The Tea Party's Rank Amateurism

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We had an interesting conversation yesterday in comments about this video. GOP folks and Tea Partiers are increasingly peeved that their movement is being depicted in the media as filled with angry crazies on the verge of violence. As someone who's studied protest, and demonstrated a couple of times myself, I think part of the problem is quality control.

I date back to the Million Man March, when there was great concern that the hordes of black men descending on Washington might break out into a riot. Farrakhan was at the height of his power and the March was a product of the black nationalist wing of the community, not the "safe" civil rights wing. Indeed, several civil rights leaders, at the time, denounced the March.

I was a student at Howard at the time, and like all the other prospective Marchers, I read the papers and was well-versed in notion of not embarrassing your people in front of white folks. The last thing any of us wanted to do was to march down to the Mall and have the next day's headline read, "Niggers Can't Even March Without Fighting." In the months leading up to the March, organizers toured the country speaking to black men in the community and pushing the essential conservative aspects of the March. 
The theme was atonement--even as we recognized the wickedness of racism, we were going to the Mall to take ownership of our sins, to denounce black on black crime, to denounce absentee fatherhood, and recommit ourselves to the traditional cult of maledom. The concept of violence, or even boisterous anger, was counter to the March's goals, and so while there was much surprise at how solemn the event came off, if you'd been watching from the start, it would have made sense. I think had someone done something to embarrass us, there really would have been hell to pay. We thought that media was looking for trouble, but we also thought it was within our power not to give it to them.

I think we got some of that sense from the Civil Rights movement's choreography. These guys were the masters of protest as propaganda. The Montgomery bus boycott was a strategy and Rosa Parks was not some witless old lady, but a civil rights worker who'd been trained to accord herself a certain way. When Martin Luther King would be arrested he dressed a certain way, he seemed to try to convey to the cameras a kind of solemn restraint. The marches themselves were choreographed, and the strategy of nonviolence was drilled into anyone who'd protest.

I hear GOP folks and Tea Partiers bemoaning the fact that media and Democrats are using the extremes of their movement for ratings and to score points. This is like Drew Brees complaining that Dwight Freeney keeps trying to sack him. If that were Martin Luther King's response to media coverage, the South might still be segregated. I exaggerate, but my point is that the whining reflects a basic misunderstanding of the rules of protest. When you lead a protest you lead it, you own it, and your opponents, and the media, will hold you responsible for whatever happens in the course of that protest. This isn't left-wing bias, it's the nature of the threat.

There is of course a deeper question about the limits of strategy. It's possible that if the Tea Partiers cleaned up their ranks--purged the birthers, publicly rebuked people like this guy, banned Hitler signs, loudly rejected any instances of racism--that they simply wouldn't have much of a movement left. Martin Luther King was trying to lead a black community that was demonstrably patriotic, and had, in the main, rejected political violence as a strategy. He could afford to be picky. In the case of the Tea Parties, it's possible that once you subtract the jackasses, you just don't have enough energy left.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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