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Fanning the spark into flame

At yesterday’s Congressional Hearing on IRS targeting of Conservative Groups, Tea Party leader Karen Kenney gave this moving testimony, which every citizen should read or watch.

Every day, we get more and more evidence that the IRS has engaged in a campaign of suppression, harassment, and intimidation of conservative groups. They mostly targeted small groups headed by kitchen table activists by asking intrusive questions, making inappropriate demands, dragging on the application process for months on end. For larger groups, the IRS has allegedly used another tactic of suppression: disclosing confidential donor lists to various political opponents.

The Tea Party rallies began in 2009 and continued in force through 2010.  These were the epitome of grassroots events: average citizens coming together to protest government overreach like the TARP legislation, the various stimulus bills, and the health care bill. But while the rallies were galvanizing and worked to bring people of similar ideas, a movement cannot ride on the emotional energy or protests forever.

The next logical step was organizing into groups to educate and influence, fanning the fire lit at the rallies into a wildfire that would change the face of the political discussion. We saw some evidence of this in the 2010 elections. But the fire did not continue to spread after the 2010 elections with the same intensity as those early days. It might have just been natural fading of interest after an intense start. It might be that the moment had passed. But maybe it wasn’t the fire fading so much as being suffocated.

We are learning that a weaponized IRS tried to stamp out these sparks before they could unite, either through preventing them from growing beyond the kitchen table or by monopolizing their time and money interaction with the IRS. It seems like they had some success in their suppression. We may never know how many groups just quit the process. The latest information we have is that 236 groups’ applications were under review for over 200 days, and that was already revised upward once from 132. We know the “two low-level employees” has already been revised to be 88, including Lois Lerner, director of the IRS exempt organization office, so we can probably expect the reports of those targeted, the extent of the targeting, and those involved to expand as well.

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That was their plan: kill the infant in the cradle, but now we know. We know their tactics and their methods, and we know who they fear: small groups of citizens working in their communities to affect change.  The question is, what do we do now? Now that we know that the federal government and all its many tentacles has been used — and probably will be used to suppress political opposition — how do we counter it?

Obviously, much of this will need to be addressed with legislation or even in the courts. But the citizens sitting at the kitchen table or listening to the news and shaking our heads can act and make a difference.  We can contact our representatives and senators and tell them we demand a full investigation and that the abuses be corrected. It takes two minutes to send an email or make a call, and we are a representative democracy. They do care about what their constituents say, whether because they actually care (ha!) or they care about their jobs, your opinion matters to them.

But how do we stop it before thousands of people have their rights violated? The quote comes to mind, “When the light appears, darkness flees.”  Every person testifying before Congress is bowing and scraping and saying, “It should never have happened!” (Well, except for Lois Lerner, who apparently read at least one amendment in the Bill of Rights.)  Sheepish, like a 3-year-old with his hand in the cookie jar, they “apologize” when we know damn well it will happen again if they think they can get away with it. The sheer power and “usefulness” of the IRS as a tool to stop dissent is too appealing to the powermongers in charge.

We must be prepared the next time the IRS, or the EPA, or any government bureaucracy comes to stamp out a spark. We must continue to shine a light, not only on the abuses but on the raw power the government exercises upon its citizens. We must be much quicker about speaking out, reaching out, calling lawyers and bloggers and media. Any time the government steps even slightly out of the bright lines of the Constitution, we need to shine a thousand watt light on it.

And most importantly, we can get back to our kitchen tables and get back to work.

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