There has been much discussion since the inception of the so-called “Tea Party” movement of the fact that it is overwhelmingly white and, to the view of its critics, racist in its messaging.
In articles and radio and television interviews, I have tended to argue against simplistic characterizations of those who attend tea party events and advance its populist message. Indeed, when I attended several of last year’s Tea Party rallies — including a big one on the grounds of the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, where Republican rising-star Paul Ryan spoke — I found common ground with many present on issues like blocking bank bailouts, auditing the Federal Reserve, and defending civil liberties.
But those of us who want to respect this movement as a legitimate expression of libertarian and conservative sentiment weren’t given much encouragement by the tea partisans who showed up in Washington over the weekend to oppose the anticipated passage on Sunday of landmark health care reform legislation.
The ugliest incident came Saturday afternoon.
Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights movement veteran, was across from the U.S. Capitol, not far from where he and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered speeches to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when he heard a word from his and his country’s past. A crowd shouting Tea Party slogans and waving signs confronted the congressman and spewed crude racist epithets at a man who risked his life to make real the founding promise that all Americans are created equal.
Lewis was leaving the Cannon Office Building when the anti-reform demonstrators descended on him, shouting obscenities and screaming, “Kill the bill, kill the bill.”
Lewis responded, “I’m for the bill, I’m for the bill, I’m voting for the bill.”
Then, according to Lewis and others who were present, the tea party crowd began shouting: “Kill the bill, n—–.”
The incident, which took place barely blocks from where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, was witnessed by other members of Congress and broadly reported by media outlets, including McClatchy Newspapers and Fox News.
Robert Greenwald’s “Brave New Films” project has highlighted some of the most crude behavior (not just racist remarks shouted at African-American members but homophobic remarks aimed at openly-gay Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank) and launched a campaign to: “Tell the GOP: Apologize for your hate-spewing proxies in the Tea Party Patriots. It is not acceptable for you to build your party’s political fortunes by encouraging and defending bigotry and hatred among your supporters.”
Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, another member of the Congressional Black Caucus, is seen challenging one of the demonstrators who spit on him.