OBSERVATIONS ON A TEA PARTY RALLY
Yesterday, May 29th, I attended a rally in Tempe Diablo Stadium called “Stand With Arizona”, intended to show support for our new anti-illegal-immigration bill. For those of you who’ve never heard of Diablo Stadium, it’s a baseball park where the Angels play. It’s also a good long way from downtown Phoenix, which is where the pro-illegal-immigration rally was being held. At the plaza in downtown Phoenix the Pro-Illegals could march for free; renting Diablo Stadium for the day cost the Anti-Illegal rally’s organizers considerable money, which shows how serious they were about avoiding physical confrontations with the Pro-Illegals crowd.
I’d dressed in one of my singing costumes (long pale-denim skirt and Indian blouse) and towed my guitar along because I’d had a handshake deal (agreed on by email) to sing at the rally. Once at the stadium, I saw that everybody else – including the speakers – was wearing shorts or bluejeans, T-shirts or knit blouses, so I was actually overdressed for once.
The entry was merry chaos: people welcomed through the gates by volunteers in corn-yellow T-shirts whose only idea of where to steer people was either into the free seats in the bleachers or down on the green near the speakers’ platform for $10. Where were the entertainers supposed to go? Not a clue. One volunteer suggested I try Operations, which I did, but there was nobody in the office. Another suggested the Press Box, but had to get help finding it. – and the lone harried organizer at the Press Box insisted that I couldn’t get in without “credentials”. Most Science Fiction conventions are better organized.
I eventually contacted two of the other singers, who guided me to the recording booth in the dugout. I’d arrived at a little after 5 PM, and the singing wasn’t supposed to start until 8, so I had plenty of time to re-string my guitar and observe the proceedings.
The first thing I noticed was the playful carnival mood among the participants, many of whom had brought their children; everybody was jolly and polite, and there was none of the self-righteous fury one usually finds at protest rallies. Next thing I noticed was the absence of hucksters; there were only four dealers’ tables, near the entrance, and they were selling only American flags of various sizes, T-shirts and trinkets with the organizing committee’s logo on them – obviously to offset the cost of renting the stadium and bringing in the speakers. I noticed that nobody was selling food or even soft drinks, though there were countless flats full of bottled water being given away for free. There were a few people – wearing clearly different T-shirts from the rally volunteers’ – handing out leaflets for the Libertarians and the Constitutional Party. I also noticed the signs huckstering hopeful political candidates (none of which, interestingly enough, included a party affiliation), and local radio and TV stations, particularly KFYI. In fact, as I sat near the sound-engineer’s mixing board, I saw a couple people come by wearing “press” badges and ID tags for KFYI radio who asked if they could get copies of the recordings.
The next interesting thing I saw was how many of the crowd were Black, Latino, Indian or Asian. I particularly noticed one little old Asian lady holding up a sign that read: “I was a Legal Immigrant”. Also, many in the crowd were youngsters. This was definitely not a collection of old White folks.
Many of them, though, had driven in from Texas. I learned the significance of that later.
Another interesting note was just how many cameras were in the audience. There were cameras set up near the speakers’ platform, which instantly transmitted the view of the podium to a huge TV screen at the back of the platform, so that even the last seat in the bleachers had a good view of whoever was talking. There were obvious media cameramen toting big professional cameras that needed tripods. There were freelance professional photographers with huge-lensed film cameras and transmission-quality videocams. Besides that, almost everybody in the audience was using either small personal videocams or the camera-apps on their cell-phones, and I saw at least one laptop computer with an antenna. I’d guess that the final population of the rally was about 8000 people, and that a good 5000 of them took pictures. Nothing that happened at that rally went unseen or unrecorded, and that was obvious to anyone there.
This fact did not go unnoticed by the one trouble-maker I saw in the crowd: a deliberately crazy-looking older White man who clapped and hooted at the speakers, danced clumsily around a choice spot in center-field, and did his best to attract the attention of the cameramen. The yellow-shirted volunteers kept a polite but watchful eye on him, and everybody else quietly moved away from him on the infield. After awhile, seeing that everyone was deliberately ignoring him, he sat down and kept quiet.
It soon became clear that the whole Tea Party movement is wildly decentralized. Despite the obvious time and money spent on the soundstage and recording equipment, and the presence of cheerleaders in the audience, shouting slogans and asking the crowd to join in (“Gimme an A, gimme an R…”) the rally was clumsily organized, more like a high-school pep rally than a political meeting. Everyone – including the crew at the sound-mixing board – did their individual jobs well, but nobody knew what anybody else was doing. I eventually found out that the singers were supposed to be in the middle of the field, behind the sound and recording equipment, at the speakers’ platform – so there I went. The rally started an hour late, so most of the speakers and entertainers had their time cut short, and – as low man on the entertainment totem-pole – I had my proposed two songs cut completely out of the program. Ah, well; there’s always next time.
So I went back to the dugout (which also turned out to be one part of the “no smoking” labeled stadium where one could discreetly light up), and hung out with the sound-recording engineer. As the clock ticked well past the official starting time, a man from KFYI came over and urged the sound-man to at least put on some music CDs. “We’ve got too much dead air here,” he complained. The sound engineer and his assistant argued a bit over what kind of music would appeal to this crowd, versus what CDs they actually had, and finally settled on some Johnny Cash songs. This bears out my theory that damn-near everybody in America likes Johnny Cash.
Anyway, one album later, the proceedings finally opened. The MC, from the Phoenix Tea Party chapter, did the usual brief welcoming speech – and then pointed out all the people who had “bussed in” from Texas, and invited them to all stand up and be cheered. There were a surprising number of them.
Then the speakers stepped up and the speeches started, and I noticed an interesting division; most of the out-of-towners were Conservatives, while the locals were primarily Libertarians. I could tell the difference by whether they said “God bless America” or asked “How many of you have read ATLAS SHRUGGED?” The MC carefully addressed the crowd as “whether you’re Conservatives or Libertarians or anywhere along the spectrum”. Speech by speech, I slowly got the picture. Most of the money for this rally had come from Conservatives in Texas, who were trying to pass a state law of their own that mirrored our SB 1070 – and with good reason.
The speaker from Texas told of a Somali terrorist who had recently sneaked across the Mexican border and was now holed up in Houston, claiming “sanctuary” and hiding in a church. This put the Conservatives in a serious dilemma; on the one hand, they’re addicted to their religious bigotry and didn’t want to weaken the power of their local church, but on the other, they badly wanted to keep Islamofascist terrorists out of the US. Whatever they did about the Somali terrorist, they meant to keep any more of his ilk from getting into the US so easily, and that would mean putting an ironclad barrier on the porous Mexican border. Yes, they honestly meant their slogan: “Stand With Arizona”.
Other speakers included two Latino ladies – one from Columbia and one from Mexico – who had immigrated legally and become citizens. Both of them agreed that, yes, it was difficult and took time, but it was worth it if you wanted to be an American citizen. Both of them stoutly agreed that nobody should come here to stay permanently if they weren’t willing to become Americans.
I noticed that nobody mentioned the corollary: that the Illegals, by and large, only want to become rich Mexicans at America’s expense. Nonetheless, comments by other speakers – such as the head of the local police union – made it clear how much the Illegals cost the state, and the country, by supplementing their minimum-wage incomes with welfare frauds and professional crime. The statistics on kidnapping, robbery, car theft and massive methedrine-dealing were infuriating, though the audience kept their expressions of outrage to boos and short slogans.
Other speakers, from as far as Washington state and Missouri, promised to combat California’s threatened boycott of Arizona with a “buycott”: a campaign to advertize Arizona-made goods and services, and to encourage tourism, in other states that were considering laws similar to SB 1070.
A lot of people in the crowd tossed out spontaneous ad-libs, usually quite clever, to which the audience laughed appreciably. When the speakers called for chants and slogans from the audience, the crowd responded politely rather than passionately. The loudest cheer of the evening came when the MC reported that live coverage of this rally had “crashed the servers” on the Internet – meaning that so many people had been following this event on live streaming video/audio that the servers couldn’t keep up with the demand. I understood this because I’d noticed how hard it’s been to get downloads from YouTube for the past couple of weeks. It’s clear that grassroots political organizing has entered the Internet age, and that the mainstream media can no longer control what the public sees, hears or believes.
The speaker who impressed me the most was Ted Hayes, an elderly but spry Black homeless-activist, the man who created the famous Dome City in Los Angeles. He spoke briefly of his career as first a Civil Rights activist in the ‘60s, and then got down to the subject of racism. “When I was a boy, growing up in Jim-Crow age Massachusetts,” he told, “I got called a Nigger maybe a dozen times. White kids would yell that, and we’d chase them and threaten to beat them up, and they’d run away – and the next day we’d all be back to playing stickball together as if nothing had happened.”
But when he and other activists, both Black and White, marched in Los Angeles in support of the anti-immigration law, it was a different story. “The Latinos called us Nigger a hundred times over, and called the Whites with us Honkies and Rednecks” and less printable things, and spat on them, and threw bottles and “all kinds of crap”. It was, he said “worse than Montgomery, Alabama”. At the end of the march, he said, he sat down and cried because racism was not dead in America – but it wasn’t the Whites doing it. “You tell me,” he finished, “Who are the racists.”
He was followed by another singing group, a small Conservative rock band. Their performance was good, but I concluded that in all the years since the ‘60s Conservatives haven’t yet produced good songwriters – nothing to compare with Libertarian musicians, such as Rush.
The final speaker of the night – who was clearly making this a big stop in his re-election campaign – was Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Despite his expectations of his audience, he’d taken care to be introduced by a celebrity: Lou Ferrigno, still impressively muscled all these years after he ceased playing The Incredible Hulk. The crowd was appreciative, despite Ferrigno’s obvious speech impediment. The Sheriff spoke briefly, mostly the expected platitudes, with one notable piece of news; if the ICE wouldn’t process any Illegals arrested in Arizona, Arpaio would still have them prosecuted under state law. He also mentioned that he had a sizable reserve of tents, enough to increase his tent-city jail “all the way down to the border of Mexico”. To this some ad-libbers in the crowd yelled that if anybody escaped from the tent-city jail, they could run to Mexico – and welcome. To his credit, Arpaio didn’t speak long and left the last word – and applause – to Ferrigno.
After that the MC stood up and announced that the rally was over, and asked the crowd – politely, again – to be sure to drop their empty water-bottles in the recycle-bins and take care not to snarl traffic on the way out. The crowd obligingly packed up and left, with much conversation but little noise. Nobody snarled traffic on the way out, and the cars pulled away with no delays. By then it was 10 o’clock, almost exactly. I got the impression that this was the time-limit the organizers had bargained for when renting the stadium.
Altogether, the crowd could best be characterized as playful, co-operative and polite. From what I could tell of the organizers, they were a little more affluent but less experienced than the old Mobilization to End the War – and were willing to delegate necessities like security, audio-visual systems and recording to various experts, regardless of their political leanings.
From what I saw, I’m guessing that there’s a certain internal political tension in the Tea Party between the Conservatives and the Libertarians. The Libertarian movement – and party – were founded back in the late 1960s, and have been studiously ignored by the media and the older political groups ever since, until they gained enough numbers to create the Tea Party. The media and the political groups don’t quite know what to make of them, and so try to cast them into molds they already know. Liberals dismiss them as racist-Republican-redneck Conservative nuts. Conservatives approach them tentatively because the Libertarians agree with them on some issues – such as limited government, free enterprise and enforcing the immigration laws – but depart wildly on others – such as Gay rights, religion in public, and abolishing the drug laws. The Conservatives are clearly trying to take over the Tea Party, just as Republican candidates are trying to woo it, but neither have succeeded yet. All that has prevented an open breach so far is the Tea Party’s sticking strictly to legal-political issues that the Conservatives agree on, and the Libertarians’ need for the Conservative’s support in numbers and, admittedly, more money.
I predict that this peace will hold until either the Tea Party becomes politically successful enough to win major elections for Libertarian candidates – such as Ron and Rand Paul – or the Conservatives try to push for school prayer or legal oppression of Gays. Until then, the balance will hold – with great politeness.