[PHOTO: Gabrielle Giffords and Trent Humphries, the Tea Party guy who says she asked for it]
TUCSON -- While everybody was hollering on the news out of Egypt today, I decided to pay a visit to a street protest by a Tea Party group in Tucson this afternoon, in which the Tea Partiers demanded that the Pima County sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, resign.
Alas, for the local TV news crews out in the sunny warmth with the crowd along Benson Highway in front of the sheriff's department, everybody was reasonable, and even the signs they toted were low-key. "Dupnik Out!" was a favorite. The most unfriendly one was merely a play on a famous movie line from The Treasure of Sierra Madre. "Dupnik? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Dupnik," it said.
There were maybe 100 Tea Partiers demonstrating to oust the sheriff. Next to them, separated only by a highway cone and a few feet of gravel, was a bigger group of maybe 150 counter-demonstrators, who held signs saying how much they admired Dupnik, who has been the sheriff of Pima County since 1980.
"We support Sheriff Dupnik--Tea Party Thugs Are Not Welcome in Tucson," said the most harsh of the lot.
Yup, I thought. All politics is local once again in Tucson, less than three weeks after that crazy gunman shot 19 people, killing six, in front of a supermarket here during an assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot through the brain and is now in a Houston rehabilitation center.
I spoke with people in both groups, and nobody sounded nasty or angry. This was generally considered to be an indication that "out of towners" -- a reference both to the national media from the Tea Party side, and to Tea Partiers from outside of Arizona on the support-the-sheriff's side -- had finally gone home.
The sheriff, widely liked in Pima County, got a lot of right-wingers' red-white-and-blue-striped knickers in a twist when he said publicly right after the shootings that he saw a link between the horrible event and the very nasty, sometimes violent Tea Party and other right-wing denunciations of incumbent Democrat Gabby Giffords during the congressional campaign last Fall in the vast 9,000-square-mile 8th Congressional District, which includes Tucson as well as a good stretch of the Arizona border with Mexico.
Giffords, remember, had herself expressed serious concern about the violent speech and messages directed against her, not least of which was the infamous map of the U.S. with the gun cross-hair targets over the districts of members of Congress, Giffords among them, whom the national Tea Party's biggest loudmouths had decided to eliminate. Sarah Palin, of course, associated herself with that map.
Also during the campaign, while angry weekly Tea Party protests were held outside Giffords' district office in central Tucson, a glass door in that office was smashed at night.
Here is what Sheriff Dupnik said on the day of the shooting:
"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
Now, within a day after the shooting, a great media Piety Chorale was chanting the message, as pushed by the Tea Party, that, of course there was no proof whatsoever of any possible connection between the lunatic who killed six and wounded 19 while trying to assassinate Giffords, and the violent rhetoric that had pumped relentlessly at her for a half a year by political opponents, prominently people like Palin and various elements of the various Tea Party branches.
Uh, never mind that, as it now transpires, Jared Loughner, the killer, had been researching Web sites on political assassins shortly before his rampage. Can't possibly be a link. After all, the boy's crazy!
Anyway, Sheriff Dupnik was instantly vilified by the national right-wing media for asserting that connection. Calls arose, and persist, to cast him out of office.
In a dim portend for that particular initiative, as I said, the Tea Party demonstration here today to demand his ouster drew fewer people to the sheriff's headquarters on Benson Highway today than the counter-demonstration held in support of the sheriff.
As the opposing groups stood assembled along the roadside, a guy in tan slacks and a dress shirt and tie scurried around taking to cops and to organizers. I figured by his outfit and demeanor that he was a deputy police chief or assistant to the mayor or something, but it turns out he was a star of one of the local news stations that had their satellite trucks parked nearby.
The pomaded hair should have been the give-away to me.
By 3.30, a half hour after the protests had begun, the local TV man looked a bit desperate. "I have to do the first stand-up at 5.30," he told one organizer, who nodded thoughtfully and said he'd see what he could do.
A few people driving by toted their horns politely in support of one group of signs or the other. But generally, these protesters could have just as easily been waiting for a bus.
Back during the campaign, people told me after the shootings, the truly violent and hateful signs and shouts during the regular Saturday demonstrations outside Giffords' office all seemed to come from out-of-towners -- "like people from ... Utah," as one Giffords volunteer told me darkly, putting both the ellipses and the italics into the comment by herself.
Today, the only out-of-towners I could find were from Phoenix, which hardly counts. They were a middle-aged couple who came to demand the ouster of the sheriff, not for any overt ideological reasons, but for reasons of real estate.
"What he said made Arizona look terrible," the man said. "It's affected our property values," said his wife.
Meanwhile, another woman, who had helped organize the oust-the-sheriff rally, made sure that I wrote down the name of her local Tea Party contingent correctly.
"We're the Pima County Tea Party Patriots," she said, handing me a card that said "Silent No More!" She was concerned that I not describe the rally as being organized by a rival Tea Party group, the Tucson Tea Party -- the co-founder of which, Trent Humphries, had recently got himself some swell global fame by telling a reporter in town from the Guardian newspaper of London that Gabby Giffords essentially got what she asked for.
After all, Humphries had said, the congresswoman shouldn't have attended an event "in full view of the public" if she had such serious security concerns about being shot. And just in case you think I am overstating the breathtaking inanity of his comments, here is the full story in the Guardian.
Humphries -- who graduated from college in ... Utah -- also said that the Tea Party is a victim of the shootings, just like the dead and the wounded were victims.
The Pima County Tea Party Patriots woman at the rally today looked straight at my notebook as I wrote down the correct name: "Pima County Tea Party Patriots."
Not, Tucson Tea Party. (And certainly not the Peoples Front of Judea, but that's another movie).
Anyway, I bailed out before 4 p.m., well before the evidently locally famous TV-channel guy needed to do his 5.30 stand-up.
He seemed like a nice enough man, and I hoped enough protesters would remain on the scene to give him some good sign-wagging visuals for the evening news. Far too often, I have noticed here, the intrepid local TV people are left standing at empty corners, bereft of visuals, wanly describing to a gravely nodding news anchor back at the studio that not more than an hour ago, there had been a protest rally of one sort or another on this spot.
I got in my car and headed home. On the radio, the NPR news was full of shouting and gunfire from Cairo. Then the local public-radio announcer came on, on the terrific Tucson public radio station KUAZ, which is based at the University of Arizona.
The lead story was that some excitable Republicans in the State Legislature were passing a bill that will henceforth require all presidential candidates to prove that they were born in the U.S.A. before they could be appear on any presidential ballot in this state. This work has evidently occupied them for most of the week in Phoenix.
Ah, I thought with some relief. Life is returning to normal in Arizona. The gentlemen and ladies from the Valley of the Sun are back in the saddle.