Tea Partiers Mix Messages at D.C. Tax-Day Rally

The Tea Party Express arrived in Washington and other major cities Thursday to protest taxes, government spending, and burgeoning deficits. Activists took to the streets around Capitol Hill with their signs and costumes to tell Congress and the Obama administration that they weren't going to take it anymore. The tea party has a message to send to elected officials in Washington. It's just a little contradictory at times.

A recent New York Times/CBS News pollfound that tea-party supporters are disproportionately older, richer, better-educated, white males. The poll also revealed that most tea partiers felt their tax rate for this year was "fair," but at rallies across the country yesterday, activists called for tax cuts. At the rally in Washington, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said the country was "overtaxed" and warned that the government was "coming to get more." Tea partiers may want less spending and smaller government, but those who are older don't want to give up Social Security or Medicare—the NYT poll revealed that 62 percent think Social Security and Medicare are worth the taxpayers' money.

They don't want to promote violence, but they use bellicose language and metaphors. Speakers at the tax-day rally weren't hesitant to yell vitriolic rhetoric into microphones, calling their compatriots an "army" and telling them to "unite, fight, and battle." Speakers often referred to the tea party as troops fighting a war. One speaker, demanding that tea partiers boycott companies like General Electric for supporting cap-and-trade climate legislation, told the crowd to get a "corporate scalp." The tone wasn't always peaceful protest, even though the activities were peaceful.

After an anti-tea-party group, Crash the Tea Party, urged people to go to the rallies in offensive costumes and carry racist signs to make the tea party look bad, organizers told people to alert police if they saw such people and messages. FreedomWorks, one of the lead organizations in the tea-party movement, asked supporters to take pictures of people behaving badly. Yet potentially offensive messages were still prevalent at the rally. One attendee wore a shirt that said, "Stop comparing Obama to Hitler. Hitler actually GOT the Olympics for Berlin." Others held signs depicting Obama as the Joker or waved flags that had images of Obama next to Hitler and Stalin with the word "Socialist."

Nonetheless, most protesters were there to decry big government and rising debt. They listened to "We're Not Gonna Take It," "God Bless the USA," and "Get Up, Stand Up." (Bob Marley was unfortunately unavailable for comment on having his protest song co-opted by the tea-party movement.) They cheered loudest after the "Star-Spangled Banner" and chanted "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" A few sported McCain campaign signs; many more toted bright yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags. Overall, it was a mix of messages: signs variously protested a value-added tax, earmarks, and illegal immigration, and others called for term limits.

The group appeared to be mostly white and over 50, with few young people but a lot of families. A few vendors set up shop selling tea-party gear and "Impeach Obama" stickers. One group protested for the coal industry, which has attacked Congress and the Obama administration for starting a "war on coal."

As the midterm elections begin to heat up, it remains to be seen whether tea-party activists can actually "make them pay" as promised, or whether they'll go down in history as yet another group unable to make outrage translate into votes.