This became my opening for every interview at the tax day Tea Party rally at the Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC.
It seemed like the best way to distance myself from the camera crews and journalists who were swarming the interesting or outrageous among the two-to-three thousand ralliers.
“I’m Canadian and I just want to know what’s happening today,” I would explain. And It was true. I went to the rally because I really don’t understand what’s happening in the United States today. I read blogs, watch the news, and catch Daily Show highlights like anyone else, but it doesn’t capture the sometimes hopeful, sometimes intimidating, always ethereal sense of change happening in America.
I went to the Tea Party not to judge anyone or enforce misconceptions, but to try to figure out what is mobilizing people from across the country to take part in an undeniably influential grassroots movement.
What I learned first was that most of these people were skeptical of the media. They eyed me, recorder and camera in hand, with suspicion. Those who were talkative often used the interview as a platform to expose whatever bias they thought I had.
Those who were interested in talking talked a lot. Tom, for example, approached me and the people I was with seemingly out of the blue, and took a great interest in whether or not we were Jewish.
Once Rick and Sharon started talking, they had a lot to say. They commandeered the interview to interrogate me about the quality of Canadian health care.
Carolyn and Ryan, two of the few students at the rally, seemed reasonable, even if our politics don’t match up. And like the few young people I spoke with, stressed that there were a lot of young people present
Another important lesson I learned was that the “Fair Tax” movement is not the same as “Tea Party” movement. Fair Tax might organize Tea Party events, but, as Jabari explained, the two aren’t synonymous.
I tried to be as non-judgmental as possible and to allow the interviewees to speak for themselves. The question I most wanted an answer to was, “why are you here?” Here are some of their answers:
Caroline from Arlington, Virginia
What brings you out here today?
I’m a conservative. I once was a Democrat, but the Democratic party was once conservative, too. It was once pro-life. And then I was a Reagan Democrat for years, and worked for Pat Buchanan–he’s a great conservative. I believe in following the constitution; small government; and right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–life number one. That is our most troubling issue. Three thousand, one hundred children will be killed today by abortion. Today. More than died on 9/11, died of abortion in the United States. That is such a huge problem. And the Democratic party is supporting it. It’s disgraceful. So that’s my number-one issue.
And I also believe in subsidiarity, distributes, small government. If it can be done in the family, it should be done in the family. If it can be done in the county level or the city level, do it there. If it needs to go to the state–and some things do–there. And the federal government is supposed to have a military to defend us, and not a whole heck-of-a-lot more. And we’ve just gone farther, and farther, and farther, and of course we have this terrific debt. And I’m upset that George Bush was involved in spending more money than he should have, although he has so much in the plus column. So supportive of the pro-life community. So you see how I got where I am.
And you look around here and you see authentic people. You see hand-made signs that tear your heart out. And you look at the protestors [that protest the Tea Party supporters] going by, I see them–I pray at Planned Parenthood five days a week–I see them at Capital Hill demonstrating. But they have signs that somebody handed them, and then they all leave at the same time because they’re all told to go. Their bosses told them to go, “You must go to the demonstration.”
Did anybody tell these people to go? No. This is not an engineered crowd. And a lot of us are saying, “Where do we meet? Is it 11? Is it six?” We’re trying to find out where to go, when.
Where do you get that kind of information?
Well, I got some in the Washington Times yesterday. And then on Fox news this morning they talked about [it].
It’s so authentic. It’s so real. It’s so American. These people here. [A man walks by, one of the many vendors selling flags an buttons, Caroline points at him] Now, he’s selling flags. He’s in business. He’s a small business man, God love him. So he’s here trying to earn money today, and that’s good. That’s good. That’s good. We love that!
We’re authentic. We’re for real.
Do you agree with everything the tea party believes in?
We don’t have a list of things we believe in. There is no membership card, there are no dues. It’s just people getting together. If I came down here and I saw something and I heard something I don’t like, I’d just leave. You look around and people are saying, “God bless you, I love you. What’s your first name? Where are you from?”
This is authentic. These are real people. They’re precious! And you’re precious. And I love you, and God loves you […] look around. Look around. This didn’t happen by a big bang or by accident. There was a cause, that always was, and always will be. And most of us call that cause God, call it whatever you like. But it’s… It’s… God. God love you, sweetheart.
Jabari and Marilyn
Jabari Zakiya, Washington, DC
Marilyn Rickert, Oak Forest, IL
A lot of people are talking about “authentic Americans” here today. Do you think the people here are “authentic Americans”?
Marilyn: Yeah, we’re all volunteers, we all pay our own way, nobody gets a salary, we have basically a nation-wide grassroots organization and there is maybe a handful of people that actually collect any kind of a salary at all.
Jabari: Well, you have to define. If authentic means “real”, then yeah, they’re real, but there is all levels of real. I mean, I don’t consider myself a tea party person, but there are elements of their concerns I agree with. I don’t agree with 100% of the political stuff. But one of the things that makes America America is that we can have all kinds of diversity in thought, but we can come together around a lot of common interests. I mean, the most right-wing person and I can cheer for the same sports teams, you know? And in the same way, that’s what our movement is about. We have a lot of different people from a lot of different movements with a lot of different ideologies, but we all agree on the fair tax. Even the tea party people that don’t agree 100% that the fair tax is the way, we’re trying to convince them that the reform is the fair tax.
Carolyn and Ryan
Carolyn Bolls from Washington, DC and Ryan Gilroy
Why are you here today?
Carolyn: Well, basically we’re sick of our government spending our money. We’re spending more to save more, that doesn’t make sense to us. We’re protesting this big government control of our country. We don’t want to end up with the government controlling every sector of our lives. It’s not just about taxes, it’s about government control of our personal lives.
Ryan: We’re tired of watching government spend, spend, spend. Honestly, both parties are spending so much money, they don’t realize that they’re stealing jobs away, they’re stealing our generation’s wealth. They’re robbing Peter, who isn’t even born yet, to pay Paul now.
Do you think anything like that was happening with the last generation?
Carolyn: I think it’s cyclical. I mean, we have elections, that’s why we have a democratic republic, we will be able to voice our opinions on November 2nd. That’s when we get to change, and I hope that’s the change that our country needs.
Ryan: It seems like we need it more than ever. The Republicans had control from 2000-2006 with a Republican congress, a Republican senate, and a Republican President. You figure taxes would go down. But no, it got ratcheted up even higher. That’s the problem: people want to be in power, so they try to get votes. They pass projects and say, “Hey look! If you help me get my vote, I’ll get your vote.”
Carolyn: Even with the last administration, with the George Bush administration, he spent–you know, No Child Left Behind, you had all these federal programs, the bailouts towards the end of his term as President. I don’t support that either. You know, I call myself a Republican, but I’m a Conservative first, and Conservative also insures fiscal responsibility.
Ryan: And also, you realize Medicare Part D is the tip of the iceberg. Then you got Obama and healthcare, which is putting another thing on top of another thing, and realizing […] it’s bi-partisan. Most people would hate to say, “oh, it’s the Democrats”. No, it’s both parties [that] like to spend a lot.
Are you proud to be representing young people with your politics? Do you think there should be more young people here today?
Ryan: I think there’s a lot of young people here. Look around you. there’s plenty of young people behind you. I think it’s a good mixture of everything, young, old, everything in between.
Carolyn: I agree, but I think those that care the most are the ones who are paying taxes, and so that will generally attract an older population. I’m definitely proud to be here. My generation has to stand up and speak for ourselves otherwise we’ll be in debt for the rest of our lives, and for the lives our children, and children after that.
Tom Wallin from Springfield, Illinois.
What religion are you?
I was baptized Anglican.
I’m just curious. I thought you might have been Jewish, and if you were I was wondering: do you support Obama or the people here?
Well, I can’t vote here—
I mean, but who would you support?
I don’t know, I don’t have all the information. I don’t live here.
Do you have a point of view on this event today?
I’m here because I’m asking people about their points of view.
Well I want to know who you are first, because you might distort what I have to say. I rode here 800 miles on my motorcycle to be part of it.
What kind of motorcycle?
A Yamaha FJR 1300. Yup.
It is. I hit a construction barrel coming in the other day, and it went off my bike like a ping pong, or a bowling pin.
Holy cow. So why are you here today?
I’m here because I think the government is out of control. I think it’s taking our tax money. And I think a lot of the stuff it’s doing is unconstitutional. I think they are ruining our medical system by changing something that was probably the best. [In the] the country there’s just a small number of people that needed to be insured. And they didn’t do things that would really cut costs.
I think president Bush–I love president Bush for many things that he did–but he was trying to befriend liberals, and he spent way too much money, and I think that made his government a toss up on whether he should go on Mount Rushmore or not. I think what he did to fight enemies of ours country, I think he should be respected like a Mr. Rushmore president. I mean, for eight years he fought against people trying to make him look bad. From the very, very beginning, the people that were trying to take over tried to make him look bad. And he didn’t have the courage to say “no” to the big spenders. But I think he’s a good, honest man, and I loved him for what he was, and I think the people who say he was dumb were just absolutely wrong. He was a very smart man. He’s countrified a little bit like I am, but that doesn’t mean he was dumb, that means that he didn’t appear to people like we used to establish-mentize.
What would you say to someone who wants to understand what’s happening in America right now?
It’s kind of like if you want to ask a motorcycle rider why he likes to ride a motorcycle. If you have to ask, you won’t figure it out.
I mean, this is the greatest country on Earth, and what they’re doing is just going to take it away. You know, you how to ruin a great country? You spend it to death. You know, people like Saul Alinsky, people that Obama likes to quote, all of his crowd, I mean–look at his friends. I don’t know who these young men were that were with you, but they were nice respectful guys. I don’t know what they do in their personal lives, but if they were anything like Obama’s friends, you would run for the hills, buddy. You would run for the hills, because his friends are evil. Reverend Knight, I mean, there’s the catholic priest…
What did you think of us when you saw us? You seemed really eager to talk to us.
I wanted to talk to you because, I wanted to ask—and I love Jews, Jewish country, Israel, I just totally respect [Benjamin] Netanyahu and everything he stands for—I wanted to ask you a question: how could you support Obama if you were Jewish? Because, 95% of American jews support Obama, and that’s one of the greatest things I don’t understand about this country.
Richard and Sharon
Richard and Sharon from Michigan
Richard: Do you like your healthcare up there? Have you ever used it?
Richard: Have you ever used it?
Yeah, of course. I mean, I’ve never had trouble with it. I’ve never been seriously ill, so I’m very thankful for that.
Richard: Well that’s a good thing.
We were in England in October. I came down with a kidney infection. And I got into their health system. And if Canadian health system is anything like English, you don’t want it.
I went into the emergency room, and the guy says, “oh I got some drugs that will do away with this.” Because we wrote on the little slip that I was passing blood in my urine. [He] never checked me one bit. Just read that little note that I wrote, or she wrote, on my admit.
Sharon: Didn’t check his vitals.
Richard: And he went to get the drugs and he came back and said, “It’s going to be a couple of minutes.” I said, “Well what about my fever?” And he says, “I’ll go see about the drugs.” Then he came back, to check my [temperature].
As soon as he checked that, he said, “Oh everything changed.” And they put me in the hospital. But he was going to let me go home, with a 100, 102 temperature without giving me anything for it.
Sharon: And he was supposed to be drinking water. They told him he was supposed to drink a whole lot of water while he was there. And the nurses would say they’d bring it when he’d ask them, and they never brought it. I’d have to go get it for him. That’s our only experience with government health care. That’s why we’re not happy.
Is that the reason you guys are here today?
Sharon: Well, we don’t like the spending.
Richard: We’re from Michigan. We don’t like the spending. We’re both—I’m retired, she never worked—
Sharon: [laughs] Well, thank you!
Richard: —well, outside, you know.
We have two kids. No grandkids. And we sit here, thankful, that we don’t have grandkids. Because of the debt that we’re putting onto our grandkids.
Do you think previous generations have left that kind of legacy?
Sharon: I think each generation has done better for a while now.
Richard: I think that after the war, we had such a baby boom that we could take care of our folks. But there’s too many of us now to put that debt onto our kids, you know? This year there’s less money coming in for social security than going out.
Do you think this will change things? The people here today?
Richard: Let’s hope.
Sharon: Well I think you gotta speak up and try. That’s why we’re here.
Richard: You got to try to stop it. I mean, look how much the government spent this year already, and last year.
Sharon: We’ve written to our congressman and the like. You know, doing what you can. There’s only so much you can do.
Has any other issue brought you to rally like this?
Sharon: a lot of the people here, it’s the same thing. They haven’t done this kind of thing before.
Richard: Back years ago we was too busy making a living. You know, going to work five, six days a week. Didn’t have time to do this kind of stuff.
Sharon: This is the fifth one we’ve been to. We went to two in Jackson, two in Lansing, and this one.
Where do you get information about the rallies?
Sharon: They have some information online. A lot of it is from there. TV.
What kind of TV do you watch? Which networks?
Richard: We watch Fox, because the other ones are so biased. I mean, we watch the other ones, I mean, I have CNN, and MSNBC. I look at all them, but they don’t bring up–like Brian Williams, you know, on NBC. He don’t bring up the tea parties. He just shows you what they want you to see.
Fox, you get mad at Fox because they don’t–they might spend too much time saying how great something is, but you don’t think it’s worth a damn. But they’re the best of the networks.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t understand this and just wants to know more?
Richard: I guess they could sit at the Ambassador bridge and watch the ambulance coming from over there to bring people to the hospital over here. They say there’s 40 to 60 ambulances bringing people from Canada over to here, because the health care is better here than there, you know.
Pronoblem, from another dimension.
Why are you here?
That’s a pretty deep question, man.
Yeah, it is pretty deep. What do you think?
I don’t know. I try to do good, raise good kids. Be fair and honest.
What do you represent?
When people asked me that before, you know what I told them?
No, what did you say?
That I was Canadian.
Why did you come out here today?
I heard there was some good Ethiopian food in town.
What does your button say?
I bought that here.
Do you believe in the message?
Oh, no. not really. What does it say?
It says “Welcome to Obamunism”.
Okay, so that means Obama has a philosophy.
I guess that’s not too hard to believe. Is this an average day for you?
With files from Ryan Briggs