A Surprise Tea-Party Confrontation
Editor’s Note: Oklahoma-based journalist Richard Fricker was with his wife on a spring-break vacation to Washington when he came face to face with the Tea Party furor.
In this first-person account, Fricker describes how a cell-phone comment apparently upset the protesters, who chased him and called him (cover your ears!) a “professor”:
When I visited the Capitol grounds on March 21, the day the House of Representatives passed healthcare reform, I was aware that some protesters had been directing violence, threats and insults against members of Congress, but I was surprised when I ended up on the receiving end of some abuse myself.
In what seemed like a surreal moment from “Night of the Living Dead,” a group of Tea-baggers accosted me after one of them overheard my phone conversation with another reporter – or at least thought he did.
I soon learned that fact and truth have no place in Tea Party land, and like zombies of Living Dead fame, they were eager to chase down and devour whatever they perceived as a challenge to their way of thinking and behaving.
In their strange world, there are endless numbers of Communists, Socialists and Nazis who must be discovered and exposed, though it didn’t seem to me they really knew which was which. Still, they are pretty sure that President Obama is one of these, if not a combination of all three. So, there were plenty of placards covering all three bases.
March 21 was Washington’s warmest day of the year, and my wife and I were enjoying our spring break from Oklahoma. We were visiting a couple who were both journalists working for European publications.
Since the husband journalist needed to write about the healthcare debate, I was accompanying the two ladies for a tour of the sites. (“Accompany” may be too strong a word, since the ladies were engaged in their own conversation. I could have been abducted by space aliens and not been missed.)
Over the years, I also had covered any number of protests – civil rights, anti-war, you name it – so I agreed to call in a report to my friend on the Tea Party protest after we reached the Capitol. By then, the protest was in its second day, reaching a crescendo of desperation.
Arriving at the Capitol steps, I encountered several hundred Tea-baggers, not the thousands reported to have amassed the previous day. I walked around and through the crowd for a few minutes observing and listening.
The previous day, the protesters had called some African-American congressmen the n-word, including Rep. John Lewis, a 70-year-old hero of the civil rights movement who had been beaten during the Selma march in 1964; one Tea Party protester had spat on another black congressman; and others yelled “faggot” at Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay member of Congress.
This sort of obnoxious behavior had become the trademark of the Tea Party movement since some of its supporters disrupted “town hall” meetings across the country last summer, intimidating lawmakers and even shouting down elderly and infirmed people who tried to speak.
On March 21, these “patriots” were making a last stand against healthcare reform. But mostly they were talking among themselves. Their anti-healthcare-reform leaders knew the measure would pass, so there were no name-brand speakers rousing the crowd, and the news media’s interest had shifted to the legislative action on the House floor.
Still, comments from the crowd included remarks from one man about how “proud” his preacher was that he was protesting healthcare reform. Another man spoke of how his “preacher” had helped organize his group.
Other placards connected God and the Constitution, though my wife and I had viewed the document the day before at the National Archives and saw nothing suggesting that it had been drafted by the Christian God or any other deity, but rather by a group of Eighteenth Century southern plantation owners and northern merchants.
But there was enough God talk to warm the heart of a televangelist. There were hymns, too, though the irony of some choices seemed lost on the group, which had humiliated black lawmakers the day before and carried posters showing a white-faced Obama as the Joker.
One song from 1779, the hymn “Amazing Grace,” represented the repentance of a slave trader. Another, “We Shall Overcome,” was written in 1901 by an African Methodist Episcopal minister; it was popularized during a 1945 strike by black workers against the American Tobacco Company; and it became the anthem of the civil rights movement, which included John Lewis as a leader.
But on that Sunday, if there were any people of color among the Tea-baggers, I failed to see them. Instead these were white people who wanted their “country back.” Street vendors had sold protesters bright yellow Revolutionary War flags with the slogan, “Don’t tread on me.”
One onlooker remarked, “They’re really mad because a black man is in the White House.”
Reporting on the Protest
After observing the scene, I called my reporter friend to pass on my observations. My assessment was something to the effect that there were several hundred people, lots of God and Constitution placards, white-faced Obama posters and hymns. It looked rather disorganized and sophomoric.
I had no idea that my report would upset anyone, or that anyone would even care. However, a couple apparently overheard bits of my report and began following me through the crowd, yelling for my attention. The man, with a three-day growth of beard, finally stepped in front of me yelling that he was no redneck. I had said nothing about rednecks.
“I don’t know you,” I replied. “Stop bothering me. Just leave me alone.” I thought that would be enough, but the yelling continued as we walked.
He told me that he had an MBA from somewhere. “I guess that just proves the sorry state of American education,” I responded.
Then, came what I can only assume was the greatest insult that he could muster. Pointing at me, he said, “I think you’re a professor!”
This took me aback. I have been called many things in my career, but never “professor.” It was odd, though, to hear “professor” used as an epithet.
I must admit that I do know and socialize with some professors. My son’s Godfather is a professor. Even my bartender has a PhD. But I am not now nor have I ever been a professor.
But that didn’t stop the Tea Partiers. The man’s wife began motioning to others to join in the altercation. “He’s on the Horowitz list,” she shouted over and over, as the crowd closed in.
At that moment, it didn’t occur to me that she was talking about onetime-leftist-turned-neoconservative David Horowitz, who wrote a book in 2006 about the 101 most dangerous professors in America.
It seemed that the chief reason for ending up on the list was to have disagreed with Horowitz. After assembling his list, he encouraged cadres of students to tape classes of their professors to ferret out any un-American statements. Many on the Right had embraced Horowitz’s disdain for academic freedom – and this apparently was the result.
“I think you’re a professor,” the man repeated.
“I don’t care what you think,” I replied. “I know you’re an asshole.”
With that, the man grabbed my arm. As he was looking me in the eye, I said, “Let go! You touch me again and I’m calling the cops, and you better hope they get here in a hurry.”
By then, several people – more onlookers than Tea-baggers – had walked up and were asking what was going on. The situation soon defused itself.
But what I had learned from the experience was that these people had no idea who I was. They only needed to be told that I was on the Horowitz list to try to surround and intimidate me.
Even scarier, this guy felt no hesitation to grab a total stranger on the steps of the Capitol for no other reason than that he disagreed with him. This was not a serious assault as assaults go, but it did show that getting physical was an option for the Tea Party “revolutionaries.”
This group now has been embraced by the Republican Party, which apparently sees nothing wrong with Tea-baggers insulting Democratic members of Congress and shouting down fellow citizens for the offense of favoring healthcare reform.
Some protesters apparently feel justified in going even further, into physical confrontations and vandalism, like hurling bricks through the office windows of Democrats.
Determined to reclaim political power as quickly as possible, the Republican Party has let this dangerous genie out of the lamp. Now, it will not go quietly back inside.
It’s my fear that the Tea Party movement will continue its campaign of intimidation, much like the Brown Shirts of pre-war Germany or the armed right-wing American militias in the 1990s, until there is serious destruction, injury or death. The GOP leadership has disavowed the violence but has encouraged the extreme rhetoric.
Looked at as a whole – from the “town hall” disruptions to the brandishing of weapons at presidential speeches to the ugly scenes outside the Capitol – the movement appears to be an attempt to replace the ballot box with intimidation and even violence.
The last site I visited before heading home was the Navy Memorial. There it is inscribed:
“Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile … can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the U.S. Navy.’” – John Kennedy 1963.
As a Navy veteran, I meet that standard. I don’t need a silly tri-cornered hat to prove I’m a patriot. And, I don’t have to bully people to accept my opinion; they have theirs, I have mine.
The healthcare bill passed the House as my wife and I were flying home to Oklahoma. Spring break was over, a new work week on the horizon – and lessons learned.
Watching President Barak Obama sign the bill on Tuesday, I was struck with a rare feeling of investiture. I had seen the heart of America’s new darkness and was heartened that the bullying had not deterred a legislative decision.
To me, the signing ceremony was a sign the Republic was safe, at least for a while longer.
Richard L. Fricker is a journalist who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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