TAMPA — They wore red, white and blue and waved yellow flags that read "Don't Tread on Me."
Taking a page from the hippies of the 1960s, they sang patriotic songs and shouted fiery rhetoric in protest of government action. Only this was a decidedly clean-shaven lot and considerably grayer.
And that familiar scent in the air? Tea.
Several hundred people descended on Joe Chillura Courthouse Square Park in downtown Tampa on Thursday night for the 2010 Tampa Bay Tax Day Tea Party. It was one of hundreds of gatherings nationwide in protest of government bailouts, runaway deficits and health care reform.
In Tampa, crowd members hailed from around the region and gave varying reasons for their anger with government. But they were united in their bottom line: This country is heading in the wrong direction under President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress, they said.
The remedy, they said, is to elect new people at all levels of government.
"Let's fight to take our country back," said St. Petersburg neurosurgeon David McKalip, one of several speakers who addressed the crowd.
The lawn at courthouse square park started filling in shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday, though the first speakers didn't begin clearing their throats until 90 minutes later. Most were white, but they came from varied walks of life.
Many carried signs or wore shirts featuring flags, eagles and humorous slogans.
"Ram it down our throats in 2009 and we'll shove it up your (picture of donkey) in 2010," read the sign carried by unemployed carpenter Gary McEwen, 59, of Tampa.
"I'll keep my guns, freedom and money," read a T-shirt worn by Inge Addario, 69, a retired hotel manager and native of Germany. "You can keep the change."
"Yo B.O. — Your politics don't pass the smell test," said a sign held by Robert Cygan, 62, of Dover, a Vietnam veteran and former telephone company worker.
Dolores Petkus, 68, of St. Pete Beach, offered arguably the most literate assessment: "We need John Galt," read her sign, referring to the hero of Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, who voiced pages-long exaltations of capitalism.
Petkus said she feels Rand's warnings of government control and takeover of private business are all coming true.
"I never thought we would be experiencing this first-hand," she said.
Speakers ranged from Internet radio talk show host Mark Larsen to Ed Braddy, a former Gainesville city commissioner and current executive director of the American Dream Coalition, a free market advocacy group.
They railed against everything from new warnings to combat so-called global warming to health care reform and the mainstream media.
Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan welcomed them, saying, "I'm delighted to be here today and to be with freedom-loving Americans."
Candidates for office pumped hands for votes and handed out literature.
The Christian group Steadfast 190 sang songs with such lyrics as, "You are good, all the time, you are good."
A man sold "We the people" T-shirts, telling prospective buyers not to tell Obama that he's a capitalist.
Nearby, Brian Collar, 47, of Riverview, wore a colonial-era patriot outfit. "I'm here to support liberty," he said. "
A handful of protestors marched around the periphery with their own signs. One carried by Tim Heberlein, of the group Florida Consumer Action Network, read, "You are not Paul Revere."
From the center of the lawn, Jim Nepute, 46, of Tampa, took it all in. His sign read, "Don't tax me, bro."
He didn't want to say much beyond that. His explanation: he's a federal government employee.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]