Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I teabagged with hundreds today on the streets of Chicago.

So, my "just the facts" version of the events Jasmine and I witnessed at Chicago's Tax Day Tea Party can be found here. In this post I'll attempt to process more deeply my feelings and opinions on what I witnessed today.

I left the day's protest with mixed emotions.

One thing that struck me about the event was the overwhelming demographic homogeneity of the Tax Day Tea Party. We were there for at least forty-five minutes before a single person of color, besides the lovely Jasmine Harris, could be spotted in the crowd. A lily-white crowd of this size is virtually unheard-of in Chicago, anywhere. It was crystal clear to me this movement, or whatever you want to call it, did not represent wide swaths of Chicagoans. We finally did find an African American woman holding up a protest sign. Jasmine talked to her in-depth, while I was being interviewed by someone over at - a site whose creators were pleasant enough to me, but which is obviously rather right wing. A woman in her middle-forties I would guess, she seemed pleasant enough, but espoused fairly doctrinaire conservative positions for low taxation, low deficits, and her particular dismay that Obama and the Democrats have allowed the private school voucher program in Washington DC to expire. I didn't really get into the argument that . . . "well . . . that program uses tax dollars," which is apparently so taboo to most of the people there. I wasn't looking for conflict. But we went back and forth a bit - ladies and gentleman - I have discovered a black McCain voter in Chicago! That ought to be worth something in and of itself, for they are as rare as diamonds . . . although not as precious.

Not all of the protesters were doctrinaire Republican conservatives. I would guess that about 30-40% of the placards and signs espoused abolishing the IRS and/or the Federal Reserve, or supporting Ron Paul . . . the calling cards of libertarians. The largest single banner I saw was protesting war and military expenditures, and had been unfurled by the American Society of Friends (the Quakers.) As noted in my straight dope report, several speakers and many of the signs assigned some blame to the Republicans, and/or George Bush. And while the speakers who included Bush & the 'Cons as targets of their anger received a somewhat more muted response, there didn't seem to be much hostility to them either. Everyone hates Bush, and the Republicans these days, it seems.

The problem, of course, with all this anti-tax anger, is that it's just the same old shit that Republicans and conservatives have been regurgitating for the last 30 years, and the same old opaque, clear-as-mud logic. Like the African American woman I talked to - who saw no disconnect between her intense hatred of taxes, and her intense anger that the private school voucher program in Washington DC had expired (a program which, by the way, was paid for with tax dollars) - most of the speakers and ideologies on display in this event were logically moving in opposite directions. These people hate taxes, but they also hate deficits. Nevermind that higher taxes are a cure for high deficits. They want them both gone. They hate taxes, but - with notable the exceptions of the Quakers and some of the libertarians - they believe that the military budget is sacrosanct and should never be cut in any way shape or form. Nevermind that our military budget amounts to roughly 51% of our entire national expenditures - the cuts must come ONLY in domestic programs, i.e. investments in our own people. They despise social safety nets, and I guess would be happier if millions of Americans simply starved, or had to turn to criminal activity to support themselves. This is Christian? This is the same old selfish, tax-me-never, right wing ideology that the Republicans have been using for the last 30 years. It worked pretty well for most of that time . . . but I'm not sure it's working anymore. They went back to this well in 2006 and 2008, and it more or less appears to have run dry.

Of course there was the same old lack of correct information. One woman was walking through the crowd claiming, both on her placard, and verbally, that the Cap and Trade program on greenhouse gases would cost the average taxpayer $300.00/month. This is total nonsense of course. I believe the Congressional Budget Office's estimate is at approximately $31/year. One of the speakers was so wrong that I wondered just what the hell he was talking about. If memory serves it was Jim Calomino of the Illinois Chapter of Americans for Prosperity who complained that Obama's budget would raise taxes by $1,500,000,000.00 ($1.5 B). I thought that I'd heard him wrong, but no, he tossed the words "one point five billion dollars" around several times. Doesn't he realize that even if that were true- it's complete chump change in the grand scheme of things? Given some of the apocalyptic signs and grab-your-guns rhetoric I saw today, I would have thought these people would be THRILLED that Obama's budget would raise taxes by a mere $1.5 billion.

Then there was the violent imagery. From the flag with the AK-47 on it, with a caption that read "Come and take it;" to the placard I saw with eye-patched images of Obama, Pelosi, and Harry Reid, and a caption that said: "We shot the wrong pirates;" to the predictable: "The tree of liberty must be watered with revolution," it seems like the anti-Obama people just can't help themselves. Just 10 weeks into the Obama administration, they're depicting him as Hitler, and notably proclaiming that "Taxpayers are the Jews in Obama's Ovens." This sort of violent hatemongering is protected by free speech, but that doesn't mean it can't be dangerous. Just ask the families of the three policemen in Pittsburgh who were recently the victims of a violent rampage that appears to have been motivated by extreme right wing views. Don't get me wrong - most of the participants I witnessed today were friendly, and excited, even if they were very right wing. But if it flips the wrong switch on unstable minds, the image of Obama-as-Hitler could be another brick along the road to violence.

That said, one of the things that impressed me about this protest was how I often basically agreed with the signs, and ideas that some of the protesters were espousing. In particular, I think that anger over the big bank bailouts, which have been perpetrated by both the Bush and the Obama administrations, have transcended the left/right dichotomy. Many lefties I know, and obviously a lot of righties, are absolutely livid that our nation's largest financial institutions - which, more than any other culprits, have unarguably led us into the financial mess in which we now find ourselves flailing about hopelessly - are getting hundreds of billions of American tax dollars so that they might stay afloat. Like most protests on the left that I've seen, there was no single message to be taken away from the Tax Day Tea Party here in Chicago today. But one of the major frustrations vented by both the speakers and the regular participants was one of extreme anger over the bailouts that major financial corporations have received in the last several months. Railing against AIG, Bank of America, Citi Bank, GE, GM, and Goldman Sachs, sections of one of the speaker's tirades could have easily been transplanted to a left-wing protest of corporate dominance in American politics. Anger at the bailouts seems to have come full circle. (I'm also something of a believer in the virtues of abolishing the Fed, and returning our nation's monetary policy to the people, not some "quasi-governmental" private company.)

One final thing I noticed was the relative dearth of police officers. I don't know if politics had something to do with it, or the size of the protest or what, but during the anti-war protests I've attended, both much larger and somewhat smaller, literally hundreds of police have lined the streets and surrounded the event. On this occasion, maybe three or four dozen police officers were in groups around the protest. Perhaps the powers-that-be feel more comfortable when reliably right wing citizens are taking to the street, or perhaps there was some other reason I'm not aware of. But the distinct lack of police presence did make me nervous at first, seeing that I was one of the few people not chanting "USA! USA!," and that I was taking notes on my notepad as though I were a journalist, and the fact that my girlfriend was one of the remarkably few black people at the event at all.

Ultimately, although there was a little bit of a kerfluffle when a group of several dozen protesters surrounded and taunted a CNN reporter, shouting "CNN go home*"; the protest ended peacefully, and Jasmine and I gathered up our bikes and headed home. Even though I definitely disagreed with about 90% of what these people were on about, I have to say that even when I talked frankly to those didn't share my views, I was treated with respect and a generally friendly demeanor. Though some of the violent imagery was a little disturbing, and chanting "USA! USA!" ain't really my bag, the individuals I interacted with themselves, including the guys who interviewed me for their Right-leaning website - were nothing but friendly to me. Though I doubt the teabaggers will really get their wish, and I'm somewhat skeptical of the efficacy of protest politics generally, it was cool to see a bunch of American citizens taking to the streets to defend their beliefs, no matter how asinine and fucked-up I believed them to be.

* Yes, some of these people really believe that CNN is "communist."


Ju said...

What was probably the icing on the cake for the tea parties was when Rick Perry, Texas' governor stated that Texas can secede from the union. That will draw a lot of attention but more importantly it sends the message that these movements are serious for such strong words to be used. While the media will say they Texas does not have the right to do this outright (there are some court cases which agree, there are certain paths they can take to get this goal).

While they do not have the right to do this outright, there are certain paths they can take to get this goal. Come on, you know this is possible because this is the same country which gives exceptions to tax cheats through cleaver legal

Really it is just using the legal system creatively.

Texas probably has the best chance at success. Here is just one way how it can work. The annexation agreement made when Texas joined the union provided that Texas would be able to divide into 5 states. This would create 8 more conservative Senators.

If Texas were to try to divide and be rebuffed, the US would be in violation of the agreement and Texas should be able to go free.

It is not all that far fetched.

Regardless of the TX situation, the movement was larger than expected. And it is just a start because the thing about grass roots is that it will only take hold, grow and spread.

Some pics here:

Downtown Dave said...

It's a possibility Ju, but Gov. Perry has already backtracked from his comments. I had no idea about all the details of the Texas/US deal. Interesting stuff to be sure.

But isn't Gov. Perry in a whole heap of trouble down there? It's my understanding that Kay Baily Hutchison is likely to run against h him in the primary, and probably mop the floor with his face. Perry's favorability and approval polling is pretty dismal from what I've heard.

National Geographic POD