Palmer, MA Bill Gunn, the leader of the Western Massachusetts 912project.org and Tea Party protestors at my presentations at Springfield College and UMass at Amherst, had written me an email and invited (challenged?) me to be interviewed by him and some of his friends at the local cable access station for Comcast in the Palmer and Wilbraham areas not far east of Springfield. I had told him that “sure,” if we can schedule it, I would be glad to create a dialogue between us. Billy had also been the primary disrupter who had jumped up as I had walked to the lectern, so although we had never been formally introduced, we certainly knew a little about each other. Regardless, I found myself at 4 PM navigating the directions to the studio in this faded old railroad depot town not far off the Mass Pike.
Bill had a co-host named Dave, who had been one of my interlocutors at Springfield College as well, who heads up something I believe he called the Liberty Party. There were a couple of guests in the studio who were also veterans of their Springfield College affair, so we were all fast friends, and so we began.
Before the cameras rolled during the pleasantries (Bill had done internet work and couldn’t find all of the ideological baggage he had heard was on my train once he took a good look for example), I told my Tea buddies that I couldn’t grasp one of their tactics at all. The profs and the police had told me that two of their fellows had stripped down to their skivvies in the protest. The Springfield College police chief had declined to arrest them as long as they “didn’t go farther than that,” but I didn’t understand what point they were trying to make. This led to quite a lot of head scratching and laughter, because it turned out these two guys weren’t with them either, nor were they with the pro-Wade people, but were obviously two fellas working on their own in the excitement with the cameras going. How funning is that?
An hour’s worth of conversation sped by, and I’ll spare you the details, but the broad strokes were an exploration of common ground, tactical expression, and, interestingly, the Constitution with even Ben Franklin getting into the mix, so definitely not a boring hour.
From the beginning Dave made the point that the base of both the Tea Party and my former employer, ACORN, were working people, so he was curious about the common grounds from the beginning. It was not surprising to me, though I kidded the Tea guys about whether they were uncomfortable finding out that we were in agreement on many things: a feeling that the government was unresponsive, a criticism of globalism and the export of good jobs, an understanding of the need to protest, and even disaffection with the current party landscape.
The hardest disagreements were around the issue of rights versus privileges and whether in my view, rights created entitlements or vested interests. Fascinatingly to me, it turned out in our discussion that the real gulf here came from our very different reckonings about the relationship of government to the governed. I argued that in the USA, citizens “owned” the government and it was the government’s task in a democracy to implement the will of the people, therefore if our elected “citizen” representatives passed a law, and we didn’t change it, then such laws created rights and even interests or entitlements within the terms of such statutes and regulations. My job as an organizer for more than 40 years had been to make the rights real and create reality on the ground out of the that political philosophy in the air.
My Tea Party friends saw government as an “other,” so kind of foreign and separate force unmoored from the citizens or “grassroots,” as they felt. Government from that angle was intrusive in their mind. My “rights” were privileges or favors of sorts that they as citizens were getting or had been forced by circumstances to receive and therefore felt poorly about. I could follow this completely. Their sense of powerlessness (which we shared if we had talked longer) had been converted into an alienation from government and an isolation from it, where in my case and my work it had triggered an outrage and a program to try and force government to be more accountable.
In many ways it should not have been surprising so all of could find common ground because this sense of populism is deep among the American people. Unfortunately, the Glenn Becks and many others can take that anger and alienation to some scary places. After the cameras were over, I asked them about their literature and they were forthright in agreeing with me that they didn’t write these haterator spiels. I pointed out in the area of “free advice” how much stronger their program would be if they wrote their own stuff from their own hearts and heads in communicating with people, because this stuff just made it harder for people to have a clue about their issues and ideas.
We shook heads and I walked into the dark parking lot off North Main in Palmer and drove into what was now night.