Elmer Smith: Flash mobs, tea party mobs: Hey, no one's responsible

Protesters opposed to the health-care-reform bill massed outside the House chambers Sunday night just before the vote. Crowd members hurled epithets, spit at legislators.
Protesters opposed to the health-care-reform bill massed outside the House chambers Sunday night just before the vote. Crowd members hurled epithets, spit at legislators.
Posted: March 23, 2010

THE APOLOGISTS responded on cue after their mob scene turned ugly over the weekend.

The "regrettable" behavior got overblown by a biased press corps bent on demonizing a mostly innocent crowd, one claimed.

It's nobody's fault. When hundreds of people converge for any reason, things can get out of hand, others argued.

These weren't lame excuses offered to explain the behavior of those unruly crowds who rampaged along South Street this weekend. Those are a sampling of the recorded reactions of people responding to stories on WashingtonPost.com about the crowd of anti-health-care protesters that turned ugly on Capitol Hill Saturday.

What they have in common with the herd that stampeded on South Street is that none of them can be held responsible for the extracurricular activities of the crowds they gather.

Kids run wild on South Street disrupting businesses and occasionally assaulting people. It's not the fault of the people whose Twittering drew them there.

Protesters on Capitol Hill shout racist epithets at black congressmen. You can't blame protest organizers if a few people do their own thing.

Dozens of businessmen take a loss when they are forced to shut down their shops on the first day of spring. Hey, nobody meant for that to happen.

A protester leaves an anti-Semitic note with a swastika on it at Rep. Anthony Weiner's office, or Rep. Barney Frank gets called "faggot" and "homo" as he walks past protesters, or some guy in the crowd spits at Rep. Emanuel Cleaver as he walks up the Capitol steps.

It's regrettable. But it's an unintended consequence of a well-intentioned protest.

Spit happens.

That's the resounding shrug of the suddenly impotent. Organizers can draw thousands of people together with a tweet or an e-mail blast. But they're not responsible for what happens after that.

You might buy that innocent act the first time one of these Internet-induced crowds gets out of hand. But it gets old after awhile.

You are painting them all with a broad brush, one woman e-mailed me after I said in a Feb. 19 column that kids who use flash mobs as a cover for their violence and vandalism should be "dealt with harshly."

Most of those kids didn't go to The Gallery to start trouble, she said. They just got caught up.

Tell that to the boy who got kicked in the face outside City Hall or the adults who got pushed to the ground as the crowd raced past them on Market Street.

But the flash-mob apologists at least are willing to acknowledge that there were a few instances of vandalism and violence.

The tea party organizers whose protest got out of hand over the weekend are in total denial.

Debbie Gunnoe, a tea party organizer from Navarre, Fla., is quoted railing against people who play "the bogus racism card" to discredit her movement.

Even if it did happen, one protester claimed in a Yahoo message board, "We're talking about a couple of bigots hiding in the crowd."

U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, hid in the crowd on the Republican side of the House chamber Sunday. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., was speaking out against an amendment that would have sent the health-care bill back to committee. Someone shouted, "Baby killer."

Neugebauer, in a statement yesterday, finally came clean - sort of.

"The timing and tone of my comment was inappropriate," Neugebauer said. As if there could be an appropriate time and tone for that kind of filth.

He said that he wasn't talking about Stupak. He was misquoted. He was merely saying, "It's a baby killer." He didn't say what "it" was.

Nobody takes full responsibility for anything. The protesters outside are misunderstood, the lawmakers inside are misquoted.

But the previously undistinguished Neugebauer can expect a boost from his outburst. Rep. Joe Wilson got a sudden infusion of $2 million in campaign funds after shouting "you lie" at the president last year.

It's just one more unintended consequence of a well-intentioned protest.

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith

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