Bailout Protests Take a Page from History

Originally published on March 5, 2009, at


The memory of the Boston Tea Party was revived last week as Americans in more than thirty cities gathered to protest financial and automobile bailouts, record-breaking stimulus spending, and Democratic leadership in general. Street demonstrations like this are something new, as far as the financial crisis is concerned: both the current and the former president’s actions have inspired anger and mistrust among some, but until now, that dissatisfaction had registered mainly in polls, man-on-the-street interviews, and letters to Congressional offices.

Now, though, a more visible movement appears to be underway. Beginning with calls during Januaryfor a mass-mailing of teabags to government leaders, and later with a series of small public protests around the United States in February and scheduled through at least July 4 of this year, organizersare channeling frustration and fear into protest.

The original Boston Tea Party, in 1773, was an action against British colonial authority over the American colonists. Colonists rejected British control of trade and taxes and argued that taxation without parliamentary representation was unlawful. In protest, colonists dumped a substantial quantity of highly valuable British tea into the harbor. The event angered the crown and united colonists in solidarity against perceived injustice of the crown’s authority.

Current anger over the burden of taxation and fears about the squandering of public funds have made the Tea Party an apt reference point for present-day protest organizers. A group called the Political Exploration and Awareness Committee PAC appears to have played a central role in scheduling and promoting the recent spate of tea parties. The group, whose website was initially full of laudatory references to CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli, has since clarified that Santelli has nothing to do with the site or movement, though their sentiments seem to be aligned. (Santelli was lately made famous for his February 19th on-air tirade about the bailout plan, in which he exhorted a Chicago trading floor, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand.”)

The tea mail-in campaign hasn’t netted extensive news coverage, but a number of the recent protests have gotten write-ups — particularly the larger gatherings, like the crowd of about three hundred that congregated in Atlanta last Friday. Several journalists and bloggers have called into question the grassroots authenticity of the protests, alleging that they may have been financed, organized, and publicized, to an unknowable extent, by professional conservative advocacy groups or corporate interests with ties to same.

There is another tea-bag mailing scheduled for April 1.

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