A violent brawl at one Tea Party rally Saturday laid bare the raw emotions now wrenching American society.
Tea Partiers took to the streets Saturday to protest President Obama’s promised immigration reforms, which would offer some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., however, counterprotesters from ANSWER – an antiwar, pro-immigration reform group – also took to the streets, with one blaring, “Amnesty, yes. Racists, no,” from a bullhorn. When two Tea Party activists entered their protest zone, a fight erupted as Tea Party and ANSWER protesters kicked and punched one another and spilled into the middle of a busy intersection. [Note: The link is a YouTube video of the altercation provided by a Tea Party supporter. The fight includes profanity.]
One fistfight does not signal a dawn of 1960s-style social upheaval. But the weekend’s events, seen as a symptom of the polarizing rhetoric that fueled them, point to a nation in which the political extremes are active and agitated.
Tensions surrounded the Fort Lauderdale protest even before it began. A Florida chapter of ANSWER sent out an e-mail in the days leading up to the event, saying the Tea Partiers were racists:
“Racism is like anything else in this world: in order to make it fall, you must smash it!” the e-mail notice read. “That is why we are calling on all people to come out tomorrow, to organize a militant confrontation with the so-called ‘tea baggers.’ Beating back these forces will require us to organize together, take the streets, fight the racists wherever they show their faces, and drive them out of every community.”
To be sure, most of the hundreds of Tea Party protests held this year have been populated by peaceful, middle-age, middle-class people indulging their inner John Hancock – not radicals out to pick a fight.
But the fight Saturday might be evidence of a backlash against the occasionally provocative nature of previous Tea Parties, says Howard Brick, a University of Michigan history professor who specializes in the history of social movements in the US.
At one anti-Obama protest in Arizona this summer, a protester carried a rifle slung over his shoulder. “[Tea-partiers] bringing weapons does suggest a stronger degree of alienation and threat,” he says.
Conservatives place the blame at Mr. Obama’s feet, saying his liberal leadership has made “union thugs” comfortable enough to confront conservatives in the streets.
“We conservatives have long talked about our willingness to fight for freedom,” writes John Hinderaker on the PowerLine blog. “In a sense, that's generally been metaphorical, especially when talking about domestic rather than foreign enemies. With the far left now on the march, however, it isn't metaphorical any more. It's just one more sign of the Age of Obama – fighting in the streets, as the extreme Left has been empowered as never before.”
The first spark of violence connected to the Tea Party movement came in St. Louis Aug. 6 when a Tea Party protester named Ken Gladney was injured after a confrontation with Service Employees International Union protesters.
Both sides claim the other side started the confrontation, and the case is still under investigation.
The incidents of violence come amid Obama’s ambitious agenda – including legalization for some undocumented immigrants, limits on carbon emissions, and a massive healthcare reform. Some conservatives see the agenda as nothing less than a path to socialism and ruin.
At the same time they feel unfairly targeted by the administration, which has said the Tea Party movement could lead to something “unhealthy.”
Follow us on Twitter.