Jenny Beth Martin remembers the day she became a protester.
Her husband's business had gone under, and the two were cleaning houses in Atlanta to stay afloat. That was when they heard about a tirade against President Obama's mortgage bailout scheme by a financial news analyst calling for a modern-day Boston Tea Party revolt.
"We had just lost our house and had ... moved into the rental house," says Martin, 38, whose husband Lee's temporary-employee firm had 5,000 workers before it went down in the recession.
"I didn't want other people paying for my mortgage, and I wanted to prevent that in other places," she says.
What started out as a handful of people blogging about their anger over federal spending — the bailouts, the $787 billion stimulus package and Obama's budget — has grown into scores of so-called tea parties across the country. The biggest demonstration so far drew 6,000 people in Cincinnati.
A nationwide protest in 500 cities and towns is scheduled for Wednesday, the deadline for filing federal income tax returns.
The goal is to pressure Congress and states to reject government spending as a way out of the recession and build an anti-spending coalition around regular taxpayers.
"The tea parties are a means, not an end," says lawyer Mark Meckler of Grass Valley, Calif.
Venting of frustrations
The events have largely been gatherings of people venting frustration over a variety of tax issues, carrying signs such as "Tar and feather Washington" and "Spread my work ethic, not my wealth."
Reuven Avi-Yonah, a tax historian at the University of Michigan, notes that the United States was born out of a tax revolt by British colonists, but little happened in the two centuries that followed until the California property-tax revolts of the 1970s.
"I don't know how much this represents popular sentiment," he says of today's tea parties. "I'm not sure that the majority of the middle class agrees or that this is going to be politically effective."
Where the tea-party protesters see irresponsible borrowers and politicians heedless of the growing federal budget deficit, others see downtrodden homeowners and public officials making tough choices.
Brendan Daly, spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, says concern over the deficit is justified, but "we need to have this budget bill ... to grow our economy."
The inspiration for the tea parties was an on-air rant Feb. 19 by Rick Santelli of CNBC, who complained that Obama's $75 billion bailout of mortgage defaulters "rewarded bad behavior."
As traders at the Chicago Board of Trade behind him cheered, Santelli said it was time for a new Tea Party, referring to the tax protest in 1773 by colonists who dumped chests of tea into Boston Harbor.
The remarks spread quickly through e-mail and websites such as Facebook and YouTube, which has recorded more than a million views of the Santelli video clip. Organized parties soon popped up in Atlanta, Denver and St. Louis. Some attracted no more than a few dozen people. Others drew thousands.
Organizers say they were not pleased by former president George W. Bush's performance on spending, either, but what moved them from yelling at the TV to rallying in the streets was Obama's proposed $3.6 trillion budget, a package the Congressional Budget Office says would produce record-breaking deficits of $9.3 trillion over 10 years.
Bridgett Wagner, director of coalition relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, sees a possible reprise of the tax revolt of the 1970s and '80s, when a California movement to slash and cap property taxes led to successful ballot measures from the West Coast to Michigan and Massachusetts.
"These movements in the past have shown that when people have finally had enough, even the politicians at some point have to listen," says Wagner, calling it a "bottom-up" phenomenon.
Word spreads on Internet
The Information Age has given people the ability to network as never before, she says. In that sense, the Tea Party movement resembles the early days of MoveOn.org, which began in 1998 as a small, tech-savvy liberal group and became a behemoth in Internet fundraising and rallying.
"They're catching up on the tools," says Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn.org's spokeswoman.
Hogue was dismissive of the several hundred events the Tea Party organizers plan for Wednesday, saying her group routinely mobilizes many more.
Nevertheless, Jenny Beth Martin, a former paid consultant for local Republican candidates, says the strength of the Tea Party movement is the emergence of people not known for street action.
"It's not your hippie protesters," she says. "It's people who are working hard for their families and they don't want their money taken away from them to be given to people who aren't working hard."
Meckler agrees. He says, "They're supposed to energize a group of new activists, show them there are people much like themselves."
Dawn Wildman of San Diego, who is organizing four tea parties, says lawmakers should not be dismissive.
"We're seeing how you vote," she says. "You're not paying attention to your constituency. We put you there, and we can take you out."