In the last year, the Tea Party has become part of the national consciousness. The party, which continues to be a source of controversy especially after members allegedly hurled racist and homophobic epithets at Congressmen at a demonstration, sprung up as a form of protest against the current government and as a stand for conservative values, fiscal, familial or other.
In some ways it doesn’t seem to matter that the Tea Party’s specific mission is still unclear and largely undefined: the catch-all approach has not stopped it from gaining the attention of the nation, media, politicians — Clarence Thomas’ wife has just joined the party — and pundits alike. And although there are some unsavory elements to the party, the truth is that, whether or not we like it or not, the movement has become a force to be reckoned with.
In the past two months, yet another movement – the Coffee Party, this time made up of mostly, though not exclusively, left-leaning individuals – has formed. Those in the Coffee Party movement are also disgruntled with the current political system; their cause is the promotion of civil discourse and compromise in politics and the embracing of people from all political ideologies.
The Coffee Party was started, on Facebook, by two people – documentary filmmaker Annabel Park and writer-director Eric Byler. The impetus for the movement, says Park, was partly the result of their feelings about the “really intense coverage of the Tea Party leading up to their convention,” and largely to do with “larger frustration with spending over a year watching the health care debate and how dysfunctional the whole process is”.
The Coffee Party has spread quickly across the country, fuelled by a fascinated media and many others who are as frustrated as Park and Byler were. Their Facebook page now has over 190,000 fans, up from 170,000 just one week ago. There’s no doubt that the level of grassroots political engagement during President Obama’s election campaign ushered in an awakening about the potential of people power as a catalyst for social change. Disconcerted individuals are now taking full advantage of that and using it to rally others around causes that matter to them.
The Coffee Party’s mission is clear. It is, as their website states, to ”[give] voice to Americans who want to see cooperation in government”. The Coffee Party aims to work with the government, rather than simply oppose it, recognizing that “the federal government is not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will” and that “as voters and grassroots volunteers, [they] will support leaders who work toward positive solutions, and hold accountable those who obstruct them.”
To that end, they have been organizing Coffee Party events which have started off as like minded people and activists meeting up to discuss the issues. Two weekends ago the first National Coffee Summit — in which local organizers met up in homes, coffee houses and other locations to discuss reformation of the political process — was held. The next step is to include policy makers and legislators in the dialogue through events called “Coffee with Congress” which is where Coffee Party members meet with senators and other representatives. The Coffee Party isn’t just a place where people get together to talk – they are taking tangible actions to ensure that normal people have a say in the democratic process beyond just casting votes.
Both the Tea and Coffee parties have been formed by ordinary citizens — as opposed to non-profits, social enterprises or any kind of official body — who are determined to have a say in what’s happening in the country. As the Coffee Party says on its website: “No lobbyists here. No pundits. And no hyper-partisan strategists calling the shots in this movement.”
If there is one group in America which has a lot to organize around yet isn’t doing so fully yet, it is black people. Not only are there current issues to rally around such as extremely high unemployment levels, the disproportionate impact of the recession on African-Americans and how the health care debate affects black people, there are also ongoing issues, including continued inequality in all areas of everyday life. Aside from the efforts of established organizations like the NAACP, and more recent organizations like MoveOn.org, as well as high profile and outspoken individuals, such as Reverend Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley, it seems that everyone else is staying quiet, preferring to talk behind closed doors rather than gather in public.
It is not that there isn’t a demand though. Some 5,000 people turned up to Tavis Smiley’s recent event to discuss the black agenda. It is clear that black people have a lot to say. So why aren’t ordinary black folks creating movements in the vein of the Tea or Coffee Parties?
Organizing is something that black people in America have always done, and done well. Every major social shift in the US that has impacted not only black people but American society as a whole was started by individuals who decided to organize to make a difference, whether this was Martin Luther King and those who he rallied together, the SCLC, the NAACP or the Black Panthers.
Has complacency set in now that Barack Obama is president? Did black Americans feel like their job had been done when they elected Obama and now there is no need to organize because it is assumed that the African-American president will deal with the issues? Or is there a desire not to protest in public, in order to protect the president? The answer is probably a mixture of all of these, but the fact is that there is no reason for people not to get together and create a movement to ensure that the concerns of black America are being heard and addressed. This isn’t just about having Reverend Al Sharpton or other recognized leaders rallying people, but about having everyday people getting together and creating a “for the people, by the people” movement.
The successes of the Tea and Coffee Parties suggest that it would be relatively easy for a similar party formed by and/or for African-Americans to get media attention and political traction. And again, it is no secret that the African-American community is grappling with issues that are disproportionately affecting them more than other groups. Annabel Park’s assertion that “there is a disconnect between ordinary people and people who are representing us in Washington” and that “unless citizens take control and are involved in the political process we are set for more of the same or worse” will no doubt ring true for many African-Americans.
Black people don’t have to rally in order to protest against the government or against President Obama. Black people can rally for something: ensuring that everyday black people have their say and are able to support the president and his administration in being able to do their best for people of color. This could mean joining forces with the Coffee Party, for example. “There’s the potential for so much leadership to come from the African-American community to engage the rest of the country in productive dialogue,” says Park.
The people who formed the Tea and Coffee Parties took on an ‘If not us, then who?, If not now, when?” approach. With the major concerns of black America, it seems strange for we black people not to do the same. Can black Americans still legitimately complain about the issues when there is an unwillingness to take responsibility in confronting them?
“Ultimately this is for the common good,” says Park. “Economic inequalities hurt us all. Immigration affects all of us. When one group suffers it has an impact on everyone”. Rallying around the issues that affect black America isn’t just a want, it’s an obligation.