Wake Up and Smell the …

Fed up with the polarizing antics of the conservative Tea Party movement, documentary filmmaker Annabel Park brewed up an alternative. Now thousands across the country want to join her Coffee Party.

By Ellis Song
Illustration by Katherine Yum

Move over, Tea Party. There’s another movement brewing in the country—and this one’s serving up civil discourse and democracy with your cup of Joe.

You can thank Annabel Park, a Korean American documentary filmmaker, for the alternative, hot beverage-inspired movement that urges followers to “wake up and stand up.”

“Let’s get together and drink cappuccino and have real political dialogue with substance and compassion,” she urged on her Facebook page one day in January after becoming fed up with the extreme and polarizing antics of the conservative Tea Party movement and the mainstream media’s “growing narrative that it represented America.”

Somehow, Park’s lone status update sparked a digital-roots movement of sorts on the internet, spawning a website and Facebook page. Thousands responded, and Coffee Party USA was born.
Like the Tea Party, Coffee Partygoers also want to spur change in the country, but not by shouting the loudest, brandishing rifles or waving anti-Obama picket signs. That’s why on March 13, National Coffee Day, members didn’t stage a protest, but instead headed for coffee houses to converse face to face about issues like health care reform, education and the economy. Over 350 meetings occurred in 44 states.

Ian Kim, a 34-year-old from San Francisco, led one such discussion in Northern California. After reading a story about the movement in The Washington Post, he said he was inspired and joined immediately. “People are signing up in droves to be a part of the conversation,” he said.

While the Coffee Party movement is in response to the Tea Party movement, he also noted, “It’s a higher road. We’re not trying to stop things from happening.”

Borrowing the nomenclature and imagery from the Boston Tea Party (“taxation without representation”) preceding the American Revolution, supporters of the Tea Party movement generally oppose what they call excessive government spending and taxation. They have been especially vocal in trying to stop health care reform, often tossing around the motto, “Kill the Bill.” Some of their members get carried away, as seen with the racial and homophobic slurs hurled aloud at Democratic members of Congress just as the House of Representatives was voting to pass health care reform last month.

The embarrassing behavior spurred conservative commentator Pat Buchanan to say on MSNBC that he hoped those few wouldn’t give the Tea Party a bad name. But many of the Tea Party’s demonstrators have a reputation for being vitriolic.

The tone is a far cry from the Coffee Party’s, though Park has admitted that both movements are responses to how people feel like their government does not represent them. “It’s their methodology that we are against,” she told CNN last month, referring to the Tea Party. “We may want some of the same things, but their journey is so alienating to us.”

P.J. Kim, who helped bring a group of 40 people together in Manhattan for a coffee party, said the gathering was a diverse group ethnically and age-wise, but most tended to lean progressive. Some even stayed to talk for two to three hours after the meeting had ended, he noted. Kim said many participants honed in on health care, but also surprisingly, one of the hottest discussions was about the Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee, which lifted the limit on corporate spending in candidate elections.

Participants expressed concern about how unlimited spending by corporations will influence elections. Kim, who ran unsuccessfully for a New York City Council seat, said he made a point not to advocate for specific policy stances during the coffee klatch, but just tried to steer discussions.
“Eventually we do want to break up into smaller discussions,” he said. “There should be space in the middle for us to talk about [these issues]. It was refreshing to be able to do so.”

In late March, Coffee Party leaders were encouraging members to arrange meetings with their elected officials during the congressional recess in April, in order to develop productive long-term relationships with the people entrusted to represent them in Congress. “We’re creating a bottom-up process,” she said. The goal is to create an engaged and active citizenry.

Some observers have speculated that the Coffee Party will ultimately fail because the group is too “nice.” Lynda Park, Annabel’s sister as well as one of the movement’s national-level volunteers, disagreed, stating that the movement has hit a nerve with many Americans including herself. “We shall see,” said the 49-year-old from Champaign, Illinois.

Annabel also said the naysayers are simply wrong, noting, “There is power in numbers.” And right now, the Coffee Party movement is about 150,000 members strong—and brewing.