Decatur, Georgia – If the big “tea party” protest in Atlanta last year had the trappings of a rock show, complete with a riding “Paul Revere,” Saturday’s “coffee party” get-together at Java Monkey cafe in nearby Decatur came off more like a well-attended poetry slam.
A liberal-esque and pro-Obama answer to the conservative tea party movement, the coffee party kicked off in 370 locations across the US and the world (including Tokyo and Jakarta) in an attempt to brew some activism from cafes and salons and stir disaffected liberals into action.
Hand-painted signs at Java Monkey ranged from pro-healthcare reform to “jobs for Americans.” The crowd of about 40 – visibly more diverse than the average tea party gathering – included school teachers, a dreadlocked guy, young children, and even a visiting reporter from Le Monde.
Despite their caffeinated drink of choice, the people who gathered here were not nearly as hard-charging as the tea party crowds who took to the streets last year, including the hundreds of thousands who packed into Washington on Sept. 12. Even so, one of the overriding messages that emerged is not all that different: Washington has lost touch with reality, meaning Americans are being taxed without proper representation.
“People here might run me out of the room for saying this, but while on the front these two movements don’t look anything alike, I think they might actually be able to meet in the back,” says Gerry Landers, a social studies teacher and coffee party attendee. “Coffee and tea drinking together, it could happen.”
Either way, woe to the incumbent.
Born as a Facebook page, the “Join the Coffee Party” movement has attracted more than 100,000 fans, most in the 15 days leading up to Saturday’s kickoff.
“Just like in the American Revolution, we are looking for real representation right now,” organizer Annabel Park told CNN last week. “We don’t feel represented by our government right now, and we don’t really feel represented well by the media either.”
As happened in the early days of the tea party movement, critics are calling the coffee party an “astroturf” phenomenon (meaning fake grass roots).
Bloggers note that Ms. Park, for one, has connections to the Democratic Party, somehow forgetting that many early tea party events had their roots in local county Republican committees. As late as Friday, tea party activists meeting in Washington handed out materials produced and paid for by the Republican National Committee.
Even if the messages sound the same, the two movements differ in substantive ways. Tea partyers tend to berate the federal government as a whole (or most of it). Coffee partyers seem to be more in favor of government involvement – as in envisioning a greater role for government in the future of healthcare – but denounce the “corporatocracy” that holds sway in Washington.
While asserting to be independent, coffee party activists tend to back President Obama and want “obstructionists” in Congress and the media to get out of his way. To attendees like Mr. Landers, the tea party, though demanding a return to American representative ideals, seems co-opted by social conservatives such as Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and even Ralph Reed (though tea-partyers see themselves as stressing fiscal and size-of-government issues).
The showing across America Saturday may determine in part what political impact the coffee party could have – and whether it could rival the political potency of the tea party movement. Organizers are planning another national kaffeeklatsch for March 27.
Though activists in the two movements may not see eye to eye, it’s clear they are emerging for a similar reason: They feel a greater personal connection to America’s plight, sparking a communal search for the country’s roots.
The people have to have a louder voice against special interests in Washington, says Landers, or “we’re going to make the fall of Rome look like a tea party.”