Income tax foes dumped W-2 and 1040 forms into Boston waters. Angry Hawaiians hurled leis. Men wearing Colonial costumes tossed a tarred-and-feathered effigy of Richard Nixon into the water's murky depths.
It has been nearly 235 years since a band of Colonists, fed up with the British tax on tea and other goods, crept in darkness aboard three British ships in Boston Harbor and dumped 45 tons of tea into icy black water. But in the centuries since, protesters have invoked the image of the Boston Tea Party again and again as they fling objects from bridges, wharves, and boats.
This first American protest - cited by Gandhi, studied by schoolchildren, credited with helping to launch the Revolution - has been reenacted in more modern times by those protesting taxes and other perceived afflictions, including Prohibition, El Salvador's government, healthcare cuts, the 9/11 Commission, foreign-made goods, drilling in Georges Bank, working conditions for California grapepickers, Hawaii's lack of sovereignty, and sewer bills.
"That's the American way of protest," said George Quintal Jr., a Tea Party historical consultant. "We started out protesting with the Tea Party."
The Tea Party endures as a symbol claimed by the left and the right, New Englanders and Southerners, laborers and doctors. It's a feel-good image that nearly everyone recognizes. And, as activists know well, modern-day reenactments tend to catch the attention of the media. As far back as 1938, some onlookers criticized a Tea Party-style protest against German and Japanese goods for lacking substance, staged only for the benefit of "newscameramen."
"It really is the marrow of American culture," said Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "Save for the Boston Massacre, images of the Boston Tea Party are probably the most common ones of the popular culture coming out of the American Revolution."
Not everyone who has mimicked the original Tea Party has been clear on the details of the 1773 event. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Washington, D.C., delegates, angry that their district doesn't have voting rights in Congress, took advantage of the location to stage their own Tea Party. But as they stood beside Fort Point Channel, they were confused about their bodies of water. "I don't know about you, but I'm ready to throw some tea into the river!" shouted a D.C. councilor, trying to rouse the crowd. (Tea Party geography is confusing, to Bostonians and historians as well. Now being rebuilt after a fire, the Tea Party museum and its replica ship sat conspicuously in the channel. But the actual site of the original event is now filled in, near the office building at 470 Atlantic Ave.)
These days, for environmental reasons, protesters cannot make a splash with impunity - they must retrieve things they throw in the water. When 911truth.org tossed copies of the 9/11 Commission Report from the Moakley Bridge in 2006 and 2007, the group had to hire a boater to retrieve the detritus. In 2000, third-party supporters lobbed their televisions into the channel - then pulled them back by attached ropes.
For years after the original event, the Tea Party participants, who took an oath of secrecy, didn't publicly discuss their rebellion. They feared that if they were identified, they would be sued or jailed. The protest itself, the vast destruction of property, and its violent aftermath - 16 months later, the Revolution began - shocked Colonists, writes historian Alfred F. Young in "The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution." The event was not openly called the "Tea Party" or celebrated until the 1800s.
But there seems no chance that it will disappear from memory. Historians and other devotees dressed in Colonial garb stage official reenactments every year around the Tea Party anniversary, Dec. 16. And activists continue to mimic the protesters who touched off the American Revolution.
Paul Deslauriers, the national grass-roots coordinator for 911truth.org, said his group chose the Tea Party as a historical event to reenact because it symbolizes ordinary citizens standing up to government. His group, he said, aims "to protest the tyranny of another George. Just as it was done back in the original Boston Tea Party, we are also protesting the level of tyranny and the level of abuse."
Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.