TALLAHASSEE -- Passions were ablaze at a Tax Day Tea Party event held on the steps of the old Florida Capitol, with protesters holding signs that read, "We vote with bullets," "Fire Congress," "9/11 was an Inside Job" and "Return to the Constitution."
The Tea Party movement proclaims it isn't racist, but there were less than half a dozen black people in the crowd, a head count that supports the recent CNN/Opinion Research Poll finding that only two percent of the Tea Party activists were African-American.
Organized by the local Fox News radio station, it drew a few hundred people who listened to a taped speech from Glenn Beck and to various Republican and right-wing Christian leaders talk about taking back the federal government, living according to the U.S. Constitution and returning the nation to the "path of Godly virtues."
The We The People Rally, which draws its name from the first three words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, promised to be "the focal point of Florida's message to lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and to elected leaders in every level of government in the Sunshine State." The organizers of the 2009 rally had reported that event had drawn over 2,000 protesters so the Independent News drove three hours to Tallahassee on Tax Day, April 15 to check out if the Tea Party Movement had grown since last year as some in the media claimed.
We found a crowd of less than 500 protesters and a slate of speakers who knew the Tea Party "buzz words" and how to pander to its audience.
The speakers, including Beck's video, insisted the Tea Party movement wasn't Republican or Democratic or Conservative or Liberal. However, the speakers themselves were conservative and Republican. They made it clear that they didn't like President Barack Obama or moderate Republicans like Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
The rally had four distinct layers. Along Monroe Street which runs in front of the historic Florida Capitol, the Mullet haircut crowd squatted-not listening to the speakers, but instead waving at cars turning on to Apalachicola Parkway and trying to coax truck drivers to honk their horns.
Many waved yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags.
On the right side of the plaza, under the shade of towering moss-covered oaks, were Republican candidates trying to get petition cards signed and handing out flyers. The offices they sought ranged from U.S. Senate to Tallahassee mayor. Tanned college coeds wearing tight t-shirts for their candidates and short shorts circulated through the crowd promoting their candidates. Marco Rubio for U.S. Senate campaign signs and stickers were everywhere.
Rubio is running in the Republican primary against Gov. Charlie Crist and was pushed by some supporters at the rally as the second coming of Ronald Reagan.
Near the Capitol steps sat the gray-haired warriors, inspired by Fox News to protest the Obama health care plan. Several were in wheelchairs, using walkers and attached to oxygen tanks. They clapped. They cheered and gradually tired as the evening wore on.
Along the edges were the Florida lawmakers and their aides, also listening and perhaps trying to gauge how authentic the crowd was.
The ringmaster for the event was Preston Scott, former sportscaster and host of the morning show of the Fox News radio affiliate, WFLA 100.7 FM.
Scott made a concerted effort to prove to the sea of pale white faces in the audience that the Tea Party and his rally were racially diverse. He had his African-American intern, Jerome Hutson, and State Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Jacksonville, speak. Two African-American music ministers from a Tallahassee church led the crowd in singing "God Bless America."
Hutson, a Tallahassee Community College student who has been featured several times on Glenn Beck's Fox News show, was one speaker. Dressed in 80 degree heat in a khaki blazer, maroon sweater vest and yellow "power" tie, the Clear Channel radio intern looked like Carlton Banks, Will Smith's uptight, unhip cousin in "The Prince of Bel Air."
Hutson opened by shouting "Welcome Patriots" and professed allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, a document that he claimed President Obama called "a charter of negative liberties."
"We the people are meant to be free, no matter what race, sex or religion," said Hutson to applause and cheers. "And while we are on the subject of race, I want to say that the Tea Party Movement is not a racist movement. The Tea Party Movement is not anti-black people. The Tea Party Movement is not anti-minority. The Tea Party Movement is not anti-government."
"The spirit of the Tea Party Movement is Americanism, and it has made it the most free-est and most prosperous nation on earth -- whether you be white, black, brown, man, woman or child," he continued.
This sentence drew huge applause from the whites in the crowd. One black man just shook his head from side to side.
Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, both spoke. Their focus was on Washington, D.C. Hasner accused the Obama Administration of bankrupting the county "both fiscally and morally." He called the national debt "generational theft."
Atwater talked proudly about how the Florida Legislature has a balanced budget, but didn't mention its use of state trust funds or receipt of Obama's stimulus dollars. He called for a national convention to draft a constitutional amendment that would force the federal government to have a balanced budget.
In his taped speech, Glenn Beck stressed a return to the Constitution and emphasized the 10th amendment, which states that powers not granted to the national government nor prohibited to the states by the Constitution are reserved to the states or the people. The Washington Post had reported earlier in the day that 54 Republican members of the Virginia House of Delegates have signed a letter calling on the federal government to "cease and desist" from passing mandates that exceed its power under the 10th amendment.Ã‚Â Nice coincidence.
"Never in our history has there been such a wide gap between what is legal and what is right," Beck said. "We must demand more of ourselves. We must elect people of character because character does matter."
"And that will begin that process of bridging that gap, returning our country to a path of Godly virtue," he added.
The crowd began to fizzle after Beck's presentation. Many left. Others seem to delight in ganging up on the few counter-protesters there. The Independent News staff moved through the crowd interviewing people.
When a counter-protester was interviewed, people would stand in the background with signs identifying the interviewee as "Infiltrator," "Party Crasher" and "Not One of Us."
One middle-aged lady with dyed red hair was following a Florida State student who had a sign jokingly declaring he was a "Socialist" and saying, "Where is the party?" When attendees tried to take a photograph of the man's sign, the lady blocked the camera with her "Don't Tread on Me" flag.
Though the Independent News reporters with their video cameras went unchallenged as they moved through the audience, this reporter didn't escape the attention of event organizers. Dressed in blue jeans, blue Oxford button-down shirt and wearing my Ole Miss baseball cap, I quietly watched the rally from different vantage points, took notes and recorded the speeches, wearing my Independent News press badge.
I was approached by man in a WFLA 100.7 FM t-shirt who wanted to know if I was with press and who I worked for. When he heard the words, "Pensacola," he backed off and said he worked with Preston Scott and they had noticed that I looked like I was from out of town.
"Is that a problem?" I asked.
"No, no, we just noticed you in the crowd," he replied as he moved quickly away.
He declined to answer my questions about who noticed me or how I looked different. When we walked back to our car after the rally, a couple of rally attendees followed us to our parking spot to get our tag number.
I waved as we drove away.
Rick Outzen is the publisher and editor of the alternative newsweekly, The Independent News, which is based in Pensacola, Florida. His blog, Rick's Blog, has been ranked as one of the most influential political blogs in Florida.