In New York, tea partiers declare, "we are America"

A boisterous crowd of about 2,000 attended the rally, but former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stole the show from all of them.

Published April 16, 2009 3:00PM (EDT)

NEW YORK -- This city has seen plenty of protests, from the massive anti-war demonstrations in the Vietnam era -- and against the Iraq war -- to the riots in Tompkins Square Park. But it's not used to ones that involve well-dressed Republicans talking about smaller government and lower taxes.

Still, a decent-sized crowd gathered Wednesday night for one of the "tea party" demonstrations that was being held around the country, filling the sidewalk and part of the street for about two blocks near City Hall and eventually spilling out to take over part of the sidewalk across the street as well. Organizers claim that the New York Police Department gave them an attendance estimate of 12,500, but a police spokesman told Salon that the NYPD has stopped providing those numbers and didn't have one for the protest. By contrast, the Associated Press estimated that about 2,000 people turned out, and that figure seems accurate to me.

The demonstration was organized by Kellen Giuda, a 26-year-old former architect with only a little bit of political experience -- he'd organized one tea party before this, and spent about a year with a local Republican group. Giuda told Salon he'd first felt inspired to action when he witnessed Rick Santelli's famous rant on CNBC, but that "the last straw was when legislators didn't read the stimulus." At times, while he was on stage, his lack of experience showed -- something he didn't hesitate to admit -- but he had a solid backing group behind him, and one star.

Though the protest had started with a twentysomething neophyte organizing on Facebook, it was ultimately a political veteran who, quite literally, stole the show. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the night's headliner, and he acted the part, more demanding rock star than grassroots protester. As soon as Gingrich arrived at the demonstration fresh from a speech at the New York Republicans' annual dinner, everything was all about him. A scrum formed around Gingrich as he moved towards the stage, and organizers scrambled to rearrange their schedule to accomodate him.

It was obvious from the moment he arrived that the former speaker had something bigger than his speech in mind: A television microphone was clipped to his tie, a wire was in his ear, and he paused a moment before stepping in to the crowd so that a woman could apply pancake makeup to his face. The organizers had juggled around their list of speakers so Gingrich could talk immediately, but once he actually ascended to the stage they had to announce a 90 second delay in the program so he could speak on camera for the opening of Fox News' "Hannity." That short break quickly turned in to 15 minutes, as Gingrich kept his back to the audience so he could speak instead to the network's camera. In the silence, the crowd amused itself, cheering at times, singing a few bars of "America the Beautiful," chanting "Pelosi's gotta go," "Schumer's gotta go" and, finally, "Obama's gotta go." And then, after all that build-up, once he was off camera, Gingrich stepped aside, letting another speaker go to the podium while he removed his earpiece and microphone before finally taking his turn.

It was Sirius radio host Andrew Wilkow who filled the time before Gingrich was ready; it was an appropriate choice, as Wilkow had the most fire of any of the night's speakers. "This city was the backdrop for a book that's coming true: 'Atlas Shrugged,' Wilkow said. "Unfortunately, this city seems to be more influenced by 'The Communist Manifesto.'" That was the most extreme anyone on the stage really got, and for the most part, demonstrators were more restrained in their signs and chants than they were in other cities.

But there was still a good bit of that more radical flavor throughout the crowd. Signs read, "220 years to build a republic under God, one month to destroy U.S.? Hell no!!! God bring a great awakening," "Welcome to the 2nd American Revolution," "Is a pirate president hijacking our govt?" "Ali Obama and the 40 thieves" and "Hussein = Commie." One man -- one of three people picked out of the crowd by organizers to come on stage and speak -- wore a Puerto Rico skullcap and an American flag cape, and carried a sign that read "Socialist Republic of America? (Over my dead body)." The man, who said he worked for the Department of Transportation, was asked to leave his sign behind when he got up to address the crowd.

After the protest, one woman, who heard me say I was with Salon, told me Salon is just a "liberal propaganda outlet" (we report, you decide). She declined to give her name, but did agree to an interview, saying she was a former liberal who'd attended Woodstock and voted for Jesse Jackson, but changed her views when Bill Clinton was elected president. "I came here because it's very important that this fascist in the White House isn't allowed to overtake us," she said. "We see through it, and it ain't going to work, and this fascist communist isn't going to overtake us... Obama hates this country and he hates white people and this is about payback, this is about getting even with white people."

For the most part, though, things were more restrained, as organizers even encouraged the crowd to ensure they left no trash behind (they didn't) and repeated a continuous theme for the evening: "We are America." It's a theme that's challenged by poll results showing high approval ratings for President Obama, and nationwide confidence in the way he's handling the economy, but the speakers fervently believed it. At an after-party -- held at a loft space with views across the Hudson and into New Jersey -- radio host David Webb, Giuda's co-emcee, told me, "I think it's hastily placed trust -- he's only been in office a short time, and people can't prejudge... Frankly, when you look across the country, I question the polls accuracy." He added, "To be fair, it takes time. This is not an overnight thing... The hole is deep."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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