“Somebody’s Gonna Get Shot”
I’ve hosted several tea parties over the years. Most have involved Barbie and Ken, Jasmine and Aladdin, a couple of motley extras from the toybox, and my mom’s burnt sugar cookies. But when I (along with staffers Alyssa Roberts, Kayla Benker, and Chelsea Carlson) attended a Tea Party assembly this month, I didn’t know what to expect. In lieu of my typical frilly pink chiffon, I donned the perfect outfit: something that screamed, “If I were a man, I’d be wearing a barbecue-stained white t-shirt and a fraying construction company baseball cap.” Having thus disguised myself, I had two final tasks: to drive from Claremont to the Cocky Bull Saloon in Victorville, and to determine what Tea Partiers were all about.
The Tea Party – at least the 150 people we saw – is inherently violent and militaristic in its rhetoric. Through ritualistic training exercises intended to emulate those in boot camp, these Tea Partiers were taught to “scare the crap out of [their] local politicians.” A total of 15 minutes was spent practicing and explaining the merits of shouting “FREEDOM!” loudly and in unison. (Yes, we joined in.) The violence manifested itself later, when one participant ranted against the city’s removal of some campaign signs whose placement violated election regulations. The emcee’s response? “The day I run for city council and somebody takes my signs down, somebody’s gonna get shot!”
But even more frightening is that most don’t know what they’re screaming about. Here, group dynamics come into play. Picture a “Joe the Plumber”-esque, mustachioed man wielding a microphone and shouting, “Anyone here support [random candidate] for [random position]?” If the crowd’s response was lukewarm, he’d give a short soundbite about the candidate’s desire to cut taxes or repeal healthcare, and repeat the question. This time, all would cheer enthusiastically. Once, one confused outlier accidentally said “nay,” to which the emcee responded, “Nay? Shoot that person.”
Despite their ignorance of state and national candidates, the Tea Partiers know their local issues. The most critical issue for this group: red-light cameras. Apparently Big Brother’s efforts to reduce the number of car accidents just aren’t worth the fines. Three-fourths of the city council candidates onstage pledged to remove the cameras. As for the outlier, “You wanna get elected, you better get on the bandwagon, fella!” one audience member shouted.
Yet underneath the “nays,” “ayes,” “hear, hears,” “hip hip hoorays,” “boos,” “hisses,” and gun-toting was something very human: a concern for the common man. When a woman stood onstage and explained how the passage of California’s Prop. 23 would save her family’s dump truck business, I’d have pitied her had she acknowledged the other side of the issue. But when someone later yelled, “Do you know they’re trying to take away the uniforms from the Boy Scouts?” I was back to suppressing laughter.
Don’t get me wrong – I respect the Tea Partiers. Their civic-mindedness, energetic campaigning, and willingness to challenge authority are personally inspiring. Nevertheless, I hoped that my undercover experience would show me another, softer side to the craziest political movement of my lifetime. Instead, my first impressions remained intact: befuddled amusement, disgusted frustration, and a heightened fear of getting shot.