The strongest part of Merced's first homegrown tea party was that it represented the people.
The weakest part was that it didn't represent all the people.
Some 160 folks turned out at an Applegate Park gazebo Thursday evening. Thousands of other tea parties were held across America the same day. American flags-- big and small -- star-spangled caps and signs, signs, everywhere signs, held by Mercedians.
None looked factory-made, the "Astroturf" that the tea party nationwide dismisses as the opposite of "grassroots."
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Our tea party was clearly homegrown. The "organizers" had met just last week in "a janitorial warehouse," Sam Palmer, a coordinator, told the crowd. Sixty-seven people showed up, he said: "We are our own speakers today."
And speak they did.
The charm and effectiveness of the group emerged in the spontaneity and honesty of what they said and how they felt. And how it was received. Nearly every speaker, who raised a hand and was recognized, was interrupted or followed by applause.
Palmer and Sean Nickerson, a truck driver, provided the platform for the people.
Then the people took over.
It could have been Lexington in 1775.
The redcoats were the entrenched political interests, mostly in the administration, but also Rep. Dennis Cardoza.
One sign: "Cardoza=Judas. 25% water (a reference to his vote on how much to release to Valley farmers and ranchers); 30 pieces of silver."
But the organizers made it plain and simple that tea parties don't endorse candidates.
Still, the crowd cheered and clapped when a woman charged that California State University, Stanislaus was under growing pressure not to let Sarah Palin speak, that they should let the university know how they felt. They were gung-ho when Palmer announced that the UC Merced Republicans had succeeded in getting Karl Rove, "Bush's Brain," invited to campus.
Socialism was roundly and soundly denounced by several speakers. Rein in the spending, they said. Top-down government is not acceptable. "We're the United States of America," one man said, 'not the Federal Government of America."
Derek Price, a Golden Valley High School teacher, won cheers when he said, "Individuals know more than bureaucracies." His dad John, a prize-winning design business owner, got the same reaction when he said, "We are a representative republic -- that takes more work than being a democracy."
Another sign: "Farming Is the Real Green Job."
A man in a black shirt said, "I'm not a public speaker -- I'm an American dad." A little later, a woman told him and the crowd, "That's the most important thing -- he's our hope for the future."
The coordinators captured the essence of the movement when they said that if they had $10,000, they wouldn't know what to do with it -- except put it in a bank. "We might rent a hall," Palmer allowed.
Education was the watchword. Educate yourselves about the issues and the candidates, especially local ones. A man in a black biker sweatshirt, his two children standing next to him, called the November election "the most important of my lifetime."
A man on a bicycle said they should hold a gun to the head of politicians. Palmer and Nickerson quickly responded that violence was not the way. "We have a gun," Palmer said. "It's called V-O-T-E."
Then came the ugly side of the tea party, the "You lie!" self-defeating rhetoric. It was articulated only by one woman, who accused a reporter that the "gun" quote would be the only one used in a Sun-Star story, more correctly, this column. This was the same woman who gave the reporter the head count of 160 earlier, a total that matched his own, and he had agreed with her.
Obviously, any group of 160 people engaged in political action will contain hotheads and simpletons. It's a credit to our tea party that several people, after the meeting broke up after 75 minutes, told the reporter to disregard her comment.
What's impossible to disregard, though, is that Hispanics. Asians and blacks were conspicuous by their absence.
This column twice in the past year has supported the sincerity of the tea party movement (www.mercedsunstar.com/2010/03/13/1348199/mike-tharp-many-worry-where-were.html and www.mercedsunstar.com/2009/04/18/797942/mike-tharp-normal-folks-who-are.html).
But to become more than an echo chamber preaching to a Caucasian choir, the tea-partiers must reach out across color lines.
The truth is that their goals -- smaller government, bottom-up representation, curbs on runaway spending -- even illegal immigration -- are supported in poll after poll by people of color not among those standing around the gazebo.
Those Americans -- and Mercedians-- live in the same economic class as most of the folks at the Merced Tea Party.
It's class, not race, that counts today.
Our tea-partiers didn't come across at all as racists, or any other kind of extremist (except for the bicycle guy and the female media hater). They came across as people worried about the direction of our country; how our money is spent, or misspent; how their electeds give them a voice, or don't.
They need to make common cause and build bridges with conservatives -- in the literal sense of that word, conserving our values, heritage and treasure -- who happen to be a different color from them.
If they do, there's a chance for a powerful grassroots movement to throw out the rascals -- the corporacracy that Democrats and Republicans have become.
If they don't, they'll fail. The ethnic numbers are against them, especially in California, especially in Merced County, which is 55 percent Hispanic.
A tall man with a white gunslinger mustache talked the longest Thursday. The most important point he made: "I don't care if you're black, white, what country you come from -- it's about principles!" He got an ovation.
That's the talk.
Now the tea-partiers have to walk the walk.
Just 50 yards away from the gazebo, in another part of the park, three dozen or so Hmong men were playing cards at several tables. Some were also playing top-spin, an ancient Indochinese game that involves throwing a top attached to a string.
They play there every evening it's not raining. Rocky Vue, a Hmong sales employee, spoke after the Merced Tea Party broke up and participants had walked to M Street to stand and wave their flags and signs as the sun went down.
Six men form a top-spin team. "We need more whites and Mexicans," Rocky said, "more black Americans." The Hmong teams want to compete statewide. "Hmong people can't throw that far," Rocky said. "We need more help."
Politics as top-spin.
The tea party needs to represent all the people.
Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or firstname.lastname@example.org.