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The Tea Party Express Comes to Grand Rapids

April 11, 2010

On Saturday, about 1,000 people gathered at Riverside Park in Grand Rapids to greet the Tea Party Express, a touring group of people who are part of the national movement that has surfaced since the beginning of the health care debate.

The West Michigan chapter of the Tea Party organized the rally where a series of speakers addressed the crowd before the Tea Party Express buses arrived.

Many of the speakers addressed themes like gun rights, Patriotism, supporting US troops, the Constitution and religion. None of the Tea Party members spoke for very long, but many of them expressed their displeasure with the US government, from President Obama to members of Congress. In fact, most speakers were clear that they were not happy with politicians from either party.

However, once members of the local Tea Party chapter had spoken, a whole litany of candidates took turns at the podium and all of them were running as Republicans. Gubernatorial candidates Mike Cox and Mike Bouchard were there. Both spoke about the importance of protecting the constitutional right to have guns and Bouchard even had a pistol on his hip. Pete Hoekstra was not in attendance, but his people were there handing out campaign literature.

Candidates for other State and federal seats also addressed the crowd. One candidate, Bob Overbeek, said he was limiting the amount of money he would receive from people to $1 per person and stated “we have to stop letting the wealthy determine who gets elected.” Overbeek even said, “if you want the Amway/Alticor twins in office then vote for them, but I am not for sale.” However, when looking at Overbeek’s platform he seems to embrace the same policies that most on the right, minus the campaign finance issue.

Eventually, three buses arrived with members of the Tea Party Express, the traveling group of people who are touring the country in order to give local chapters some support, but also to spread their message.

This part of the rally was like a patriotic road show, with singers, comedians and right wing media personality like Mark Williams. Not much substance was presented by those on tour, but the performers did get the crowd fired up with slogans and sound-bites.

The rally also consisted of vendors with buttons, t-shirts, books, CDs, DVDs and other items to promote the principles of the Tea Party. Many of the buttons and t-shirts were words and images critical of President Obama, with many of them claiming the administration to be socialist.

There were also tables for people to oppose the health care legislation, candidates wanting to get their name on the ballot and another table with people claiming to be the “political arm of the Tea Party.” We spoke with people from this table for several minutes and they told us that their role was to vet candidates for the Tea Party. We were told that there are 80 questions candidates must answer before they will endorse anyone, but those questions were not found on the group’s website. The website does say that they do not endorse Third Party candidates, so it seems clear that they are working within the confines of the Republican Party.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. smash the tea party permalink
    April 11, 2010 11:35 pm

    I really think that the tea party needs to be greeted like racist groups are in towns, and that is driven out. They are essentially the same thing. but with older , less overt tones. People want to marginalize their influence, but I think it’s pretty clear they have struck a chord with americans.

  2. Jeff Smith permalink*
    April 12, 2010 12:05 am

    I certinly have read plenty of analysis of the racist elements in the Tea Party movement, but I was hard pressed to hear much of it or see signs that reflected some of the blatant racism they have demonstrated in other towns. I listened to 2 and 1/2 hours of their speakers and the only comment that could have been considered racist was when one guy, claiming to be a history professor, said that Palestinians were not Arabs.

    I don’t disagree that the Tea Party should be confronted when they come to town, but I am not aware of anyone in GR who was calling for such an action.

  3. Y.B.Ordinary permalink
    April 12, 2010 2:27 am

    Jeff, did you see any guns in the group? I would love to confront these dupes, but while I’m not particularly afraid of being shot, I know many people who would just prefer to stay as far away as possible. I just wonder how they keep falling for the same old NRA propaganda; can’t they see that no one is having their guns taken away? Oh, yeah, I forgot, some liars (like Newt Gingrich) keep saying that Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did take people’s guns away. Still, it seems they might remember the truth.

  4. Jeff Smith permalink*
    April 12, 2010 12:12 pm

    The only gun I saw was on the person of candidate Mike Bouchard. There may have been more people with guns there, but it was a big crowd and I was mostly on the perimeter where the info tables were.

  5. Kate Wheeler permalink
    April 12, 2010 3:31 pm

    I was shocked to read in this report that Mike Bouchard wore a gun while speaking. The Grand Rapids Press report (which was extensive and enthusiastic, with lots of photos on the mlive site) did not mention that detail, nor many of the others in this GRIID report. Thank you for giving us an objective observation of the event.

    As for racism, it does sound to me that it was present, although obviously less overt than in many of these rallies. For example, the Press reported that one speaker, John Benzie, told the crowd: “I’m concerned about Obama’s misleading our country. He goes to all the foreign nations and apologizes for America while he bows to all the foreign leaders.”

    There’s a certain implication of subservience in that statement that seems to me to be racist-based. It sounds a lot like the post-Civil War Whites who were afraid that the freed slaves, who supposedly still required a “master,” were going to kowtow to foreign powers because of their hatred of America and what had been done to them there.

    The buttons you took a photo of also looked to me to have some racist overtones, such as the one about “Somewhere in Kenya, a village is missing its idiot.” This ties in with the insistence of so many Tea Party advocates that Obama is actually African, not American-born, and that feels rooted in racism, as is the insistence that he’s Muslim, since these people automatically perceive either African or Muslim as somehow inferior to American and Christian.

    Were there any protesters in the crowd? (I mean people protesting the Tea Party ideas). I know that protesters have been beaten up or threatened at other rallies.

    Thanks again for attending and observing. This is a great report.

  6. Kate Wheeler permalink
    April 12, 2010 3:33 pm

    Sorry, the name of the one speaker I quoted was John Benzer, not Benzie.

  7. Jeff Smith permalink*
    April 12, 2010 3:45 pm

    Kate, thanks for the comments and I agree that there were certainly racists elements present in the Tea Party Rally, just nothing verbalized from the speakers, unless you consider anything critical of Obama as racist, which I do not. Comments directed at Obama can be racist, but I don’t think all criticism of him or his admnistration is racist.

    I did not see any evidence of people protesting the event, but there were certainly a few other “observers” there.

    What I find lacking in the commercial news coverage is that they did not looks into the electoral angle of this event, particularly, since they did not discuss the candidate vetting process that the Tea Party folks have set up.

  8. Kate Wheeler permalink
    April 12, 2010 4:04 pm

    Jeff, I also feel that the Tea Party is being cagey in the way that they vet and support candidates. I’d really like to see their 80 questions.

    I agree with you, too, that many criticism of Obama–such as his continuation of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; his rejection of his own promise for universal health care; his bailouts of the financial sector; and other choices he’s made so far in office–have nothing to do with the color of his skin and are perfectly justified as far as I’m concerned. I’m just feeling that the line from that one speech I cited sounded racist to me, or at least racist-rooted. It does sound from your report that there was much less overt racism here than at other rallies, and between your report and the Press’s, John Benzer’s comment and the one about the Palestinians were the only ones that struck me as having any racial overtones.

  9. deb ris permalink
    April 12, 2010 8:25 pm

    Some thoughts on this blog post:

    1. Much of the rally consisted of an open mic soap box where anyone in the audience could speak. It was during this time that overtly racist statements were made (for example what was discussed above about Arabs or someone saying “I’m an unhyphenated American.” This observation certainly shouldn’t be used to minimize racism of the Tea Party elsewhere, but it is a critical observation. Any wingnut could and did speak. The racism didn’t come from the organizers–rather it came the “rank-and-file” of the movement. The organizers seemed quite interested in channeling the anger of the folks there into electoral action.

    2. Members of the U.S. Taxpayers Party–which has an anti-immigrant plank in its platform–was in attendance. It also has various connections to the racist right, all of which can be found on the Internet. However, they seemed to be on the fringes of the Tea Party. Still, it is an example of how the Tea Parties can be dangerous as organized racists can use them as vehicles to reach larger audiences than they can typically reach.

    3. I think where the racism of the Tea Party (at least locally) exists is in their support for the status quo. Healthcare reform and other social services are opposed because they are alleged to be an attack on capitalism. However, the system of capitalism is in itself a white supremacist system. Whether it as slave labor in the past (and in some cases the present) or immigration now (including under proposed “guest worker programs”), white supremacy is key to understanding the economic system in the United States. All the talk of traditional values and restoring the country means preserving the white supremacist status quo.

    4. I think the Tea Party needs to be confronted. It is pretty clear that “progressives” (for whatever that term means) have no interest as they either want to write the whole Tea Party movement off as being fringe lunatics or simply want to sit back now that they have “won” with Obama in office. Similarly, the more radical elements of the left (such as those who wrote a call to disrupt the Tea Parties that was published on Infoshop News) want to treat the Tea Party as the same as the Ku Klux Klan or other racists. I think both strategies fall short and that what is actually needed is for folks to work to organize a broad movement within the U.S. from an anti-authoritarian perspective that makes anti-racism a key part of its analysis. All too often “the left,” whether they be “progressives,” “radicals,” or “democrats” want to skip over the hard work of doing actual organizing. It’s easy to crash a Tea Party, it’s harder to organize to crash the system.

  10. stelle permalink
    April 12, 2010 9:22 pm

    Any thoughts on how the Republicans co-opting of the Tea Party movement parallels the Democrats and Move On? It seems in both instances, the capitalist parties have turned the energy of the movements into an electoral response, and therefore, ineffective.

    Any ideas on how progressives working for change might find common ground with the tea baggers? I wonder how much of the racist and anti-immigration sentiment is being whipped up as a means to keep people working against each other rather than together for real democracy.

    And as far as the healthcare issue, the current plan proposed is mandatory health insurance–not universal healthcare.

  11. Nancy Jo Wilson permalink
    April 13, 2010 4:55 pm

    I attended the Tea Party Rally at Riverside Park to be a part of a group that is bringing attention to things happening in Washington I disagree with. I wanted my voice to be heard.I disagree with the amount of spending, debt and the way the health care bill was passed.

    I am very, very offended by those who keep insisting that this is a racist group. Me and my friends are not racists and I do not appreciate these false accusations. Questioning the government, president and congress is not a racist act. It is the responsibility of citizens to be involved in what is happening around them and to them. It is my government too, and I have an opinion.

    I like that one of the speakers said he was not a hyphenated American. This is the type of inclusiveness I value. We are all Americans and a constant reference to race or ethnic identity just divides us. Choosing “race” on forms now is obsolete. With inter racial-marriages and diverse communities, I think we have made great progress in viewing each other as people, not white people or black people etc…

    If a rally were held and the crowd was mostly African American, would any of these writers be blogging that this rally was racists against white people? I doubt it. As for some of the speakers being Republicans, so be it. The Democrats missed a great opportunity to address a group of very independent voters and share their point of view. I know many of those at the rally were Democrats or Independents like me.

    Remember, 42% of Americans did not vote for President Obama or the policies he presented. There is more than one opinion about government and all views need to be heard and respected.

  12. Nancy Jo Wilson permalink
    April 13, 2010 5:20 pm

    I find your comments inaccurate, demeaning and not helpful to discussions about important issues that we face in the United States. Using words like “racist”, “wingnut”, “organized racists”, “slavery”, “capitalism is a white supremacy system”, shows me you have little understanding of what the Tea Party is all about. This type of disrespect is appalling. Enough of bashing decent people, like me, who are trying to be involved in a political system that is making decisions that effect every aspect of our lives.

    Also, Tea Party activists are not racists and would never allow any racists group to influence them. You forget there are also African Americans who are part of the Tea Party movement. Have you ever heard of J.C. Watts, Timothy Johnson of the Frederick Douglas Foundation, Angela McGlowan? There are many minority conservatives who support the Tea Party movement.

  13. Nancy Jo Wilson permalink
    April 13, 2010 5:28 pm

    Worrying about being shot at a Tea Party rally?? How ridiculous! How insulting to those who were there.

  14. Sammy permalink
    April 13, 2010 5:45 pm

    It seems that you don’t understand the intent behind the comment above. While the use of “wingnut” was not a terribly helpful term to use, the comment never called the Tea Party “racists.” In fact, it was challenging those that do.

    That said, during the soap box portion of the rally anyone could say just about anything. There were plenty of falsehoods coming from the stage, including the lie that Obama wants to make the United States a “socialist” country (it is pretty clear to anyone who takes the time to think about it that Obama is firmly in the capitalist camp) and other conspiracy theories such as the fact that a recent United Nations decision paves the way for the government to take guns from U.S. citizens. In addition, at least two comments were made that were very racist in nature.

  15. Sammy permalink
    April 13, 2010 6:00 pm

    I don’t see that many parallels between MoveOn and the Tea Party beyond the fact that both have their origins in the party apparatuses (i.e. think tanks, consulting groups, etc) of their respective parties. If anything, I think the Tea Party is more developed (with their own convention, relatively independent local groups, and occasional talk within its ranks of a third party). MoveOn has always been firmly in the camp of the Democratic Party establishment. Whether or not the independence of the Tea Party is sincere, there is probably more of an independent spirit there than there ever was with MoveOn.

    Race has always used to set people in the United States against each other, but I don’t think it is a question of “progressives” finding common ground with the Tea Party in order to develop “real democracy.” “Progressive” politics brought us Obama. It’s long past time to move beyond that. I think the answer is in anti-authoritarian organizing outside of the traditional leftist bubble.

  16. Kate Wheeler permalink
    April 13, 2010 6:57 pm

    Nancy, I’m completely willing to believe that you and your friends are not racists, and that there are Tea Party members who are not. But you can’t make sweeping generalizations about the Tea Party just based on your own political views or feelings.

    A CNN poll estimated that the Tea Party membership is 80 percent White. But a more recent Quinnipac poll found that White membership was 88 percent of the makeup. That leaves only 12 to 20 percent for all other races to be represented.

    The Quinnipac poll found that 74% of the Tea Party membership was Republican, with the majority of those stating that they were conservative Republicans (whatever that means).

    Even though there appears to have been little overt racism at the Grand Rapids Tea Party rally, there has been plenty at other rallies and events. It was Tea Party members who spit on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and shouted out racial epithets outside the Capitol building, remember? And at Tea Party Express rallies just in March and April in the Southwest and Midwest, there were the following signs: “Obama’s Plan: White Slavery”; “The American taxpayers are Jews for Obama’s ovens”; “Hussein Obama is giving our tax dollars to Hamas to kill Christians and Americans”; “Obama is a Nigger Baby Killer”; “Barack Hussein Obama: The New Face of Hitler”; a picture of Obama as a Black caricature from the 1930s slitting Uncle Sam’s throat; “Barack Obama supports abortion, sodomy, and socialism”; “Congress = Slave Owner Taxpayers = Niggar” (I don’t even understand that one); “Stand Idle While Some Kenyan Tries to Destroy America? I Don’t Think So! Homey Don’t Play Dat!” “Obama Go Home! WE are a Christian Nation, Towelhead!”

    However you try to spin that, Nancy, that’s a whole heck of a lot of racism for two months’ worth of rallies. That’s why it was a concern for bloggers on this site who weren’t able to attend the rally in Grand Rapids to find out from an objective observer if it showed up here. As Jeff Smith reported, there was little to nothing overt. That doesn’t mean that the Tea Party as a whole is exonerated–far from it, in my opinion.

    It’s also a concern to me how much violence is portrayed at many of these rallies. In Arizona, two people protesting Tea Party ideas were beaten up, and Sarah Palin’s casual comment was that they shouldn’t have been there if they didn’t agree with her and the Tea Party members. In other words, “They had it coming.” Signs like, “Just do exactly what we want and no one will get hurt” and “Next time, we’re bringing guns” are standard features of this rally. The fact that a gubernatorial candidate showed up flaunting a firearm here in Grand Rapids is highly disturbing to me. And at an Express rally in Minnesota, a friend of mine watched Michelle Bachmann say to the people in the crowd who were *waving pistols and rifles in the air to show her*, “This is how I like to see Americans right now–armed and dangerous.” The crowd cheered wildly.

    So, although I am in agreement with many of the political issues that anger Tea Party members, I could never ally myself with a group like this.

    Stelle, the idea of common ground is one I’ve thought of often, too, but frankly there is just too much disturbing garbage going on at these rallies and in postings I’ve read by Tea Party advocates for me to think that there’s any real shared voice or vision to be found with the group at large. I’m deeply unhappy with Obama; I believe that both established parties are enmeshed in the capitalist system and it shows in the recent health care “reform” and its huge bailout gift to the insurance and pharm industries; I believe that we need to find common ground with as many people as we can in order to, as you say, bring about real democracy. But not this group, not this way.

  17. Nancy Wilson permalink
    April 14, 2010 5:00 pm

    If you are getting your information from CNN then it explains your biased view of the Tea Party movement and conservatives in general. You are only hearing half the story. CNN and MSNBC find the nuttiest person in the crowd, interview them and then say all of the participants are like this person.

    I think you should fact check all of those signs you said were at the rallies. I have been following the news reported at the rallies and have not seen anything like you are saying.

    As for violence being supported, remember President Obama is close friends with William Ayers, who was part of the Weather Underground. They actually did blow up buildings and kill people.

    People being angry does not mean they are violent. You seem angry with capitalism and President Obama, but I doubt you would act out in a violent way.

    Mike Bouchard was the sheriff of Oakland County for over 10 years. I am sure he has a permit for his firearm. Many former law enforcement folks continue to carry weapons after they enter private life. He enforced the law. His carrying a gun does not make him a violent man. Without people like him enforcing the law and watching out for us, it would be a dangerous place to live.

    I recently watched on the news a reporter who showed up at an immigration rally. He was covering the rally with a cameraman. People surrounded him and blew whistles in his face for a long time until the police stopped them. I have been called a racist, hater, bigot etc… just because I say I am a conservative. There are always nut cases on both sides, but you are still characterizing conservatives and Tea Party participants in a nasty way. Tea Party folks are trying to have a say in how their lives are run by the government that is supposed to represent them. They are none of the things you are calling them.

    I stand by what I have said so far. You are dead wrong and I hope you will watch some more conservative news outlets and get a balanced view of the situation.

    I also like Sarah Palin. I have been a fan of hers since I watched a special on tv about how she handled corruption in Alaska and put several lawmakers in jail. If she were a Democrat, you would admire that, but since she is not, she is is trashed in a horrible way.

    Also, I don’t own a gun now, but I am considering purchasing one.

  18. Kate Wheeler permalink
    April 14, 2010 5:38 pm

    Nancy, I have nothing I want to say to most of your post, but I do want to tell you that every sign I quoted was from a photograph of that sign. You can find some of them online at various sites covering Tea Party events, or even through Google Image search. Some others were taken by my friend at that rally in Minnesota with Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin.

  19. Brett permalink
    April 15, 2010 5:01 am

    Kate, I did a little Google-ing myself about political signs. And by gosh there were some that made me ashamed to be American. Signs like ‘Save Mother Earth, Kill Bush’, ‘Stop Bussh (s’ in the form of the Nazi SS) Terroism’, ‘Osama Bin Bush is in the White House’, oh and I like this one ‘I’m here to kill Bush’. It was on Google Image search, look them up.

    Then you say ‘I was shocked to read in this report that Mike Bouchard wore a gun while speaking.’ and later while responding to Nancy you say ‘The fact that a gubernatorial candidate showed up flaunting a firearm here in Grand Rapids is highly disturbing to me.’ I don’t remember you mentioning that you were at the rally so I doubt that you saw him FLAUNTING a firearm. My father and many people I know are active and retired law enforcement professionals, as is Mr. Bouchard, and yes they do carry a firearm – legally! They have been trained and would not FLAUNT a firearm at a rally.

    Of course one of my favorite quotes of yours ‘But you can’t make sweeping generalizations about the Tea Party just based on your own political views or feelings.’ I would have to say my dear lady that is what you are doing also.

    A very close friend was at the rally and ‘soapboxed’, stating he is not a racist, he is not a bigot, he is an American! Are you? I am not a racist, I am an American, one of the Silent Majority that when we get an opportunity to speak, we speak a truth that a lot of people don’t like or are scared of. There will come a time when one voice doesn’t speak for all.

    Do you get upset when you go into a department store and have to take a product off the shelf to look for the English description? Do you get upset when you are standing in line somewhere or walking down the street and people around you are talking a foreign language?
    Do you get upset when you see someone that is able to work, but won’t get a job because they are getting paid by the government to do nothing.

    That is not being racist or a bigot, it is American. We live in America, they live in America, why do the majority have to cower down to the minority (again not racist, just number based)? If you moved to China or Mexico, would you stand and demand that products be labeled in English? Would you demand that they carry English television channels? (oh, that all subscribers would pay for)

    Yes America is the melting pot of many nationalities, however, does America as a whole have to change to one of the nationalities to make them feel at home? Why did they leave then?

    Nancy, I applaud you and others who stand for what is right, a Government of the People by the People was a dream of our founding fathers. Some day I hope it will happen.

  20. Kate Wheeler permalink
    April 15, 2010 4:51 pm

    Thank you, Brett and Nancy, for giving other readers of this site a good synopsis of the thoughts of Tea Party members.

  21. Nancy Wilson permalink
    April 15, 2010 11:52 pm

    I agree with Brett. I watched for 8 years as President Bush was called every name in the book. Someone even did a movie about killing him. There was also a movie about him that was very critical and made fun of him. I think all criticism of President Obama should deal with his policy decisions, not his personality.

    I think it is important to respect different points of view as long as the comments do not get personal or insulting. Calling Tea Party activists racists is way over the top. That is not what the movement is about. Criticizing the President is not a racist act. Every president gets criticized for policy decisions. It is also not a negative to be associated with the Republican party. They are the party that fought to end slavery and it was bipartisan support that passed the Civil Rights Bill. It is also not a negative to be white. White people were born that way. Remember, President Obama is as much a white person as he is a black person. He is not the first “black” president. He is the first biracial president. He is also a person who happens to be the president of the United States.

  22. Brett permalink
    April 17, 2010 4:16 am

    And thank you Kate for reminding me and others that with a closed mind, nothing is possible.


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