It was a comparatively small assembly organized by the Pierce County Tea Party, perhaps under attended due to the competition of customary campaign activity so late in the political season, but for those few hundred who showed up in Olympia yesterday it was as if there were thousands. They were passionate about their beliefs, some calling it “principled”, proud to be there, and eager to hear guest speakers talk about the dangers of a big government that has gotten out of control. And so, for a few hours in the middle of a clear but cool northwest day, it was all grass roots politics on the Capitol steps.
Off to the side near a cluster of small booths, I saw the 6th Congressional District challenger Doug Cloud (R) and his team welcoming everyone within reach, working hard to get out his conservative message of fiscal responsibility, accountability, the economy and jobs. No sign of incumbent Norm Dicks (D), who has apparently earned a reputation along side so many other Democrat incumbents this year to avoid their challengers. The Campaign for Liberty folks were present, as were some from the Freedom Advocates and Constitution Party of Washington, all with their unique windows to the definition of American liberty. It seemed at the moment that Democrats didn’t like tea very much…
Present among the regional celebrity talent was Keli Carender, nationally known for organizing the first 2009 tax protest in Seattle that later became know as the Tea Party movement. She buoyed the crowd with a morale boosting speech that focused on the values of self-government. She introduced her ideas about how “self governing solves most of the problems.” “Government will steal your life, liberty and property,” said Carender. “If we have no money left because taxes are too high, how do we teach our children to be good neighbors?” Big government “breaks the bonds of civil society…” leading to reliance on government and not each other. “We will be generous, we will be charitable, but we will do it in our own way!” Don’t be surprised to increasingly hear Carender speak and refine her views as time goes on. 2010 is the matter at hand but 2012 is just around the corner.
Across the drive and away from the crowd, I introduced myself to Thomas, a 40-year-old Spanaway man who with a friend was watching and taking photographs from a distance. An African-American, I wanted his thoughts on Tea Party “extremism.” I found Thomas to be an articulate, educated, and self-described historian. Slowly warming up to the unwanted attention, he acknowledged that he didn’t really know if Tea Party activists were extremists or not but was there to check it out. Waving his hand broadly across the crowd, he remarked, “There is nothing there.” That bothered him. “There aren’t any people of color.” In further discussion it seemed as if Thomas wanted to get involved but was constrained by skepticism and what he didn’t know. Describing the U.S. Constitution as a “brilliant” document, he observed it was essentially the same today as it was in 1857 when the United States Supreme Court decided in Dred Scott v. Sanford that no person of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States (simplified). What Thomas didn’t explicitly say was clear to me in context; neither he nor his companion could yet tell if the overwhelmingly white Tea Party activists were of same mind with the 1857 court, or not. He only knew they were advocating the same Constitution.
Later, I spoke with Nilda, a 45-year-old Olympia resident and Philippine-American (of color?), who was with her family. “They are full of baloney,” she said about people who accuse the Tea Party of extremism. Neither she nor her husband, Jimmy, could recount any extremism during several Tea Party events.
I asked 57-year-old Michelle from Lacey a more direct question; “Why do you think there aren’t more people of color here?” She didn’t know but told me a story about how she invited an African-American friend to be with her at the rally but had declined. Michelle said her friend “thought she would be tarred and feathered” had she shown up. I trusted the sentiment of her remark more than the letter. Michelle went on to wonder whether or not people were so indoctrinated to focus on color that it was hard to overcome to just be an American.
I sought enlightenment once more leaving the rally, asking Rosemary from Lacey about her background. “I’m an American,” she said. Sweet.
I still find myself thinking, “What does all of this mean?” Does a lack of racial diversity in Tea Party organizations somehow mean they are inherently racist? No, I don’t think that is the case at all. But I do think that the lesson of Thomas and Michelle suggest there could be greater outreach and education that Tea Party values equally apply to all flavors of Americans. While I don’t subscribe to any conclusion that a failure to have leaders and speakers “of color” make Tea Parties racist or extreme, it is probably true that greater inclusion of diversity communicates they aren’t. That might be something worth chewing on.Know the issues and the candidates before you vote. November is coming.