With tea parties going on nationwide I thought I’d better get down to Austin and make sure I didn’t miss out on our local protest. I went incognito, dressed informally and hiding behind a very large camera to get a feel for the mood, mix with the crowd and see how powerful the grassroots movement really was. I’d heard all the claims from the left and the media — that it was just an attempt by Republicans to try to gain some attention and that there would be just a few kooks protesting in a handful of cities.
What I found in Austin and what I learned during the day was much more impressive than I had been lead to expect. First off, the crowd in Austin was surprisingly large. I attended the first (and likely smaller) of two tax-day events, and it had 1500 people jammed onto the very small area of the steps and plaza infront of the Austin City Hall. Subsequently I learned that rather than a handful of other protests nationwide, the Austin protest was just one of close to 2000, and despite how impressed I was with our local turnout, it was small by national standards, with some other cities turning people out in the tens of thousands and a total estimated nationwide attendance likely to be in the millions by the end of the day.
It was also quite apparent that despite substantial Republican involvement, this was conceived as a non-partisan event. The idea originated with Rick Santelli’s rant on CNBC and was picked up by all sorts of groups, and they were prominent at the Austin Tea Party. Ron Paul’s non-partisan Campaign for Liberty was there, along with the Libertarian Party, the Constitution Party and local issue groups whose interests cross party lines. Plus Americans for Prosperity was a major presence, and they’re a strictly non-partisan group with funding from the Koch family who are known for libertarian but strictly non-Republican political activism. The speakers included a lot of Republicans, lead by Governor Rick Perry and Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, but also including representatives of various activist groups including several speakers from the Libertarian Party and Mike Voorhees from the Travis County chapter of the Republican Liberty Caucus. So while the local Republicans had joined in and assumed a large role, the overall character was not partisan.
Obviously there were common interests being expressed, most obviously a strong objection to tax increases, erosion of constitutional rights and out of control government spending. Unfortunately, what seemed to be happening both in the speeches and in the media coverage was the dumbing down of the message to a single element. While the focus of the grassroots anger really seems to be on excessive government spending and the growth of government intrusion in the lives of citizens, too many of those speaking and too much of the coverage boiled it down to an anti-tax message. That’s largely the result of holding these events on April 15th, but it gave President Obama the opportunity to address the protests dismissively by dragging out his dubious promises about a tax cut for the middle class and no new taxes for 95% of the population. It’s an unfortunate outcome of taking a movement like this to a broad audience that the message gets diluted and misdirected, in this case with the result that most observers and many of those involved will only get the superficial anti-tax message and miss the stronger and much more fundamental message that out of control spending and fiscal mismanagement area much bigger threat than mere tax increases.
You can get some idea of the character of the protest from my photos of the posters and the crowd. The signs were mostly hand-made and some of the messages were surprisingly sophisticated. I was pleased to see one which read “inflation is hidden taxation,” demonstrating an understanding of the economy which seems to be lost on or ignored by our political leaders. Although I hear there were problems in other parts of the country, the Austin Tea Party was unmarred by MoveOn agitators, “citizen journalists” from HuffPo and Union stooges, though they may just have been keeping a low profile in a relatively inhospitable environment.
One of the things which surprised me was the relative youth of the protesters. Several college Republicans spoke, and the activists from groups like the Campaign for Liberty and the Republican Liberty Caucus also seemed to be mostly in their 20s. The crowd also seemed surprisingly normal. Sure, there was one FLDS family dressed in creepy from head to toe, and a guy dressed as Uncle Sam and another dressed as Jesus, but most of the people there looked like tech workers on their lunch break or college students or other typical Austinites. I fit right in with my t-shirt and shorts and excess of digital hardware. One interesting thing I noticed was that despite our proximity to Lake Lady Bird, there seemed not to be an actual or even symbolic tea bag in sight. They may have been saving them for the evening rally, or perhaps the scoffing about “teabagging” from Rachel Maddow and the Huffington Post had prompted people to tone down those references.
As I hammer out this story on the trusty old Powerbook, the Tea Parties are still going on around the nation, and the news media is finding themselves forced to report on them with little else to cover on a slow news day. They’re trying to squeeze in as much as they can about Obama’s hollow promises of tax simplification and tax cuts for the middle class he has already destroyed, but footage of an empty shirt at a lonely podium really doesn’t play well against crowds of angry Americans who are demanding real change and responsibility from their government.