Fort Lauderdale, You Have Tea on Your Face

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Who would have guessed that witnessing a tea bagging would be so hard to swallow?

Honestly, I thought yesterday afternoon was going to be funny. I figured I'd stroll a few blocks from the New Times the Juice office down to the federal courthouse at Broward and NE Third Avenue and see a few dozen staunch conservatives repeating the tired cliches they hear every day on right-wing talk radio (see "socialism," "big government," "keep the change"). I thought there'd be some obnoxious sign waving and some entertaining whining from people who generally aren't fond of: poor people, gay people, non-Christians, nonconformists, and anyone who isn't what we like to call "white." I thought I'd get a sarcastic snicker out of the whole thing (like the way you laugh when an old woman says something racist, because you know she's going to die soon).

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What I got instead was scared. Terrified. There were hoards of pissed-off protesters on all four corners of the intersection when I got there. There were at least a thousand people on the sidewalks by the time the event was over. I heard plenty of not-so-clever nicknames for liberals, saw radical signs for all shades of conservativism, and learned all sorts of fun things about the bleak future, the evil government, and the even more evil Muslim dictator who goes by the evil Muslim name "Barack Obama."

 The most frightening part of it all was the fact that the vast majority of these protesters were really, really angry; they just weren't really sure exactly what they were angry about.

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A few points are clear:

Obama=bad

Government=bad

Taxes=bad

But that's not terribly specific. And honestly, it's not even imaginative.

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The event seemed like the largest collection of Glenn Beck fans I've ever seen. Like Beck, most of the crowd exhibited a special kind of unspecific outraged fervor, mostly directed at the current administration, the federal stimulus package, and the recent government bailouts. There was a bitterness in the protesters, a feeling they'd been victimized in some way, the distinct aroma of desperation and fear.

The "tea party" itself invokes one of the turning points in a war in which one side needed to free itself from the grip of true tyranny. And o

ur protesters use words like "revolution" and "liberty" enthusiastically.

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Problem one: Even in the darkest imaginations of the most paranoid conservatives, Barack Obama is, by no accepted definition of the word, a tyrant. Even if someone thinks Obama's administration encourages too much spending, that does not make him an intolerant monarch. Otherwise that brother-in-law who's not so good with money would be King George.

Second: People (including children, if you consider children people) have no fucking clue what they're talking about. Really.

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This little girl had a sign that read: I'M ONLY 12 WHY AM IN DEBT? I asked her how much she owed. She was confused. At her mother's prompting, she told me she owed "the same amount as everybody else." I asked how much she thought that was. "The same amount as everybody else," she repeated like a fantastic future Republican.

Of course she isn't in debt. Yes, children will eventually have to pay taxes. They will also get to enjoy things those taxes pay for, like roads and the post office that delivers her letters to Republican Santa (he gives coal only to poor kids and the ozone).

Then I spoke with Joseph Arilo, 66, from Fort Lauderdale. He was holding a sign reading: "WE ARE A CHRISTIAN A JEWISH AND A SOVEREIGN NATION."

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He told me his sign was a response to Obama's comments at the G20 summit, where he says Obama "told the world we are not a Christian nation. That's just wrong. We are definitely a nation of Christians. Seventy-eight percent of this country is Christian."

"Why'd you write the Jewish in there then?" I asked. "Because we're in Florida and you're being sensitive?"

He paused. "Well, yeah. Plus Christians came from Jews. You know, with the Talmud first, then later the New Testament. But the most important part of that sign is the 'sovereign' part. Obama wants to hand over decisions about America to international courts."

"Wow, seriously? Which decisions is he handing over?"

He thought for a moment. "Well... well... none yet. But he's said he will." Then he noticed the word Texas on my shirt. "That governor [Rick Perry] in Texas. That guy's doing good things. He said he doesn't want Obama's money." He said Rick Perry and Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal have the right idea. "They can smell a rat," he said.

"You don't think we should take the federal stimulus money?" I asked him. "To fix roads and highways? Things like schools and energy projects? You don't think Florida should get any of that?"

"Well... if they're --" we were interrupted by the clambering over some nearby T-shirts. 

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Darren Patrick from Pembroke Pines was selling some horrifying (but kinda funny... but still horrifying) shirts. I asked him how many he made for the rally. "A lot." He told me I should show up to the New Times office wearing one of his masterpieces. "This is the lager... it's darker."

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I noticed the shirts were all made outside of the U.S. Then I thought of something. "Hey, are you paying taxes on the money you're making from these shirts?"

"You ask a lot of questions," is all he'd say.

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I did meet some sensible people. Suzanne Hurst and Constance Wecker, a pair of nice, reasonable-sounding ladies from Broward, were eating delicious home-made banana bread with cream cheese, soaking in the scene. Suzanne said she grew up during the protest-filled 1960s but had never felt strongly enough about anything to attend a rally until now. "It seems like everything is just so bad right now," she said. "My husband was drafted and served in Vietnam. It makes me cry to see my country like this.

Constance told me she's just tired of seeing the government give taxpayer money to corporations while the heads of those companies make millions and fly around in private jets. Who could argue with that? What non-CEO American isn't irate at that thought?

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Nearby, Jane Moore and Linda Campbell weren't quite so sensible. "Obama doesn't give a shit about this country," Linda interjected. "You heard them, a crisis is 'a horrible thing to waste.' He just wants to push through his socialistic agenda. This has all been planned out. And that Congress, they just stamped the bill through without even reading it."

"What I want to know is, who the hell gave them the right to choose what to do with our money?" Jane popped in. I politely pointed out that we had those elections, and deciding what to do with money is pretty much all politicians do.

"Sometimes I want to sell everything I own and go live in the woods somewhere," Linda said.

"Sometimes I wish the government would completely fold," Jane said. "We'd have nothing, but at least we'd have our freedom."

My first thought: Isn't that from Braveheart? Then I thought about it. What if this woman really is having her freedoms infringed upon in some way I don't know about. A good American needs to stand up for shit like this. And I'm a reporter, I took an (imaginary) oath to comfort the afflicted.

"What freedoms have you had taken from you?"

She looked confused. I thought, perhaps in the places Jane gets her news (cough cough Fox News cough), reporters don't worry about those pesky follow-up questions. There was a long pause.

"Uh... uh... the freedom to choose... the... uh..." Awkward moment.

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Many signs requested passersby honk if they detest taxes. The crowd got a lot of beeps, though damned near every one of them seemed to come from a Mercedes or a Porsche or a Lamborghini. The emotions on the sidewalk were very real, though. These are hard times. Linda told me she'd lost nearly 40 percent of her total net value in the last year. Everyone is feeling the crunch from the recession.

Some more than others, though.

I strolled a few hundred feet down Broward, to the park in front of the library. A homeless woman with deep brown eyes was lying on a tattered blanket, watching the commotion.

"What do you think of the huge crowd here?" I asked.

"I'm hungry," she said. "I need food." Her name is Pepeltua Okpara, and she explained that she's lived in the park for five days. As the droves of tea partiers walked from their downtown offices and from the parking garages (many of which were full) through the area along Broward, not one person acknowledged her. "Nobody even said 'hi'?"

"I don't need 'hi.' I need food."

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Here's a sad fact everybody needs to realize, and soon: America kind of sucks right now. We're in two fucked-up wars. We have bridges collapsing and schools closing across the country. We have major metropolitan cities in utter disrepair. And we have a sleazy service-based financial system that can't seem to unfuck itself.

And none of these problems are new. The fact that so many people are just now realizing how badly the country has been run this decade is sad, but the fact that they're so impassioned is dangerous.

Compare the rhetoric, the enthusiasm, and the ideology of characters like Timothy McVeigh, the conservatives on 60 Minutes this week who refer to Obama as "the great gun grabber," and these massive, angry crowds.

When people like Glenn Beck get histrionic and throw around words like "totalitarian" and "Orwellian" when they really mean "has different views about some political issues," people can get hurt.

And that isn't quite so easy to swallow.

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