NEW YORK (AFP) — Critics of President Barack Obama marked national tax day with "tea party" protests that Republicans called the birth of a grassroots opposition, but Democrats dismissed as a fraud.
Modest crowds gathered under blustery skies in Washington, Miami, New York and Boston, with several thousands meeting in Sacramento, California, to protest taxes, government bailouts and Obama's big-spending budget proposals.
Organizer Eric Odom said protests were to take place in almost 800 cities in a "new day for the freedom movement."
The demonstrations, styled on the famed 1773 Boston Tea Party revolt against British colonial taxes, came as Americans rushed to meet the annual deadline for filing income tax returns.
Protests featured tea bags, iced tea and other tea-related props, complete with a planned re-enactment of the original dumping of tea into Boston harbor.
But despite the catchy theme, there were questions about whether the scattered, mostly Republican forces could achieve a significant turnout.
The Republican party has been in disarray since Senator John McCain lost the White House to Obama last year and support from senior figures to the tea parties appeared lukewarm.
While Newt Gingrich, a former Congressional leader, attended a New York gathering, McCain's vice presidential pick Sarah Palin was among several prominent leaders staying away, according to the Politico news website.
Protestors were also weakened by broad support among Americans for Obama's far-reaching economic policies, including a 787-billion-dollar anti-recession stimulus package.
A USA Today/Gallup poll published Wednesday found that a majority of Americans favor Obama's expansion of the government's role in the economy, at least for now.
One of the bigger demonstrations took place in Washington near the White House, where about 1,000 people waved placards including "Stop Big Government" and "Taxation is Piracy."
"My money is disappearing," said one protestor, Marilyn Henretty 70, a retiree. "We are tired of being taxed without representation."
Police told the rally to disperse after someone threw tea over the White House fence.
Fox television news -- which along with conservative radio shows gave intensive coverage to the event -- showed footage of a crowd in Sacramento that it said numbered 5,000.
Much smaller rallies took place in New York, Boston and Chicago, and other cities in Democrat-leaning California.
Around 1,000 people attended an event in Santa Ana, south of Los Angeles. "The tax situation is just getting out of hand and spending is out of control," said protester Daniel Flucke.
In Miami -- a city hit hard by the collapse of the real estate market -- around 200 people turned out at the downtown Bayfront Park.
Many demonstrators carried American flags and signs with anti-Obama and anti-tax slogans. One placard even suggested a change of job for the US president: "Obama for president of Cuba," it read.
"People are here to... bring Congress under control and ask Congress to start acting like adults," Ken Clark, a Miami resident and protestor told AFP
Dick Armey, chairman of the conservative Freedom Works group, described the tea parties as "the shot across the bow as taxpayers defend themselves against out of control government spending."
But Democrats scathingly attacked the tea parties as an imitation grass roots, or "AstroTurf" movement, manufactured by fringe elements of the right.
The tea parties "have been largely a creation of the same gang that already ran conservatism off the rails," wrote David Waldman on the liberal Daily Kos politics blog.
Obama sought to catch opponents off guard by defending his policies at a meeting with working families at the White House. "I know that April 15 isn't exactly everyone's favorite date on the calendar," he quipped, referring to the US tax filing deadline.
The man credited with sparking the protests is CNBC television commentator Rick Santelli, who called in February for a "tea party" to oppose government bailouts for mortgage defaulters.
The clip of Santelli's angry outburst has been viewed on YouTube more than a million times.
The protests stand out for the use of Web-savvy marketing, something barely seen in McCain's unsuccessful presidential bid.
That, says Odom, is one reason why the tea parties could be the start of something much bigger: a grassroots Republican movement able to match Obama's formidable support network.
But liberals mocked the protests as a flop, even poking fun at Republicans' seemingly innocent vow to go "teabagging," which in slang means a sex act.
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