This past Friday, April 15th, I went to the Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland to check out the Tea Party tax day rally. It was my second time attending a big Tea Party event after the Oregon Tea Party convention right before the 2010 election, which was at the warehouse of a gun shop (I’m not making this up). Readers of this blog may remember that I’ve also attended an Oregon Right to Life rally in the past.
I of course do not support these groups, but I am interested in learning about groups and people who are politically active and hold views that are very different from my own. I am particularly interested in reading hand-made signs people bring to these political events, because I feel that they demonstrate the inner logic and emotions of people who hold (what I believe to be) reprehensible views more than any official speakers, or FOX News hosts that repeat lines calculated to energize the crowd.
So here are some of the signs I saw at the rally:
“Obama’s spending means freedom’s ending”
“Cut taxes, cut spending, no more pork”
“Are you better off than you were 4 trillion ago?”
“Re-distribute my work ethic, not my wealth”
“Less gov = more love”
“God bless the USA #1″
“Obama – Don’t let your socialist chefs cook Ameria’s goose”
“We the people own this house” (picture of capitol)
“Obama… You’re Fired!” (picture of Donald Trump)
“Wake up America – The welfare of humanity is always the alibi of tyrants”
“Prosperity follows liberty”
“Give me liberty not debt”
“Hell no to tyranny”
“Impeach Comrade Obama”
“Your ‘fair share’ is not in my bank account”
“We are not a piggy bank” (worn by young children)
“My debt today is $45,979.25″ (worn by young children)
“Stop Obamunism before it stops U.S.”
“Taxation is theft!”
“Who caused the recession? The federal reserve bank!”
“$ support police fire military not banks”
As this was the tax day rally, many signs focused on taxes and how they take away (economic) liberty. Several speakers made critical comments about the public transit system Portland is famous for, and how they must stop the light rail’s expansion to Milwaukie and Lake Oswego, both of which are predominantly white suburbs to the south of Portland. Public transit is a public system funded in part by tax money, but I felt that there was more to their opposition than simply that they oppose public projects; it seemed that they disliked these suburbs connected to Portland by fast light rail because they think that it would bring criminals and other undesirables (including people of color, except those who clean their houses and cook their meals) to their neighborhoods in the suburbs.
There was also a small group of protesters who showed signs opposing the Tea Party. Here are their messages:
“Tea puppets for Koch”
“Tea puppet fascist”
“A future with the Tea Party: Imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever”
“Pay your taxes asshole”
“The party is over”
“Free humanity not free market”
“My movement isn’t paid for”
“Support people not corporate greed”
“Tea Party – No bright ideas from dimwits”
“Don’t be a Koch sucker”
“Tea Party – This is not 1773″
“Veterans Against a Dick Armey”
“Tax wealth like work!”
In case you didn’t recognize the name, “Koch” (pronounced Coke) refers to billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, who have contributed close to 200 million dollars in the last ten years in conservative politics and is now the biggest funder of Tea Party groups such as Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks. Dick Armey by the way is a former congressman who heads FreedomWorks now. The sign stating “My movement isn’t paid for” is a snipe at how Tea Party claims to be a grass-roots movement of regular people, but is in fact heavily financed by super-rich like Koch brothers. But that doesn’t justify the statement “Don’t be a Koch sucker,” which, given the context, I find homophobic.
Some statements like “Pay your taxes asshole” seems to be an attack on the tax breaks rich people and corporations enjoy, but directing that at average Tea Party attendees doesn’t make very much sense, considering the fact that most of them are not rich. Calling them “puppets” or “fascists” probably only leads to further polarization, which make us forget that many Tea Party participants are angry about the same thing that those of us on the left/liberal/progressive are, which is the bailout of rich bankers while the rest of us struggle to find or keep employment and pay rent or mortgage or healthcare costs. I don’t agree with their solutions, but calling them fascists does nothing to improve the situation.
I experienced first hand what being called fascist feels like. I was taking pictures of Tea Party, and then moved on to the gathering of protesters to take their photos as well. But as I approached the protesters, I was surrounded by three white men who began yelling and screaming at me from three directions “Fascist!” “Go home teabagger!” “We’ll post you on YouTube” and various insults about my appearance. They apparently thought that I was a supporter of Tea Party, but this is not an acceptable treatment of another human being even if I were one.
At first, I didn’t want to tell them that I’m not a Tea Party supporter, because I didn’t want to imply that it was okay to act this way to someone if they were one. But I felt scared for my safety, so after some hesitation I told them “hey guys, I’m on your side.” But when I thought about it, I’m not really on their side: I oppose Tea Party, but I also oppose people who lack some basic level of civility and common decency.
My feeling was further reinforced when I saw the only physical violence that took place that evening. Pioneer Courthouse Square has a theatre-like stairs on the edge where protesters were gathering while Tea Party rally took place at the base of the stairs, but there was an elderly woman on a wheelchair on the other corner of the top of the stairs. She was sitting there by herself with a Gadsden flag (“Don’t Tread On Me” with the rattle snake), which Tea Party as adopted as a symbol. It made sense that she would sit there: it’d be dangerous for someone on a wheelchair to be in the middle of a crowd, and she wouldn’t be able to see the stage if she went to the square.
At one point, several protesters walked over to the woman and surrounded her with big signs, blocking her sight. They also used whistle to make loud noise next to her so that she could not see or hear the rally. Someone carrying a Tea Party sign noticed this, and came over to demand that the protesters leave her alone. Protesters ignored him, so he jumped on the protester holding the sign and took him down. Others from Tea Party saw this, rushed over, and quickly separated the two.
As much as I oppose Tea Party and I also oppose violence, in this particular instance I totally support the Tea Party guy who came to defend the elderly woman who was surrounded and intimidated by the protesters. She probably benefits personally from government programs like Medicare and social security quite a bit, programs that would be eliminated if Tea Party had its way, but it doesn’t matter: there simply is no justification for behaving the way some protesters did. Who is fascist here?
It appeared that most of the rational, reasonable liberals and progressives did not show up to protest Tea Party, perhaps because Tea Party is not a big factor in Portland. But these protesters do nothing to promote rationality and civil discourse and probably push Tea Party attendees to be even more extreme in their convictions. If I was a Tea Party supporter and experienced what I experienced that evening, it would probably make me less likely to listen to those who protest Tea Party. And if I was a Tea Party supporter and witnessed the protesters’ harassment of the elderly woman, I would further strengthen my belief in the moral superiority of the Tea Party movement.
I don’t question that Tea Party is a fundamentally deceptive and irrational movement fueled in no small part by racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and other prejudices. But if those of us who oppose Tea Party also practice these same prejudices or inhumane treatment of other humans, we are simply creating a left-wing version of the Tea Party movement. Still feeling scared from the hostile encounter, I went home feeling disappointed by the protesters’ inability to imagine something better.