I remember the first tea party protesters, Mary and Ron Rakovich, from the Fort Myers area, in Florida. In early February they took to the streets with a dozen or so protesters and told President Obama that they were not happy with his big government assault on our liberty. Only a few days later more protesters gathered in places as diverse as Mesa, Arizona and Overland Park, Kansas, and sounded the alarm that the American people had to wake up from their slumber. The Paul Revere of this movement was a reporter for CNBC, Rick Santelli. On Feb. 19th he went on a rant on live television as he railed against the big government policies of the Obama administration. Thousands of folks around the country were watching, including me, but within a day more than a million people had viewed the rant on YouTube. Santelli called for a new tea party protest, in the spirit of the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Some of us reached out to CNBC through our producer contacts, but they made it clear that they would not be organizing any tea party rallies. So, a few dozen of us got together on a conference call to discuss how we might go about organizing a national protest the next week, on Feb. 27th.
I wrote a blog post with instructions on how to organize a tea party protest, and posted it on my blog The Conservative Revolution. I emailed it over to Michelle Malkin and Glenn Reynolds, who both linked to it on their blogs. My site nearly crashed in the next week but I was able to give guidance to hundreds of tea party organizers around the country. It was pretty simple, actually. I just told people to show up, bring signs, make them legible, bring friends, family and co-workers, contact the local media to cover it and be sure to collect email addresses. The first tea party protests occurred in more than 50 cities across the country, and I gave a speech at the event in DC. Some liberals snickered when I said that this was the start of a grassroots revolution that would sweep around the country, and even around the world, but that’s exactly what happened over the next few months.
The planning went on all Spring and Summer and consisted of spreading the word about the 9/12 taxpayer march at tea party events, through email, phone calls, calling talk radio, online message boards, and on facebook. The best part about organizing 9/12 was that we just posted the information about the event on our website, added information about where to stay, where to park, where to find a bus to ride to DC … and people self-organized in their own communities and figured out their own logistics. It was a very decentralized approach to grassroots organizing that was uniquely conservative and libertarian. The 9/12 march consisted of a huge coalition of conservative and libertarian groups that pitched in, but the local groups and local leaders were the ones that really made it a huge success. They filled bus after bus, took planes, trains and automobiles to get down to DC for the event. The night before I stayed in Hotel Washington, which is now the W Hotel. It was the same place that Martin Luther King, Jr. had stayed the night before the 1963 March on Washington. It was difficult to sleep and everyone kept asking me how many people would be there the next day. I was cautious about providing an estimate but I thought there was a chance that we would surpass the 250,000 mark that day.
The next morning I woke up early, around 5:00am, and strolled over to Freedom Plaza. I was the first person to step on the plaza and just took the silence in. I noticed a man sleeping in his car parked right next to the space, so I walked over, knocked on his window and woke him up. We were the first two people to step foot on Freedom Plaza that morning. The staging company was the next to arrive, and got to work putting together our small, humble staging and sound equipment. I was nervous but ready to start the day’s activities. As the minutes passed by, more people arrived in small numbers. Then, the first bus arrived, letting off dozens of people. By 8:00am or so the masses were pouring out of the DC Metro, walking over to Freedom Plaza with their signs, bullhorns, patriotic t-shirts and cameras. It became a swarm of people on Freedom Plaza to the point where we finally overflowed onto Pennsylvania Avenue. We started our program, giving speeches and playing music to get the crowd going. Eventually the National Park Service told us that the crowd was so big that we needed to start the march earlier than scheduled.
So I gave the signal to the crowd, saying that we would march in the spirit of 1776, with Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. Then the sea of people began marching from Freedom Plaza down to the U.S. Capitol. The crowd was massive, and covered all of Pennsylvania Avenue, from the plaza to the Capitol. As people reached the west lawn of the Capitol, others were still coming to the plaza, filling in behind the marchers. As The New York Times reported, the entire march took over three hours from start to finish. Time lapse footagefrom the top of the plaza showed an incredible view of the crowd as it filled the plaza and then headed toward the Capitol. Media reports varied but the liberal media vastly underestimated the size of the crowd. Most folks debated whether the size of the crowd was closer to 300,000 people or 500,000 people. Some said that nearly a million people had showed up in DC that day to protest big government. Either way, the pictures certainly showed a massive, energetic, patriotic crowd of people who had come to Washington to exercise their First Amendment rights. The message was essentially that government was doing too much, too fast, and was spending more money than it should. The American people were losing their liberty and their financial security due to politicians who were acting recklessly. These common beliefs unified the movement that day, and eventually guided the movement through a historic victory in the 2010 elections.
As I took the stage to welcome the crowd to DC and make my own list of grievances known, I wasn’t nervous at all – even though I stared out at a sea of hundreds of thousands of people that day. It was like speaking to previous tea party events, with dozens or maybe hundreds of people. It was like speaking to friends and like-minded people who shared your concerns and wanted what you wanted. It was an amazing experience and something I will never forget. Hearing the roar of the crowd was exhilarating and gave all the speakers confidence and energy. You could tell that something was in the air, and that a historic movement was being launched – and it would change American politics for a very long time. After about three hours of speeches, music, video clips, chants and a few comedy routines, the event came to an end. I thanked everyone for coming and told people to stay connected, and work at the local level. I said, “Listen, we are all community organizers now.” The crowd cleared over the next couple of hours and notably left the place cleaner than it was before. The people who had traveled from all 50 states went back to their homes and got involved locally. They created new groups, and built on existing ones. They stayed in touch and looked for opportunities to get involved in elections. And in January of 2010 they started to pick the first electoral fights of the tea party movement – helping to elect Scott Brown and Mike Lee to the U.S. Senate.
9/12 was an important moment for the tea party movement, for the Republican Party, and for politics in America. It galvanized millions of Americans from every state, and got many of them involved in politics for the first time in their lives. It captured the nation’s attention, and woke the news media up to the possibility that there could be a political movement outside of both parties that was united by opposition to big government, and was independent, focused and powerful. And 9/12 changed many lives, empowering individuals to take ownership over their communities, go after the established order, and work hard to make things better. It was a pivotal day that launched many political careers, inspired millions of people, captured the attention of international media outlets and even inspired similar, albeit smaller, political movements around the world – including in Israel, Australia, Italy and Japan. When I travel around and speak to various conservative groups, I often find that many of them attended 9/12 and consider it one of the most memorable days of their lives. It’s kind of like the first Woodstock for conservatives, everyone who was there shared something very unique. The event even inspired a rap video and a documentary film, both of which are pretty unique in conservative politics.
Today marks five years after the 9/12 march, and the tea party movement has created quite the political storm. It has elected many U.S. Senators and Congressmen, as well as governors, lieutenant governors and hundreds of state legislators around the country. It has been the driving force for change at the local level, especially city councils, school boards, and county commissioners’ courts. The movement has had its ups and downs, wins and losses, but every political movement has faced challenges. The true test is whether it has made a big impact already, and whether it will continue to do so in the future. I believe it is clear that it has, and will continue to do so for a long time. As the movement grew significantly, many of us urged tea party activists to get involved in the Republican Party and become precinct chairs, county chairmen, executive committee members and take on other positions of leadership. We said that if the tea party formed its own party outside the GOP it would lose momentum and influence, and guarantee that liberal Democrats would win. Most folks followed this advice and have become active inside the GOP to the point where depending on the state, somewhere around half of GOP voters identify with the tea party. That’s a huge amount of influence inside the GOP, and in some states tea party voters are the majority inside the GOP.
As long as the tea party keeps its focus on fiscal issues, works hard to win over independents, and spends most of its time at the local level, it will continue to have tremendous influence in public policy decisions nationwide. It has to pick its battles wisely, spend scarce resources effectively, and not get distracted from the original mission. If the tea party does that, then its impact and the impact of 9/12/09 may last for decades to come.
Brendan Steinhauser was the lead organizer of the 9/12/2009 Taxpayer March on Washington, and helped launch the tea party movement with dozens of other leaders in February 2009. His role in the tea party movement is covered at length in the bookBoiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America by Kate Zernike.