I was actually at the Tea Party march against the health care bill in Washington, D.C. yesterday. I don’t attend political events on the Jewish Sabbath, so I simply decided to go and observe, lending a quiet voice of protest. I was in our nation’s capital for the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and wandered down by myself to Capitol Hill after morning services at the historic 6th & I synagogue.
I saw thousands of people--fifteen thousand, I guessed at the time--gathered on the west lawn of the Capitol building. There were American flags and lots of Gadsden flags (“Don’t Tread on Me”). I noted some of the more humorous signs (“I’m not wee-wee’d up, I’m pissed off”), as well as some of the more esoteric ones (“Restoration, not Transformation”). Almost all of them were home-made with poster-board and marker.
I did not see any comparison of Obama to Hitler, nor any sign advocating violence of any kind. I did see two signs bearing a hammer-and-sickle--which I personally find just as offensive as the swastika, though it is bizarrely trendy to some Americans. There was one sign with an image of Obama and the words “undocumented worker,” which was the only hint of Birtherism I witnessed. The rest of the signs were straightforward slogans: “Kill the Bill”; “Start Over.”
The crowd was far from uniform. There were black people, white people, Hispanic people--both in the audience and on stage. One of the speakers invoked the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an inspiration--and the crowd roared its approval, as it did for mentions of Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. A few of the speakers invoked religious sentiments about abortion. That was as edgy as it got.
At one point, the crowd to the right of the stage started to boo loudly. It was impossible to see exactly why, from where I was standing, but soon a group of people--members of Congress, apparently--ascended the stairs to the Capitol. If media reports are to be believed, that was the moment when racist and homophobic language was hurled at Rep. John Lewis, and a protestor was arrested for spitting at Rep. Emanuel Cleaver.
I can’t speak about what actually happened--I could not see the incident, nor did anyone else seem to know what was going on. The first I heard of it was when I turned on the news after the Sabbath. Since then, I have seen YouTube video of the event in which Rep. Lewis and others walk slowly through the crowd, and not a single epithet is heard. Presumably, if video evidence to the contrary existed, it would have been aired by now.
I don’t know why Rep. Lewis and the other members with him decided to walk right through the protestors. Did they intend to provoke the protestors? If so, few of those present seem to have taken the bait, from the video that is currently available. At least one did, though, and was arrested by Capitol Hill police--and so now the entire protest, and the entire nation’s opposition to the health care bill, is being tarnished.
Obviously, any such rhetoric and behavior is totally reprehensible and beyond the pale. It is an insult to the nation and to the Tea Party movement itself, which in my experience is made up of ordinary people from all walks of life who are opposed to the massive expansion of government we are living through at the moment. If what the media has reported is true, then an apology is certainly due to the country as a whole.
The only epithet I personally heard yesterday was the one hurled at us by two passersby: “Teabaggers.” Those who first promoted this phrase on MSNBC and who still use it today know exactly what it means. It is a crude sexual metaphor designed to denigrate ordinary people who are just standing up for their rights as best they know how, the way no party--not even the Republican party--has done in this debate.
Journalists have also contrived false accusations against protestors before--as in the case of a man who carried a rifle to one town hall meeting last year, whom MSNBC only showed from the shoulders down to hide the fact that he was black, while accusing the protestors of racism. There have also been racist attacks against black Tea Party protestors, such as Kenneth Gladney, who was assaulted outside a town hall in August.
Then there is the scandal I have personally documented--the way in which groups of paid organizers told their followers outside a town hall meeting in my own community that they should drown out residents who asked questions about the health care bill. That video, which was filmed in August, led me to uncover the strategy written by felon and Democrat strategist Robert Creamer as a blueprint for the events of the past year.
For the record, I have spent my life fighting against prejudice of any kind. I was the first white member of my high school’s Afro-American club. I interned for our nation’s first black female senator, Carol Moseley-Braun. I tutored children in one of the poorest black townships in South Africa, where many of my students lived in shacks without toilets or electricity. I lived in a Muslim community to learn more about the Islamic faith.
I don’t have to take accusations of racism and homophobia. I have spoken out against prejudice before, and I do so again today. I am glad to see the Republicans and the Tea Party leaders do so as well. What is unacceptable is that these allegations have been used to trash a movement that is made up of ordinary, fair-minded people of every race and creed who are simply standing up for their rights. That is offensive to me as well.
I look forward to the day, beyond this vote and this Congress, when Americans will be able to debate complex policy issues in a spirit of civility and open-mindedness. It is heart-breaking to feel the way this administration has set Americans against one another, a far cry from Barack Obama's rhetoric at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I am determined to be part of the solution. That is what I believe the Tea Party stands for at its best.