By Amy Gardner and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 16, 2010; A02
Thousands of conservative "tea party" activists streamed into the nation's capital Thursday to protest Obama administration policies and denounce what they regard as excessive taxation and government spending.
Rallies at Freedom Plaza and later in the shadow of the Washington Monument were timed to coincide with tax day, the April 15 deadline for filing federal income tax returns. For the second year in a row, opponents of President Obama gathered in sun-splashed weather to cheer speakers and vent their anger about government policies. More than 1,500 smaller protests were staged alongside state and local government offices nationwide, tea party organizers said.
The showing, while smaller than the crowds that gathered in Washington on Sept. 12, made clear that the ire and energy that have defined the tea party movement since it became a force last summer have not abated.
Where that energy will take the movement remained an open question. Republicans who played a hand in organizing Thursday's events spoke of mobilizing the tea party's grass roots to defeat Democrats in this fall's midterm elections. But others spoke of a different kind of resolve, promising to stick to their conservative principles even if doing so divides the GOP.
"You've got as many progressive Republicans as Democrats -- look at John McCain," said Kade McNaughton, an accountant who rode a bus to Washington from Statesville, N.C. "Republicans are trying to harness this energy. In some cases, it will work. In other cases, I don't think it will."
For the Tea Party Express, a cross-country bus caravan of conservative groups, Washington was the culmination of a journey that began March 27 in Searchlight, Nev., the home town of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D). There and in Boston, where the groups held a rally Wednesday, the featured speaker was former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a favorite of many tea party activists.
Throughout the day, protesters arrived in Washington from North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas and beyond. They carried American flags and toted signs with such slogans as "You Can't Fix Stupid, but You Can Vote It Out," "I Have Awakened," and "When Injustice Becomes Law, Resistance Becomes Duty." Many carried the yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag with a coiled rattlesnake that has become an anti-government emblem.
No official crowd estimates were available, but Mike Gaske, a spokesman with the national group Tea Party Patriots, said that at least 50 buses had come to Washington and that thousands were entering the Mall just before evening events began at the Washington Monument.
About 100 started their day in a shopping mall parking lot in Durham, N.C., where two white coach buses rumbled through just after 10 a.m. to begin the six-hour journey to Washington. Activists climbed aboard wearing flag pins, T-shirts bearing the words "We the People," and sequined baseball caps in red, white and blue.
Rolling along Interstate 85 through Southside Virginia, protesters spoke fiercely of their continuing dissatisfaction with the country's direction. Many said they had never been politically active before the events of the past year. And many gave voice to their outrage in nearly identical phrasing, complaining about Obama's efforts to "redistribute wealth," about the "offshoring" of U.S. jobs, about the president's strategy to "spend his way to prosperity." Many also made a point of rejecting media potrayals of racist behavior within the movement.
"I'm just getting concerned about the way things are going," said Mitch Harrison, 62, a retiree from Raleigh. Harrison said that he "pretty much always" votes Republican but that he sees value in demonstrations to push the party back to its conservative roots. Thursday's protest, he said, was the first time he had participated in a political event.
The same was true for Madison Riddle, 14, a ninth-grader from Cornerstone Christian Academy in Statesville who rode the bus from Durham with her mother, Tracy Brown, her teacher Janice Myers and eight other students from her school. "We're going to protest excessive taxes," she said.
Demonstrators began gathering early Thursday for speeches at Freedom Plaza. Among them was Jerry Johnson, 58, a lawyer from Berryville, Va., who held a homemade sign depicting the United States as the Titanic striking an iceberg.
"I came here because of what I see going on in this country," he said. "We're bankrupt in America. We can't run our households like the government's running the country. That, and the idea of people [sitting] around on their butts. Fifty percent of the people collecting a check are paying no taxes, while the other 50 pull the wagon."
Johnson continued: "Normally I'm not a protester. I've got other things to do in life. I'd rather be doing all kinds of other things. But I just can't stand by and watch this country go down the tubes."
He said he "worked my way up from nothing" and was not about to allow "somebody else to reach in my pocket and just take it away and give to somebody" who does nothing.
Johnson expressed opposition to Obama. "It's not just because he's black," he said. "I wish I could tell you that I loved this guy, that he was a great president, that I had faith in him. But I have none. Zero."
Carolyn Connolly, a nurse from Person County, N.C., said she felt called to attend an anti-taxation "9/12 protest" last September. It was the first time she had been politically active, and she hasn't looked back.
"I have something driving me in the pit," Connolly said. "I'm afraid of where the country's going, afraid of what I see."
Staff writer Clarence Williams contributed to this report.