Thursday, March 17, 2011

Teaparties, Race and a Union Rally in a Tiny Tampa Park

Over the last few years, I've accrued pageloads for mocking mean-spirited teapartiers and their misspelled signs, slovenliness and ideological self-contradiction, going back to that well again and again and again and again. It's a cheap and easy recipe for attention-getting stuff. Take one (1) group of nasty people, add lots (lots) of photographic evidence of their being nasty, then add one (1) comment per photo about how they suck.

I've never posted any sort of counterpoint. The most obvious explanation is that reasonable people aren't very funny. You can't run dozens of photos of civil human beings and gin up a laugh. Less obviously: most liberal activists stayed home these last two years. Vindicated by winning an election, they stupidly abandoned the physical realm of protest to the teaparty. While teaparty goons shouted down town hall discussions on healthcare, liberals enjoyed the warm-crotch sensation of watching them on Youtube, from their laptops. They relied on a few people to attend these events and upload teaparty protest photos and fussy personal diaries on Daily Kos. Liberal public agitation has been token, intermittent, ethereal and impotent.

Thanks in part to union demonstrations and outrage in Wisconsin, as well as Florida Governor Rick Scott's criminal and imperial dismissal of the obligations of office, bizarre disdain for even bipartisan legislation and ruthless de-funding of public services, even Floridians have evinced anger strong enough to drag them out in public. Last Tuesday, thousands of citizens organized in dozens of cities across the state for simultaneous protests against Scott's fiscal war against the Florida school system and his ideological war against unions and collective bargaining.

Florida, like the rest of the south, has historically declined most unionization, never approaching the north's membership. Despite the AFL and CIO engaging in expensive unionization campaigns in the middle of the 20th century, the south didn't bite. Historians and anthropologists have furnished a host of reasons, from racism (northern unions were integrated) to an atavistic quasi-Scots-Irish tribalism, to "Cavalier" individuality. (Readers of Malcom Gladwell's non-science and non-history might remember his bastardization of David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed in the last example.) Economic context also played a part. Union proselytizing in the south, funded by unions' ascendency, was bound to be less persuasive because of that ascendency: when the worker was doing well in America, unions just didn't seem as necessary. That attitude worked doubly well in Florida, a state without an income tax, where lower wages were offset by lower tax obligations and where the bill for today's state services could be tied to tomorrow's home purchases or tourist taxes and fobbed off on the next influx of suckers.

Given the above, the protest turnout was stunning. A group called Awake the State — which was created via a partnership amongst Progress Florida, Florida Watch Action and America Votes — managed to get pro-labor Floridians outside and in front of government buildings even after work and during the dinner hour. In the public imagination, and frequently in reality as well, only teachers seem to march or gather in Florida union protests. But this time manual laborers and public-service workers showed up in force.

Because I vaguely know a few Florida pols and love gatherings, I decided to hoof it out to Tampa to see how a protest fared. They promised it would be interesting, and I took their word for it. And what struck me, instantly — apart from the crowd density — was the convivial nature of the affair.

I'd brushed up against some teaparty protests in the state before, and the experience for me was wholly negative. Not in the sense that I felt negativity toward them (although I did), but rather that the people out there for their own interests and causes felt uncontrollably indignant about everything. Rolling past them with windows down was like driving into a miasma of acid. Even the people for whom this was a cause seemed corroded by their own efforts, skin leached and prematurely aged, like a crowd could suffer a sleep-debt of a decade just by feeling conspired against by something. There is nothing quite like gazing upon a bunch of otherwise healthy middle-aged people standing in the sun and on a lawn and assuming that their skin must have aged instantly in the same way as the Emperor from Star Wars.

This naturally takes us into the territory of the intent of crowds. Most teaparty protests take, as a given, that America is being destroyed methodically, but their response to that is also to destroy existing institutions and peoples. Parts of the federal government, entitlement programs, minorities, immigrants, Muslims, liberals, homosexuals: all these must be eliminated to preserve a government whose best structure is one that also eliminates things. Groups, interests and even income-tax brackets have to be destroyed to create a nation based on the absence of itself as a community of peoples. It's a statement of annihilation dependent on the principle of retraction, obliteration and nullity. Collectively it demands embracing and then proving a negative: America is a country founded on everything it is not. Everybody involved looks as miserable as anyone confronted with that logical impossibility, and even the most enthusiastic faces are hung with the doom of wear and loathing.

As despairing as the members of the Awake the State rally might inwardly be, their intent was to preserve and build something. They stood opposed to the removal of rights for low-income workers and families. They protested for teachers to be able to teach curricula and not toward tests that gauge children's ability to take tests. As fatuous as it might seem to claim this, to me it was palpable that the people present wanted something greater than themselves that they could rescue. There is just an elementally different vibe to human beings who gather in the hope of creating something for others than there is to people who have sworn some sort of covenant that law, history and governance ensures that everybody just goes the fuck away — on whatever terms — immediately.

Naturally, there is no little part of confirmation bias at work here. I feel predisposed to dislike the teaparty and to tolerate teachers and the working class, so I'm seeing in them what I expect to. Yet one can't escape quick but telling distinctions. One group can't stop walking around with pictures of Hitler and dead babies and corpses stacked like cordwood, invoking the dreadful end of an imaginary America at the hand of imaginary foes, bewailing imaginary tax hikes they don't face, from imaginary legislation that hasn't been passed, fearing the day they'll finally go to an imaginary FEMA camp at imaginary UN gunpoint.

Meanwhile, a bunch of labor union members face potential physical intimidation and the elimination of collective bargaining rights in this country. The funny thing is, if anyone should be wandering around with Hitler signs, it's probably them. The first things the Italian Fascists and Nazi Party did was attack socialist and communist parties, burn down workers' meeting houses, destroy labor unions, criminalize their labor activity, and fold existing unions into state-administrated and -sanctioned unions whose rights to bargaining and free assembly were drastically curtailed to serve the interests of plutocracy. They accomplished this through a partnership between national corporate interests — I.G. Farben, Krupp, all the good guys — and on-the-ground populist thuggery, uniting the bottom-line interests of the top with the economically pinched, racialized, nationalist interests of the bottom.

The three problems of putting any of this on a sign are:
1. It's not pithy.
2. As soon as someone does, the FOX-GOP axis will hype it as proof that liberals actually love Hitler, just like they claimed.
3. They will use images of, or parallels to, Hitler as proof that the entire American Left is just as bad as the dismissed lunatic fringe of the American Right, thus exculpating hysterical conservative talking heads via the proud "two wrongs make a right" political tradition.
It literally won't matter if the people with the signs have a historically valid point. It's almost better for them if they don't. The last thing the American Right is capable of understanding anymore is historicity.

Besides, such a bleak conclusion performs a disservice for the people in attendance at rallies like Awake the State. The cultural hangover of the 1960s and the Boomer generation's treacly nostalgia for its own terminal narcissism have long since despoiled any terms like "positive energy," but that doesn't mean one shouldn't make an effort to rescue them from the eye-rolling of history. Certainly, upbeat vibes present nothing formidable to massive checks, but they serve a function in concert with them. Anyone spending even a token amount of time with these people and with the average spitting, red-faced teaparty crowd can come away with the humming certainty that one group wants to work to create something, and the other offers the restoration of an unjust never was, the old creeping phantom terrors and alienation and death, death, death.

But that's not what you came here for. Before we return to the serious racial stuff, let's move on to:

In the interest of fairness and equal time, I've tried to bust on a few of these images. Obviously, my heart's not really in it. For the most part, all comments reflect my own simple interest or curiosity. All these pictures come from downtown Tampa's Lykes Gaslight Park, from the Awake the State rally of March 8. All photos are courtesy of Jon Wolding of Ground Up Films, who has much better video/stills equipment than I do, and who, with partner Brandon Windish, was responsible for the excellent Two and a Half Men re-edits from this piece.

Click all images for a larger version. Click here for a larger version of the cheery guy in the helmet. Click here for a larger Rick Scott: Tallahassee Terror.

I can't be the only person who saw this and immediately thought of a cool-as-hell Eastern European cartoon about one guy in a black jumpsuit and one guy in a white jumpsuit hunting each other through a maze of steam pipes and trying to punk each other with giant, practical socialist boots.

FUN FACT: after 9/11, a deranged teenager flew a Cessna into that building. He was white, which was why we didn't criminalize Cessnas afterward. Later his parents tried to sue the company that makes Accutane, as if he'd somehow gone insane with not having acne and becoming a chick magnet. Also, I once worked in the office that he tried to get to "make babies" with an airplane. Lastly, the fact that this guy in the foreground is cheapening the word "attack" to be about socialist institutions instead of THE SACRED GROUND of the BANK OF AMERICA BUILDING shows that he's essentially unserious about the GWOT, and that is why we should deport all Muslims.

Well, first of all, that's the title from an excellent Carl Hiaasen book about the bad things that happen when the GOP de-funds the hell out of regulatory agencies. Second, this was one of those posters I saw and immediately envisioned its teaparty poster counterpart. For instance, the wording would be the same, but there would be a talk bubble coming out of a picture of a distressed Helen Hunt from Twister. Then there would be a second poster emblazoned with a picture of the flying cow from that movie and the words, "If We Are SHEAP Today, We Will Be COWED Tomorrow."

I feel like this guy might be checking out the other guy, but that's cool, because this is a Democratic joint.

This woman was really excited, but she kept throwing up the double peace signs like that, and it just kept giving off a Nixon vibe. If she'd left the rally in a helicopter, I'd have totally understood.

You just know that kids named Scott who go to college in Florida are going to spend the next four years watching friends try to end flame wars and weird discussions on Facebook with links to pictures like these.

This basically says everything about how much this crowd differed from conservative demonstrations for the last four years. Like, seriously, who the fuck is this guy? I don't remember him starring in any westerns. What the fuck would he know about pedagogy? If you want to make a point about schools, you just photoshop Obama into Augusto Pinochet's uniform and make some crack about Stalin and "what the Jews learned in the ovens." All I know about this douchebag is that he loves San Dimas.

I've noticed this solidarity hand generating more and more creeping fear on GOP message boards and comments sections. Maybe it's the hard and uncompromising reality that it's not so fattened by sloth and blogging while on oxycodone that it can't actually form into a proper punch-functional fist anymore.

It's so weird to see fascism used legitimately.

First read this as "Scott and Koch's Agenda Will Destro Fl. & USA" and I got really outraged, because the new GI Joe movie raped my childhood. Pop-Cultural Childhood Rape is the #1 growing form of assault in the United States. Look, I have a graph here explaining its exponential increase that I charted on a TI-81 calculator that I bought off e-Bay in a fit of 1990s nostalgia, in lieu of purchasing actual healthcare.

This is the major bummer of the Awake the State activism: Scott's margin of victory was incredibly small and owed entirely to voter lassitude from mid-term elections. Granted, most of these people probably voted against Scott, but the fact that they weren't out energizing the electorate before this year probably accounts for why Florida elected a criminal with all the warmth and appeal of a rabid coyote covered in blood and spikes.

By now you might have noticed that none of these signs is misspelled. This is what happens when you fuck with teachers. The protests against you look more professional and intelligent, because you've pissed off the people whose job it is to proofread.

The riff on an old Churchill line stands out as strange because nobody's likening anything to Munich or anyone to Neville Chamberlain.

This sign needs an apostrophe. There was another sign with a misspelling, but I don't think I included it.

This was kind of a curious choice. If the "old man," in the nursery rhyme were to refer to someone, it couldn't be Rick Scott. The man approaches horror with a daily vibrancy. I have no idea why the St. Petersburg Times' Tallahassee blog hasn't been renamed What Fresh Hell Is This?

Aside from the "Tallahassee Terror," this was the most negative and intentionally catastrophic sign at the event. Still, it's hard to argue with it, considering the cuts being made to the Department of Children and Families.

I saw this and thought about all the 2009 protest signs about "NO PUBIC OPTION" and immediately started cracking up and had to pretend I'd seen something funny on my phone.

Sometimes it's fun. For instance, current Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos got paid by a state community college to write a history of Florida politics. He delivered the book half a decade late; it's almost totally devoid of any educational value, and most of it appears to be anecdotal DIY-advice trash about running for public office. He got paid $152,000 to basically rob a school, and for that he will probably be the state's next senator in Washington. They're all pretty much subhuman monsters, but at least they have the decency to be almost spectacularly corrupt here.

These people were sweet. Also, this was the first public protest I've seen in a while where no children were forced to carry some stupid sign about how they had been sentenced to death because of some kind of imaginary tax burden.

There's no real reason for that joke, other than my inability to come up with something, and my wanting to give a shout out to Mr. Rubber Cat and his very funny website and comic series, "Anthropomorphic Republican Talking Duck."

There was a lot of properly organized chanting and sign waving, but you got the sense from talking to these guys that they'd have loved to settle the issue by challenging any non-union advocates to a pickup football game on the park grounds.

Uh, sorry. Corporations have the same rights as people. People have hearts. Therefore, corporations have hearts. And if I can figure that out, that's why schools can get by with less funding.


Also self-explanatory.

There's really no other place to put this, so please indulge these final few photos:

The great turd in the teaparty's metaphorical American melting pot of citizens joined together in common economic interests has always been that they can't get proportional representation of 13% of the American population to show up to their outdoor rage cookouts. In fact, despite nearly two years of poring over Flickr feeds and blog posts of teaparty images, I saw more black people within five minutes in a park in downtown Tampa than I've seen in all the teaparty footage combined. Hell, the teaparty can't even get a proportional black turnout if you count them as only three-fifths of a person. Inevitably it's just Alan Keyes and one army veteran and two kids with signs so ambiguous that you can't be sure they're not just trolling everybody.

The thing is, it's not hard for Republicans to attract black voters. Tax cuts work as an inducement on every demographic. And there are plenty of single-issue black voters who will mark a ballot on the side of Jesus even if it means turning Head Start into a beheading. But when one of your rallying cries is an opposition to healthcare, which is desperately needed by low-income blacks as well as low-income everybody, you're going to turn off a demographic. You're also going to do it much more comprehensively when your attack on healthcare and the government in general relies on the framing of "states rights."

Black people know what those words mean. They know what the biggest states rights battle in living memory was about. They know what color palette of the audience the avatar of the modern Republican party, Ronald Reagan, was appealing to when he kicked off the southern part of his 1980 presidential campaign in Oxford, Mississippi by saying he "believed in states rights," in a place where three civil rights activists were murdered and where it was only the federal government — the fucking army — that integrated the college. When your stump approach to governance still carries with it the code-wording of racial exclusion, it becomes a lot harder for the targeted group not to notice all the ways in which you're still going to war against them. You've preserved their legal rights to be born and vote, but it becomes noticeable that you're aggressively de-funding — or, in the case of collective bargaining — de-fanging every other aspect of their existence that preserves them from suffering and death.

It's easy to make jokes about the original wording of the constitution and mock this as an image problem, but it's an ideological problem. The most active and energized part of the modern GOP runs off the fumes of a 1968 electoral strategy designed to appeal the most vitriolic of ingrained racism, to create a movement that channels racial oppression into the somehow more palatable theater of economic policy. You can express everything wrong with the teaparty with a black and white crowd photo, because the stark absence of the former shade points up how easily a segment of the population can identify a political party whose guiding policy not only seeks to destroy them but to use that destruction to appeal to its own base.

And if that's not enough, you can look at a photo from a hastily organized short-notice rally in a relatively small city in the middle of the south, count the healthy representation of dark faces and realize that you're already looking at far, far more of America.