Organizers of tax-day tea parties are preparing for their biggest day of the year Thursday, as thousands of demonstrators participate in local rallies against high taxes and big government spending. But the leaders are striving to keep the rallies from presenting another image: one of fringe groups, extremists or infiltrators obsessed with hateful messages.
Sensitive that poor public perception could sink their movement, some rally planners have uninvited controversial speakers, beefed up security and urged participants to pack cameras to capture evidence of any disrupters. Organizers want to project a peaceful image of people upset by a growing and burdensome federal government.
"We don't want to be misrepresented, whether it's by someone who is not part of the group and has their own agenda, or whether it's by some fringe extremist who may actually be a racist," said Jim Hoft, a political blogger and tea party activist who is one of the speakers for a rally in suburban St. Louis.
The National Tea Party Federation, a newly formed coalition of regional tea party groups, estimates that between 1,700 and 2,000 tax-day rallies are occurring Thursday in communities across the country.
"What's at stake is showing various government officials of both parties that people are concerned," said Tim Hagle, an associate political science professor at the University of Iowa. "That's why it's important that you don't have distractions from people who are interlopers of one sort or another."
The tea party took a recent publicity hit when three black Democratic congressmen asserted that they were targeted with racial slurs as they walked through thousands health care protesters — many of them tea party activists — outside the U.S. Capitol on March 20. Some conservatives and tea party leaders insist it never happened.
But it's not the only racially charged incident. A photo posted on Flickr, which has attracted Internet chatter, shows a white man carrying a sign that says: "Obama's Plan White Slavery." The photo claims to have been shot at a tea party rally last year in Madison, Wis.
At a tea party rally Tuesday in Jefferson City, a couple of people wore T-shirts depicting President Barack Obama in white face paint above the word "Joker" — a reference to the villain in a Batman movie.
Some tea party organizers have taken steps to distance themselves from those espousing potentially controversial views.
The Waco, Texas, tea party started hiring off-duty police officers and renting their venues so that they could keep extremists out their main events. The change happened after a group showed up with racist signs in a gathering in a public park.
"They tried to insist they were tea party members," said Toby Marie Walker, president of the Waco Tea Party. But she added: "Our tea party people would not hold signs like that."
At least two local tea party groups have shunned speakers who originally were scheduled for Thursday's rallies.
Alabama attorney John Eidsmoe, who has spoken previously to white supremacists, withdrew from a tea party rally in Wausau, Wis., after organizers questioned his views. Coordinators of a tax-day rally in Pleasanton, Calif., rescinded the speaking invitation of Orly Taitz, an attorney who has filed lawsuits claiming Obama was not born in the U.S. and is ineligible to be president.
Tea party leaders also are concerned that opponents may pose as tea party participants and cause a ruckus to damage the reputation of the movement. A Web site has urged people to "crash the tea party" to draw attention to the party's least appealing qualities.
The National Tea Party Federation is urging rally participants to point cameras at anyone acting obnoxious or hateful. The intent is reprimand true tea party activists, disavow fringe followers or reveal the people as plants by opponents.
Cindy Maves, who put together a tea party rally at a park in Rochester, Minn., said organizers have brought in more security and put local police on alert. "We just want to make sure the press isn't covering these people thinking they're us," she said.
Associated Press writers Valerie Bauman in Albany, N.Y., and Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., contributed to this report.
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