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Tea Partiers, Flash Mobbers And Guilt By Association

A supporter of the Tea Party movement holds a sign outside the US Capitol as they demonstrate in Washington on March 21, 2010 against the health care bill. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Today, Tell Me More explored two high profile stories that touch on very sensitive questions: when does a group of folks gathered in one place turn into a mob, who gets to make that judgment, and what should happen next?

The first — which we discussed on Thursday's program, and again in the Friday Barbershop — is how a handful of opponents to President Obama's health care plan have slurred or harassed members of Congress who voted for it. Some have allegedly vandalized offices, and threatened representatives with death.

The second report is about how flash mobs, made up largely of young black men, have frightened shoppers and pedestrians around Philadelphia, and how a very visible few of those teens have been fighting each other, vandalizing property, and assaulting passers-by.

In both cases, reports suggest that most of those gathered haven't done anything illegal or even wrong. Mostly, they're guilty of being part of a group that many people with resources and power don't like very much. And then, when a minority of their minority starts acting like thugs, they're all roundly condemned in some corners of the public and the press.

That's regrettable. But I've got a suggestion for both the misunderstood flash mobbers in Philadelphia and the unfairly maligned members of the Tea Party across the country: If someone keeps inviting you to great events, but every time you show up, there are 10 people breaking windows, pushing pedestrians, chanting racial slurs or threatening to stage an armed overthrow of the American government, then maybe your response to the next invitation should be, "no thanks."

Yes, there are some knee-jerk liberals out there who are happy to smear every opponent of President Obama's health care plan as a fascist nutcase. Yes, there are some bigoted white people who think any gathering of black males between the ages of 2 and 70 is a crime about to happen. But to suggest that being unfairly labeled a hooligan is an injustice on par with having someone cut the gas line at your brother's house, or being roughed up just because you walked into the wrong department store in Philadelphia is ludicrous.

And the accusation in both cases that some cosmically unfair double standard is being applied because of political or demographic affiliations may be a bit of a stretch.

I'd like to ask those innocent Tea Party members what they think would happen if a dozen African-Americans in reflective sunglasses, softly chanting, "The revolution has come. It's time to pick up the gun" started appearing regularly at events in support of President Obama.

What if Latino deejays told their listeners to show up at the homes of congressional Republicans who opposed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants? What if curse-filled rants, punctuated with "Si, se puede!" started jamming voice-mail boxes on Capitol Hill?

What would happen to a group of Muslim-Americans who started organizing angry protests outside town hall meetings, and one or two of them brought unconcealed weapons to remind people they had a right to bear arms? Somehow, I don't think ANY political leader would suggest that — while just a few of THOSE protesters "misbehaved" — there was valid foundation for their anger.

And to those young people in Philadelphia, I want to tell you that I've hung out with black teenagers (some of the people I love and treasure most in the world are black teenagers) and — many, many years ago — I was a black teenager. And any large group of teenagers milling around in front of a store is sure to make shopkeepers very unhappy.

Even if those young people are doing nothing — and that's what most teenagers of all races are doing when they gather in malls or in front of stores — grown folks don't want to deal with that. Not to sound like a "get off my lawn!" old lady, but no one over a certain age says to him or herself, "Gee, after a long week at the office, I want to treat myself to a nice shopping spree or a dinner out. That place with five dozen idle adolescents loitering in front of it looks nice!" It may not seem fair that city officials or merchants tell you to move along. But if this ranks high among the injustices you face in your life, then mine and earlier generations of African-Americans' will really have something to be proud of someday.

Yes, in America, you have the right to hang out with whatever group of people you choose. But if your associates insist on threatening people, don't expect authorities to stand by and do nothing.

And don't expect the rest of us to be glad to see you.