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Michael Ames

Michael Ames

Posted April 24, 2009 | 12:56 AM (EST)

Texas Tea - Toeing the Line in San Antonio


San Antonio, Texas -- A lot of people showed up at the Alamo for the tax day protest. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that roughly 1,000 people gathered here for the so-called tea party, but the crowd was much bigger than that. Really. Probably more like 5,000.

Several dozen people hoisted homemade placards ("THIS LAND IS OUR LAND -- NOT YOURS"; "LEFT-DEM TRAITORS!"). Naked tea bags hung from their hats and glasses and earlobes. When conservative speechmakers said words like "guns," "tyranny," and "freedom," the crowd erupted in howls and the tea bags swung around and sometimes hit them in the face.

The crowd here was excited to see the live broadcast of the Glenn Beck Show. Beck is the suddenly popular Fox News commentator who, depending on who you ask, is either the symptom or the salvation of a sick society. "He don't sugar coat the truth," Jim White, a native south Texan said. "Oh my god, oh my god, there he is! I love Glenn Beck!" a woman in a U.S. Marine Corps t-shirt yelled as she ran towards the cable news celebrity.

On-air, Beck has the rough finish and amateur authority of a country preacher. Even the show's audio effect -- slightly echoey -- is hypnotizing. What also makes the Glenn Beck Show such mesmerizing television is its stunning lack of coherence. Apart from blanket distrust for power, little ties one Beck opinion to the next.

The tea party-goers projected a similar unfocused rage.

Terri Hall spoke out against the Trans-Texas Corridor. She said it served "the interests of private corporations and an over-bearing government." She called the toll road a "road to tyranny."

"I'm here because I'm mad," Amanda Teeter said. Teeter "fled Marxism once" when she left England. Before that, she lived in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia and believes that "America is going the way Zimbabwe went." I asked if she was exaggerating. "No," she said, "we are going to be just like Zimbabwe," where inflation this year reached an estimated 89 sextillion percent. Sound crazy? The Governor of South Carolina, who didn't even grow up there, said the same thing.

AM Radio host Alan McManus, broadcasting from the protest, said that Texas congressman Charlie Gonzalez (D-San Antonio) called the tea party a negative gathering. The crowd booed. "Well don't just prove him right by booing!" McManus pleaded.

Across the street from the Alamo, a Christian group called the Great News Network set up a Prayer Station. Volunteers asked passersby if they could pray for their needs, be they physical, financial, or whatever. Nearby, a man's sign said, "WE'RE NOT DRINKING THE KOOL-AID." Next to that one, a neon pink poster: "I ♥ FOX NEWS."

Ted Nugent was Glenn Beck's special guest on Tax Day. The rocker and activist talked about guns and, when Beck cut to commercials, played the opening lick of "Cat Scratch Fever" a few times. When Nugent talked about how much he likes his guns ("They told me not to bring a gun today, so I said 'Fine, I won't bring a gun...'") the crowd cheered. A man standing next to me turned to his friend and said, "It's a good thing there's no metal detectors here today."

Beck reminded the crowd several times, to tepid applause, that the tea party was a non-violent gathering. The host has made recent news for, among sillier things, sermonizing some kind of violent uprising. At the Alamo, where Nugent told the crowd to "take a breath of the blood in the air," Beck's sudden pacificism was a major downer.

After the show, Beck and Nugent took the stage again. Nugent's speech was the best. He told the crowd that it had to fight a curse. But the curse is not Barack Obama or Democratic tyranny, he said (the man in the "Tyranny Response Team" t-shirt notwithstanding). The curse, Nugent said passionately, is American apathy. And the way out of apathy is activism and voter mobilization and other things that sounded a lot like community organizing. Nugent closed with a Texas-sized reminder about getting involved in the democratic process: "Because you can't do this in France! You can't do this in California!"

Towards the end of the event, Glen Pollard was standing near a memorial to the men who died at the Alamo, some of whom, he said, were his relatives. He came to the tea party to protest the government.

"The people have to do something about the nation. The government isn't gonna do anything about it," Pollard said, his friendly eyes shining bright beneath a big cowboy hat. "The people here today, we are the huge impact, we are the beginning," he said.

It's almost like you are the ones you've been waiting for, I said. He nodded and went on. "But the government can't ever fix it...I swear, if things don't get better, than I'm gonna run for office myself."

I asked Pollard what would happen if he ran for election and won. Would he still be Glenn Pollard, or would he be part of the government?

"Well...," he paused, searching. "I hadn't thought about it like that. Maybe we ought to give the government a new name."