During the week after the September 11 attacks, I kept telling myself to take pictures. I should have taken pictures of the flags on cars and houses, of the patriotic messages on the signs of every fast food restaurant, of the quiet, dignified acts of unity that, even though they filled every open space of our society that week like water rising in a canyon, I knew would disappear quickly, soon, and forever. We occasionally see footage aired of planes hitting the twin towers, but when was the last time you saw that tape of Congress singing “God Bless America” that afternoon on the steps of the Capitol? It was a unique time of intense mourning and brotherhood, and was gone almost as soon as it started.
I’ve only ever seen one other thing like it, and I likewise regret not doing something myself to document it. Throughout January of 2009, as I listened to average citizen after average citizen call in to every talk radio show I listened to, asking how to organize one of these new “tea party” meetings that everyone was talking about, to protest the Bush bailouts and the promised policies of the radical-leftist president-elect, I knew I was listening to something new, and something special.
Now, you might not like tea parties, those who attend them, or their beliefs, but no one can deny that what we’re seeing is the rise of one of the most spontaneous grassroots movements in history. In less than two years, tea parties have gone from rag-tag, ad hoc meetings in living rooms and bars to a cohesive (though still officially loose) brotherhood of millions of kindred spirits who are about to take a midterm Congressional election by storm.
Whenever I hear about desperate leftist spin doctors trying to play their own George Soros card against the tea parties by insinuating that they’re bought and paid for, staged by shadowy goons, I just remember those first tea parties that got onto the cultural radar, as they coalesced organically right before my eyes over just a few weeks, a mere year and a half ago. Why are our memories so short?
There are no good records of this event of which I’m aware. All the books about the tea party movement out there are either histrionic rebuttals from the mainstream media, or manifestos by new leaders trying to expand it. Where are the historians documenting the trend? Why didn’t anyone in January 2009 think to track all of this in its nascent, DIY glory? Why didn’t I?
After those first furtive spurts of protest around the country in the opening weeks of last year, someone (who?) thought to organize larger protests at a meaningful date in the near future: April 15, tax day. There was a tea party protest at Sunset Park in my valley that day, but as I was at work, I didn’t go. I wish I’d had. Those truly amateur protests are largely done now.
Oh, some are still around–Glenn Beck’s rally, like it or not, was the real deal, and plenty of others are still fighting the system from their little rebel outposts, but like any counterculture movement–like the music festivals of the last two generations being overtaken by corporate sponsors who packaged and sold them as anti-capitalist products–the tea party has now seen its share of opportunistic leeches. Yes, Scott Ashjian’s “Tea Party of Nevada” is fake and, yes, the Tea Party Express is basically a GOP cheerleader in disguise (though it has certainly done a lot of good for some great candidates).
Still, I can’t and don’t want to forget those heady days of early 2009 when there weren’t any professional tea partiers yet, when it was all about the people and nobody had an agenda or was after a profit, when a miraculous merging of a million strangers let us see that we weren’t alone in our desire to reform government by traditional standards. It was beautiful, and I miss it already.