As Tea Partiers gathered in Washington to make their anti-government voices heard on Tax Day, a rumor persistently rustled through the teeming crowds. There were liberal infiltrators in their midst, the conspiracy-minded crowd murmured—activists hostile to the Tea Party cause sneaking into rallies bearing extremist signs and slogans, bent on discrediting the movement. At times, the rumors led to paranoia: one Tea Partier accused minorities at a DC rally of working undercover for ACORN, the national community organizing group badly wounded by the hidden-camera escapades of conservative activist James O’Keefe. The accused were merely peddling flags—guilty of capitalism.
Were the Tea Partiers’ fears of infiltration justified?
“You know the militant left, mean as they are, always attack defenseless people,” said Dick Armey.
Yes. But if the liberals were trying to keep their presence a secret, they weren’t too hard to spot. At the main Tea Party rally at the Washington Monument on Thursday night, a handful of infiltrators and counter-protesters riled up the crowd and even drew threats of violence—but mostly just laughs.
A handful of twenty-something protesters in suits—a dead giveaway in an otherwise casually dressed crowd—held up hastily constructed signs with rather obviously bogus slogans: “Jesus is my Co-Payment,” “I’m Ignorant,” and “Poor People Suck!”
Who were these fakers? They wouldn’t give their names. But they drew a swift reaction from the real Tea Partiers, several of whom stopped to argue with them.
“You know that doesn’t reflect the Tea Party,” said one white-haired protester to the man with the “Poor People Suck!” sign.
“Why not? They want our health care!” said the man holding the sign.
• Benjamin Sarlin: Dispatches From the Tea Party Express• Peter Beinart: The Tea Party's Phony Populism“Now come on, we’re pretty much all Christians here,” he responded. “I work in a school and there’s a black lady who works hard, busting her butt, and she’s a poor person.”
“But they took our money to give out for abortions!” the sign-bearer said.
“That’s a little strong,” another Tea Partier, Dave Schwarz of Derwood, Maryland, replied. “All we’re asking is that the Tea Party be built on mutual respect.” Asked about the jokers among the crowd Schwarz gave his polite disapproval: “This is serious stuff.”
A self-described libertarian counter-protester held a sign up reading “Majority Rule [does not equal] Tyranny, Violence [does not equal] Free Speech, Those Who Threaten Americans Who Write and Enforce our Laws Are Traitors Without A Cause.” A girl in a Campus Progress t-shirt, a group affiliated with the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, wandered the protest to argue with various participants.
Some of the infiltrators were just apolitical jokers—even if their humor was lost on the participants. A group of students from American University belonging to a club that mocks mass protests brandished signs reading “I Have A Sign,” “Down With King George,” and “No $ 4 Educatoin I Don’t Want It.” The group was chased across the protest by a screaming, red-faced Tea Partier in a denim jacket who identified himself only as “Spider.”
“They’re interlopers!” Spider shrieked, as the nervous youngsters tried to make their way to a police officer. “These people are not the Tea Party!”
After being pushed to the outskirts of the protests, the phony demonstrators told The Daily Beast they were terrified of Spider, who they said threatened to “kick their ass.”
“We’re apolitical and protest all protests in an unbiased manner. I’m actually pretty conservative,” Brian Mandel, a freshman at AU said, adding that he voted for McCain. “Most people think it’s funny.”
Another club member, T.J. Bollerman, said that even though he considered himself an environmentalist, his group was planning to attend climate change protests as well, toting signs saying that they wanted a “permanent summer vacation.”
Dick Armey, president of FreedomWorks and one of the organizers of the rally, decried the fake protesters.
“Of course we're concerned, we always want to protect the innocents from the vicious and the malicious,” he told the Beast. “You know the militant left, mean as they are, always attack defenseless people. These people are not professional political operatives, they’re decent, concerned, peace-loving American citizens with no experience in the travails of political sabotage. If you have these professional thugs come in among them with the express purpose of making them out to be something they’re not, it’s an obscene gesture from the liberal establishment.”
In some ways the news of phony protesters was a gift to the Tea Partiers, who could attribute any bad behavior at the rally to the troublemakers in their midst. Andrew Breitbart, founder of conservative news sites Big Government and Big Hollywood, told The Daily Beast he believed that allegedly racist and homophobic remarks by Tea Partiers in the past could be traced to crashers out to discredit the movement.
“If I believed there was a strain of racism [in the Tea Party]” he said, “I wouldn’t put myself within a city mile of this.”
Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.