Is The Tea Party Racism Going Too Far?

September 14, 2009 CNN - Campbell Brown BROWN: This was the scene in Washington over the weekend, tens of thousands of activists venting their rage a

September 14, 2009 CNN - Campbell Brown

BROWN: This was the scene in Washington over the weekend, tens of thousands of activists venting their rage against President Obama, the man they have anointed public enemy number one. Yes, after a raucous summer, the tea party movement shows no sign of losing steam.

Last week alone, angry rallies across the country culminating in Saturday's pilgrimage you're watching there to the capital.

CNN's Jim Spellman has been tracking the movement. And here's just a little bit of what he has heard. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: An everyday tea-partier is an American citizen that's frustrated with the direction the country is going.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are truly concerned about the heartbeat of our country. They're taking our liberties away. It's tyranny. It's a gestapo-type tactic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're too much involvement in the government. We can take care of ourself.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't vote for him. But I didn't necessarily have anything against what he was saying. He gets into office and it's like all the things that I was kind of afraid of really happened.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They can have my country when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I think their agenda is to slowly but surely take away everything that we have worked for and everything the Constitution stands for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kill the bill! Kill the bill! Kill the bill!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Free the bill! Free the bill!

(SHOUTING)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All the czars that he picked are all either communists or socialists.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I really don't want to be a guinea pig for the experiment they have with the population control.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's going after our kids, and trying to indoctrinate them into a national defense army. And we're not going to let him do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're kind of the ultimate check and balance, I suppose.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't want a revolution. I don't want a civil war. I would hate for that to happen, but it is a possibility. It's there as an option, as a last resort, should our government turn on its own people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Pretty strong stuff, but, hey, this is America. Politics not for the fainthearted. We are all about free speech.

Still, what does it say about our ability to engage in civil discourse? I want you to check out this protester. See the sign he's waving there? hat's the president made to look like an African witch doctor, pretty ugly racist image. That was a popular prop at Saturday's rally.

So, is this the work of a few fringe cranks here or does it tell us something truly troubling is brewing in this country? Can we debate issues anymore without devolving into sort of this vile smear attack?

Joining me now, Joe Wierzbicki, who is coordinator of the Tea Party Express, and also NPR John Ridley with us as well, and Daily Beast contributor John Avlon joining us with us also.

Joe, let me start with you. And, first off, I'm going to put up that picture again of President Obama. This is, again, decked out as the witch doctor. What do you make of it? What does it say to you? JOE WIERZBICKI, COORDINATOR, TEA PARTY EXPRESS: It says to me that a lot of people in this country are angry about the direction that the administration and Congress are taking us.

And you're going to see a wide expanse of those people. Some are going to be more extreme. Most of them are going to be in the mainstream of American politics, as evidenced by Obama's falling poll numbers.

BROWN: But talk to me about the image. Is that the right way -- or, I don't know, the most effective way to express yourself? Does that image bother you at all?

(CROSSTALK)

WIERZBICKI: Campbell, if you're going to represent the hundreds of thousands of people that have participated in the tea party protests that we have had across the country, then I would suggest to you that it's no different from the fact that there are some people watching CNN right now who have radical or fringe benefits. They're bad apples of the lot, but to define the entire movement by that is totally unfair.

BROWN: I'm not -- so, in your view -- I'm trying to clarify, Joe. I'm not trying to define the movement in any one way. I don't think you can do that.

WIERZBICKI: But you're...

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: Is that in your view the people carrying -- clarify for me. You tell me. The people carrying those signs of the president of the United States as an African witch doctor, is that how you define the movement or is that the fringe element in this movement? You tell me.

(CROSSTALK)

WIERZBICKI: That is not representative at all of what this movement is about. And that's what my point of contention is.

By showing that as indicative of what the tea party movement is about is misleading. As I said, when you look at polls that show 40 percent to 50 percent of the American people having opposition to Obama's and the Congress' economic policies, I think that speaks volumes about the size and expanse of this movement and the discontent.

And does that represent people who believe that Obama's a witch doctor? No, of course not, totally not representative.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But, Campbell...

BROWN: So, what do you say -- hold on. What do you say then, Joe, to people you see carrying a sign like that? Do you say, put it down, it's not helping the cause here?

WIERZBICKI: Sure.

And you also say what Ronald Reagan said, which is people who choose to embrace your message or your movement are not the people that you embrace. They have chosen to embrace you. And that is not representative of what we want the American people to view the tea party movement as. That doesn't speak for us.

BROWN: John Ridley, racism a fringe element of these protests and shouldn't define the movement, is that a fair point?

JOHN RIDLEY, COMMENTATOR, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: I think it is a fair point.

But, unfortunately, you look at what happened to Sonia Sotomayor. She makes the wise Latina comment and everyone jumps on her from the far right, saying, look, she's a racist by saying this. Democrats need to talk that down. You look at these images -- and I think Joe did a nice job of sort of conflating them -- the fact of the matter is, they're not just talking about policy

They're talking about things like secession. They're talking about things like get your hands off my country. They're asking for his birth certificate. When over the last eight years, as much as people might have disagreed with George Bush, do people talk about where are you from, get your hands off my country, talking about secession and things like that?

There is debate to be had. But those images, I'm sorry, have nothing to do with health care, the economy, the deficit, or anything.

BROWN: Except I'm going to disagree with you a little bit here, John, because I do remember seeing images of George Bush as Hitler at times when the debate was getting very intense about...

(CROSSTALK)

RIDLEY: A witch doctor. Did anyone talk about where he was from? Did anyone talk about his legitimacy as a president of the United States?

When you talk about racial images, this is not just standard debate that could be it could be a white guy, it could be any other white president. They are very specific images. When you talk about secession, when you see the Confederate flag, those are very specific things that we have not seen since the 1960s and the civil rights movement.

BROWN: What do you think, John Avlon? We're talking about the first black president here, and these are clearly images that carry an enormous amount of weight.

JOHN AVLON, AUTHOR, "INDEPENDENT NATION": That's exactly right.

Look, I was in Washington. The problem is, is that the fringe is blurring with the base. There are citizens who are angry and concerned about government overspending. But there is an ugliness. There is a deal with the devil being made by these folks with these fringe people who are comparing the president to Hitler, comparing the president to Stalin, communism, racism.

All this ugliness is bubbling up. And the fringe is blurring with the base. And the Republican Party needs to watch out. Hate is a cheap and easy recruiting tool for these tea-partiers. And there are legitimate concerns some people have.

But hate ultimately leads to violence. And there's a courting of violence going on here and America needs to be aware of this.

WIERZBICKI: May I respond to that?

AVLON: Sure. Please.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: Yes, absolutely, Joe, please.

WIERZBICKI: On the first point, I think there was a lot actually defined on the left against George Bush and making fun of him as being a simple-minded Southern hick. And so I think that's something that you see on the fringes of both sides.

And the second point I wanted to make on the broader overall theme is that President Barack Obama came into office and was inaugurated with an over 70 percent approval rating. He has not become any more or any less black during the time. This has nothing to do with race. This has to do with opposition to his policies.

(CROSSTALK)

RIDLEY: President Reagan didn't become any more black over time, and he lost his approval ratings, too.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: I do think -- you can't concede there's a difference between saying -- comparing Bush to being sort of a simple-minded hick, in your words, vs. racial attacks? That's what -- how they're being interpreted, clearly, by a lot of people.

WIERZBICKI: I think there's fringes on both sides. And I want to make sure that we don't go ahead and identify a movement based on a few people on the fringe.

BROWN: All right, guys, we have to end it there. I'm out of time.

But many thanks to John Ridley, John Avlon.

And, Joe, appreciate your perspective in this as well. Thanks very much for your time.

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