Tea Bags: A Cautionary Tale
It almost seems like a dream, after all these years. Long before Barack Obama nationalized General Motors and enrolled the American people in involuntary servitude to Big Insurance and Big Pharma; before George W. Bush bankrupted the United States in a quixotic attempt to stamp out all evil and to secure the existence of the state of Israel in perpetuity; even before Bill Clinton repealed the most important parts of the Glass-Steagall Act and signed into law the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, sending the American economy hurtling downhill like a snowball headed for Hell, a doughty band of activists in Rockford, Illinois, held a tax protest, complete with the tea bags that have become a national symbol of discontent today.
There was even a tea party, organized by R.E.A.CH (Rockford Educating All Children), in which tea bags were dropped off a bridge downtown into the Rock River. Though I was, for a time, a member of the board of directors of R.E.A.CH, I wasn’t present at the tea party, and I don’t recall ever wearing a tea bag as a protest symbol. I was more fond of the pins that we at The Rockford Institute had made, sporting a decaying wooden sign, surrounded by weeds, on which were written the words, “Welcome to Occupied Rockford. P. Michael Mahoney, Presiding.”
Magistrate Mahoney was the federal judicial dictator who controlled Rockford’s public schools and the wallets of anyone who owned property within the boundaries of School District 205. By threatening to throw school-board members into jail for contempt of court, Judge Mahoney technically ensured that his judicial taxation was not without representation.
R.E.A.CH was founded to combat the federally mandated busing that was destroying neighborhood schools and to protest the unconstitutional “tort tax” that made Rockford’s property taxes for several years the highest in the nation. In February 1997, The Rockford Institute and Chronicles joined in the battle with the publication of Tom Fleming’s “Here Come the Judge” and a wildly successful rally against judicial taxation, attended by over 700 people on a cold and sleety night, at the Rockford Woman’s Club.
I don’t have the room here to recount all of the history, which I covered at length in these pages over the next six years. Suffice it to say that Dr. Fleming’s rousing speech, and a follow-up rally a year later, helped to turn the tide, to bring more Rockfordians into the cause, and to change the make-up of the school board, until there was a four-to-three majority in opposition to the federal tyranny. Some of those members even wore their tea bags to school-board meetings.
In the end, it all made very little difference. By the time the federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit finally slapped Judge Mahoney down and ordered District 205 released from 13 years of judicial tyranny, two of the members of the board majority, president Patti Delugas and vice president Ted Biondo, had caved under Mahoney’s threats and twice authorized more illegal taxation. Rather than focus their efforts on what they could accomplish (and what they had promised to voters)—standing up to the judge even if it meant jail time, cutting spending, and slashing the other taxes that they did control—Biondo and Delugas spent their time trying to comply with the most outlandish aspects of Judge Mahoney’s desegregation plan. (Racial quotas were imposed not only on each school in the district but on each classroom, which meant that certain classes, such as calculus, had to be dropped altogether when too few minority students enrolled.)
And so June 30, 2002—the day the people of Rockford supposedly regained control of District 205—was bittersweet at best. Yes, the district buses fewer students today, but neighborhood schools have never returned. Academic achievement continues to decline, and many of the federally mandated programs, rather than being removed when the illegal taxation came to an end, were simply transferred by the administration, with the approval of the board, into the general budget.
For Fiscal Year 2003, the first year of local control, the district’s budgeted expenditures were just under $270 million. For FY 2010, which ended June 30, the district’s budgeted expenditures were just under $340 million—a 26-percent increase.
Over the last year, many of the grassroots protesters from a decade ago have once again pinned tea bags to their shirts. Their anger is still aimed at a federal leviathan that holds far too much control over the lives and livelihood of the citizens of the Forest City. But today, there are no taxes they can legally protest, and no local politicians they can support in an attempt to rein in federal power.
Those protesters did all the right things a decade ago, and they lost—even as they seemed to win.
It makes one wonder if perhaps those tea bags might be better used to make tea.
This article first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.