are being exploited by Fox News and large corporations to obfuscate the harm their criminal behavior does to the majority of Americans. They are pawns being used by the corporations to divert attention and anger away from their deeds and towards the actual victims of the corporate criminals. I want the Tea Partiers to understand that they, too, are victims of this corporate criminal behavior. So am I. Tea Partiers and Progressives should not be antagonists; we are on the same side against the monied, corporate elite. We need to come together and all hold signs reading "Tax the Hell out of Paris Hilton."
People all over are confused and scared as our IRAs plummet in value along with the dollar, houses are foreclosed upon, and jobs evaporate before our eyes; meanwhile, the perpetrators who caused this mess receive billions in bailout dough. Who in their right mind could be anything less than righteously angry on tax day? The Tea Partiers are looking for an outlet to express their anger at a system that has betrayed us all. If there are no other alternatives, then more and more people will turn to the Tea Parties instead of forming a broad coalition of diverse people who represent the vast majority of those adversely affected in this country by the wealthy ruling elites who have hijacked our system and made it resemble the Robber Baron era of a hundred years ago.
The following day, on the same corner where 24 hours earlier several hundred people had gathered for the Tea Party protest, stood two men. They held signs that read "End the War" and "Support our Troops: Bring them Home". Members of their group, Alaskans for Peace and Justice, have been on that corner every Friday from Noon to 1PM for the last several years as the wars rage on. There was no fanfare and no media coverage. I joined them and talked to them as we stood in the cold. Having been there at the Tea Party the day before, I can personally attest that in the 40 minutes I stood on the corner with those two men, there were far more honks, waves of approval, and thumbs-up given by passing motorists than the day before, including many from uniformed soldiers.
I'll be there with them next week and I invite you to be there too. I haven't been out there, and dammit, I need to be. I want to take responsibility for my convictions. If Anchorage, Alaska is too far to travel, find a street corner in your neighborhood, call your friends, make some signs, and get out there.
It is time to end the wars now!