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Tea Party protests: Could they rally change in government?

Protests against Washington spending took place in more than 700 US cities Wednesday.

By Staff writer / April 16, 2009

Though he didn't support the cause, AmeriCorps volunteer C.J. Greene (foreground) checked out Wednesday's Tea Party in Atlanta. 'I expected the crowds to be bigger – and more diverse,' he said.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

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Atlanta

Two months ago, 300 people showed up in a cold, pouring rain at Georgia’s State Capitol as part of the first stirrings of a modern-day Tea Party movement, protesting Washington’s expanding reach and a ballooning federal deficit.

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Wednesday night, Edward Johnson, in a tricorn hat and Paul Revere coat, watched Act II: The capitol square here filled up with more than 10,000 protesters waving signs that said, among other things, “Welcome to Sweden” and “Don’t tax me, bro!”

The burgeoning Tea (Taxed Enough Already) Party movement is outwardly nonpartisan but has been dominated, at least at the Atlanta event, by Republican stalwarts like former Rep. Dick Armey. When asked whether it could achieve its goal of returning America to small-government roots, Mr. Johnson looked grim under the brim of his hat.

“On the one hand, I feel optimistic to see so many people coming out,” he said, gripping his 4-month-old daughter, Sophie, on the fringe of a rowdy crowd. “But I’m also pessimistic because I think it’s too late. I think both parties in this country are bent on repressing the individual rights the Founders worked so hard to craft into the Constitution.”

With protests in more than 700 US cities Wednesday, and perhaps over 100,000 Americans taking part, it’s clear that a populist counterpoint is expanding to protest what they see as Washington profligacy. They’re zeroing in on corporate bailouts, a historic stimulus package, and a budget that could add trillions of dollars to the already massive US deficit.

Critics call tea partiers an irrational minority, their movement a sign of a conservative power vacuum.

Yet the impressive organizing effort – styled in many ways like the Democratic social-networking playbook that worked so well last fall – does indicate to some experts that the Tea Parties could have an effect on the body politic.

“These grass-roots movements can make a big difference. We saw that with the suffrage movement, where you had to get people picketing the White House in addition to folks who were lobbying state by state for ratification,” says Elizabeth Bennion, a professor who studies voter mobilization at Indiana University at South Bend. At the Tea Parties now, she says, “These are people – liberal, conservative, moderate and unidentified – who are genuinely concerned about the debt that we’re passing onto our children and grandchildren.”

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