Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tea Party Coalition opens convention: Attendees say that Gatlinburg event's an opportunity to learn

By Mike Blackerby

Originally published 02:02 p.m., May 22, 2010
Updated 05:55 p.m., May 22, 2010

GATLINBURG - Attendees at Saturday morning's opening session of the Tennessee Tea Party Coalition's inaugural statewide convention vowed to fight for and promulgate their conservative beliefs.

And they drew kudos for standing by their convictions from one of the guest speakers, Pamela Geller, whose presentation titled "The Threat of Islam" has come under fire by a national Muslim-rights group that considers her anti-Islamic.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations had pushed for Geller - who heads a group called Stop Islamization of America - to be dropped from the convention's lineup of speakers.

"Thank you for having the guts to have me speak," said Geller, whose comment received a standing ovation and enthusiastic applause from an overflow crowd of about 300 at the Gatlinburg Convention Center meeting room.

"You think you're in a little room in Gatlinburg, but this is a battlefield in the information war," said Geller, who labeled CAIR's attempt to censor her as just another example of the Islamization of America.

"They try to shut up everybody who speaks against them. How dare they attack one human thought while they try and impose shariah law in America? They smear all of us so nobody will hear what we say. I am warning you that freedom of speech is the line in the sand."

Anthony Shreeve, one of the convention organizers, said the Tennessee Tea Party Coalition has received overwhelming support for its decision to retain Geller as a speaker.

"We've had about 1,000 e-mails pour in, and 800 were positive for Pam," said Shreeve, who lives in Dandridge.

"The other 200 said we were a bunch of racists and slimebags - we've heard it all before."

Geller was just one of many guest speakers at the convention, which wraps up today.

Shreeve said 1,000 advance tickets had been sold by Friday and he expects upwards of 2,000 to attend the convention, which also features workshops, discussions and educational instruction on topics such as Constitutional law.

There are 43 state Tea Party groups, which have 18,000 members.

"I'd like to see people get educated and come away from this by getting involved and being proactive - whether that means talking to your neighbor about the Constitution or getting involved in a campaign," Shreeve said.

About 15 members of the Lawrence County Tea Party made the five-hour drive from Middle Tennessee to attend the convention.

Lawrence County group members Mike and Ruth Gibson said there's a need for the Tea Parties to up the ante in the fight to advance the conservative cause of Constitutionally limited and less-intrusive government.

Both also said the Tea Party movement is unfairly portrayed by the media.

"We're here to educate ourselves about the Constitution and learn how to back up the Constitution as it's written," Mike Gibson said.

"Some people say that we're radical and that we're hurtful, but we are not terrorists," said Ruth Gibson. "What we need to do is grow our grassroots movement. We will get our country back."

Cheryl Mills, who is active in several Tea Party groups in the Tri-Cities area, said she got involved in the movement because of her children.

"I don't want them to say, 'Hey, where were you when this was going on?' " said Mills, who had her oldest daughter with her.

"Government has no respect for the Constitution of the United States. They walk on it come hell or high water."

Mike Blackerby is a freelance contributor to the News Sentinel.