In defense of Tea Bag protesters

Hurling abuse is not only all-American; it's an inevitable part of large, morphing protest movements, right and left.
Crosscut archive image.

Police use pepper spray on anti-WTO protesters in Seattle on Nov.30, 1999.

Hurling abuse is not only all-American; it's an inevitable part of large, morphing protest movements, right and left.

The crowd was angry, and getting uglier, hurling epithets at the politicians, their supporters, the inside-the-beltway bozos who were enabling the destruction of America. It heaped abuse on everyone and anyone, cursing those who were helping turn our country toward totalitarianism, or turning a blind eye (the mainstream media!). These scoundrels had stolen something from the people, and they deserved scorn. America needed to hear the outrage.

A Tea Party protest on health care? Hardly. It was a group of anti-George W. Bush demonstrators at the 2000 inauguration. I was part of that crowd, one of tens of thousands of citizens who went to Washington, DC to vent our spleens at the usurpers Bush and his henchman Dick Cheney.

We stood for hours in the sleet kept warm only by our rage. As the inaugural parade came by, the crowd booed everything that moved. When a couple of Bush supporters stepped out onto a high balcony above the parade route, the crowd looked up and thousands began chanting, "jump, jump." A flatbed truck came by with TV network correspondent Maria Shriver, reporting live from the parade. The truck stopped, lurched, pulled forward, and Shriver just about fell off the back. The crowd roared its approval. And a group of little girls from Texas twirling their batons had more abuse heaped on them than the visiting team at Yankee Stadium. If Mother Theresa had been in that parade, she would have heard language that would have made, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, a nun kick a door.

Demonstrations are often unruly things, patchworks, not necessarily unified ideological events but fluid, mobile, every-cause-for-itself affairs. You don't expect coherence from protesters. Movements can be like Velcro, picking up everything in their path. We know this in Seattle. During WTO, we had Turtles, Teamsters, and Pat Buchanan, plus folks worried about global takeover by the Freemasons and the Illuminati. It doesn't surprise me that racist and anti-gay epithets were hurled at members of Congress: angry crowds can get ugly, and the stuff yelled by one person doesn't reflect the views of everyone in the crowd. I cringed at the Bush inauguration when our protest crowd booed those little girls, but I couldn't distance myself from that behavior. If you want distance, stay out of a crowd.

Of course, a few jerks can spoil it for everyone. At WTO, a Woodstock atmosphere was largely ruined by a small number of window-breaking anarchists. The Tea Partiers have got a black eye from the nasty things some of their supporters said to gay and black lawmakers. Ugly, reprehensible, predictable, American as sour apple pie.

I got my first lessons in internal protest politics in the late 1960s, as a teenager marching against the war in Vietnam. On some marches, I'd find myself next to people chanting "Free Huey, Stop the War!", yet I was no Black Panther sympathizer. I watched my fellow peace activists drown out Hubert Humphrey speaking at the Seattle Center Coliseum (now KeyArena) during the 1968 presidential campaign. I'll bet some of them called him "baby killer." It was a shameful performance, and it was part of the insanity that helped Richard Nixon win an election.

Once, in a "peace" march to Volunteer Park, I volunteered as a march monitor. We wore white arm bands and our job was to keep our fellow protesters in line. When we reached the Safeway on Broadway, the crowd surged toward the store as if to storm it. We monitors quickly lined up between the marchers and the supermarket to prevent violence, but for a few minutes, wrathful peace demonstrators just about pushed us through Safeway's big glass windows. As I stood watching my fellow peace lovers' faces contorted with hate, I thought how ironic it would be if I died at a peace march instead of in Vietnam. I was almost a victim of violence perpetrated by folks mad about where their grapes came from. It was my last protest of the era.

The tea bag crowd has legitimate points to make; our country, bless it, gives wide latitude to people of all political stripes to make fools of themselves, just like folks in the bleachers get to yell whatever they want at the bums on the field.

It's wrong to think a few stupid name callers represent a whole movement; it's also a mistake to think that the Tea Party movement is ideologically coherent and speaks with one voice. It's morphing, moving, co-opted, shape-shifting along with the body politic. With any such movement, there are always people trying to mainstream their own nutty, racist, or hateful views, or trying to piggyback populism with their pet peeves. Trying to make sense of it all will tie you in more knots than Glenn Beck at his blackboard. I do find it a little funny for the left to be so outraged when some of the hate and paranoia at anti-war and anti-globalization protests has been just as ugly, and the violence worse.

I don't know what I screamed when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney rolled to the White House in their stolen limousines. I do remember seeing Cheney, well-lighted and serene in his limo, a bit like the pope in a ray of divine sunlight. I didn't yell the N-word, or "faggot," though "fascist" might have been in there. I do know I emptied my rhetorical litter box at them. It wasn't fit for the ears of tweens twirling batons, but it was part of the nasty song America sings when it ain't so beautiful.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.