It wasn't hard to spot the Tea Partiers on the streets of Washington today. While the usual DC coterie strode between meetings bearing heavy binders and expensive ties, clusters of men and women in t-shirts carried hand-printed signs toward Freedom Plaza, a raised concrete space between the east and west-bound lanes of Pennsylvania Avenue, just blocks from the White House.Few things are more common -- or more American -- than complaining about taxes, but the crowd in Freedom Plaza has transformed casual whining into a coalition determined to affect the outcome of November's midterm elections. "We the people can vote them out," read one sign. "Recycle Congress," read another.
Beneath a cloudless sky, a covered stage stood at the western end of the plaza, nearly shielded from view by ranks of television cameras on risers. Vans parked along the road held up huge antennae and satellite dishes while protesters were welcomed by men selling buttons and flags as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" poured forth from loudspeakers.
The opening act was singer Lloyd Marcus, who performed a short set of songs reworked to suit the Tea Party message. In a voice that was hoarse from previous Tea Party appearances, he half-sang "we've got to take the House and Senate in 2010," to the tune of "New York, New York." Women from the crowd joined him on stage to form a kickline.
Next up was an invocation, led by Pastor David Whitney of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Pasadena, Maryland. Proclaiming that tax protests are "a human rights movement," he told the crowd "Don't let anyone tell you that you're angry, racist, or a mob. It's impossible to be a human rights movement and racist." This defensiveness over charges of racism was also evident during Marcus's performance. The singer, one of only a handful of people of color in evidence, introduced himself by saying "I'm not an African-American ... I am Lloyd Marcus, American."
The speakers also seemed defensive about being affiliated with a single political party. After claiming that "Democrats want to control everything," Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert said that partisanship does not promote freedom. "It's got to be a government of all the people so we don't get off the track," he said. Speaker Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Convoy followed up this message, encouraging the crowd to look beyond party labels when voting in November.
Nonpartisan rhetoric aside, it was clear that the crowd was more sympathetic to the GOP, cheering whenever Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber were mentioned, while jeering Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid. Buttons warning "Danger: Right-Wing Extremist" were being sold to an audience that was liberally sprinkled with signs reading "November Cometh, Liberals Goeth," "Impeach Obama!" and "Save a seal. Club a liberal." Between speakers, a large screen showed a video of Young America's Foundation spokesman Jason Mattera confronting Charlie Rangel over the Democratic congressman's tax problems.
Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform echoed the partisan message, telling the audience that Obama, Pelosi, and Reid "have organized Americans against what they're trying to do." "He's gotta go," one woman screamed of Reid.
The Tea Party Express has released a list of incumbents it hopes to unseat this year. Reid is at the top, followed by ten other Democrats. Meanwhile, the group's list of "Tea Party Heroes" contains 13 Republicans and one Democrat. Kremer credited pressure from the Tea Party movement for the resignation of Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak, whom the crowd loudly called a traitor.
Despite the rhetoric of the speakers and the commitment of the protesters, the political strength of the movement remains to be seen. According to Kremer, media estimates on the number of attendees at Tea Party rallies -- 9,000 in Nevada and 5,000 yesterday in Boston -- have been a tiny fraction of the truth. To get their own count, volunteers passed through the crowd handing out neon cards to be filled with names and email addresses. "They won't come to your house," another speaker said, sniping at U.S. Census workers.
But the narrow plaza, the length of a short city block, was not full to capacity. Volunteers had no trouble maneuvering through it with a clear plastic tub to recover completed census cards, while reporters and their camera crews easily found people to interview, and venders slid through, selling their buttons and flags.
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