Editor’s note: This online version of the story has been edited to remove references to the phrase “tea bagger,” used Thursday by some protesters to describe members of the conservative Tea Party movement. Some in the movement consider it an offensive term. The Bangor Daily News did not intend to offend those who consider the term derogatory.
PORTLAND, Maine — The several thousand spectators inside the Portland Expo may have greeted President Barack Obama with exuberant enthusiasm. But on the streets just outside, the crowd’s attitude was decidedly more diverse.
It was, as one observer noted, American democracy in full display.
Hundreds of people had lined the sidewalks to cheer or jeer the president’s motorcade but spent most of their time engaging in civic — and overwhelmingly civil — discourse amongst each other.
Among them were several hundred members of the conservative Tea Party movement. Some were ringing “freedom bells” and waving American or “Don’t Tread on Me” flags in protest of everything from socialized medicine to deficit spending and government encroachment on constitutional rights.
Standing amid the crowd were Bangor residents Scott Stewart and Scott Scherpf, each armed with a flag and a bell of their own.
The card-carrying union workers expressed strong concerns about the constitutionality of the government requiring citizens to obtain health insurance coverage or face potential fines. But the two men said their concerns go much deeper than health care, with both expressing alarm at the size and scope of government.
“We are disenfranchised with both parties,” said Stewart, adding that many of his friends have unaffiliated themselves with either political party.
“It started with Bush and has gotten worse with Obama.”
Just down the street, Donna Russell of Scarborough was sending a much different message with her hand-printed sign reading, “Yes you can. Yes you are. Yes you did. Thank you, Mr. President.”
“I’m here because I’m for change,” said Russell, who also attended Obama’s speech. “It’s not a perfect health care bill, but we have to start somewhere.”
Throughout the afternoon as the crowd waited for Obama’s arrival, pro-Obama groups on one section of the street traded chants with anti-Obama groups gathered in another section. But there was also plenty of mixing.
In one spot, a man holding a sign claiming Obama and Congress had “condemned our children and grandchildren to financial slavery” was flanked by a “Yes We Can” poster on one side and a “Thank You Obama for Health Care Reform” poster just behind him.
There were also advocates for immigration reform, peace activists, people supporting the legalization of marijuana, opponents of nuclear power and plain-old spectators who just came to watch the show.
Bob Hayes, Chris Rusnov and Elayne Richard — all from the Waterville area — were among a small group trying to sell their message of “health care not warfare” to the president and the rest of the crowd.
“We all support the president’s initiative on health care,” Hayes said. “But if we stop the war, we could do a lot more.”
But amid all of the shouting and bell ringing, it was the plethora of handmade signs that seemed to speak the loudest throughout the afternoon.
Protester’s placards ranged from the poetic — “Give us Liberty, not debt” and “Remember in November” — to the divisive, such as “Marxist in chief” and “Obamacare kills babies and seniors.”
Those in the pro-president crowd countered with signs such as “Health reform is Patriotic,” “Mainahs for Healthcare” and oodles of placards left over from Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Bill DiGiulio’s sign carried a simple message: “Rock on, President Obama.” But the Bowdoin resident also wanted to signal to the president that, despite vocal political opposition from some in the crowd, there are still plenty of people willing to help him pursue the other lofty goals he outlined during his campaign.
“We need financial reform. We need a green economy, which is really going to help here in Maine. We need immigration reform now that we have health care behind us,” DiGiulio said.
President Obama’s motorcade arrived at the Expo somewhat earlier than expected but was, nonetheless, greeted with a healthy mix of both cheers and boos from the crowd.
It was the same about an hour later when the motorcade of two armored limousines, a half-dozen press vans, an ambulance, numerous unmarked SUVs and more than a dozen police and security vehicles roared away toward the airport.
Among those still hanging around were Matt Deckers and Renee Trust, who traveled from the town of Franklin outside of Ellsworth to express their displeasure with the president’s recent agenda.
Deckers said he was upset with the mounting federal debt levels, while Trust cited the health insurance mandate as an example of government overstepping constitutional boundaries.
But the pair said they have become more interested in and involved in both national and local politics since the 2008 election.
“So there is a positive side to it, and hopefully it will catch on,” Trust said.