The stubborn weekend downpour was little match for a crowd of 40 or so chatty strangers, men and women mostly in their 30s, 40s and 50s, who met on the second floor of a nondescript deli in the shadow of the Rockefeller Centre, in midtown Manhattan. After a casual round of introductions, and group adherence to a "civility pledge" (" … I value people from different cultures, I value people with different ideas, and I value and cherish the democratic process"), the inaugural National Coffee Party Day was called to order.
"The Civility Pledge was language we came up with on a national level," Wayne Jacques, one of the facilitators of the meeting, told me. "We wanted to make sure this thing doesn't dissolve in to a shouting match. The country is in such a moment of crisis, and we've had plenty of that already."
This particular gathering of frustrated and progressive-minded New Yorkers was just one out of over 400 similar meetings that were unfolding simultaneously across the country. From a phenomenon that only existed on Facebook a few weeks ago (now at 150,000 fans and counting), to a juggernaut that has been covered far and wide by the mainstream media (including the Guardian), the Coffee Party movement is only the latest twist in the bizarre emergence of competing beverage-based social movements in the United States. It is hard to think of a more telling sign of the extent to which our dysfunctional legislative process, atrophied two-party system and horror-show economy are alienating ever-expanding swaths of the citizenry. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," wrote Yeats. It is uncertain if the Irish poet was a partisan of coffee or tea.
"I'm just tired of feeling hopeless, like we don't have any influence over the government," 19-year-old psychology student Matthew Collura tells me during the meeting. "This seems like a new format. We're doing this out of a gut reaction, a need for discourse."
In normal times, a group of
liberal-leaning New Yorkers meeting at a place called Le Monde Café to
discuss the politics of the day would hardly count as news: armchair
liberals to the barricades! But these are far from normal times.
"There's just so much dysfunction in government right now. Just look at New York State. We have a $9bn deficit, schools and senior centres are closing down, and yet our politicians aren't talking to each other like adults," says PJ Kim, an NGO consultant who lives in lower Manhattan, and who helped spearhead and facilitate Saturday's meeting.
Like most other Coffee Party adherents I spoke with on Saturday, Kim doesn't claim to have jumped in to this out of commitment to any one particular burning issue. Rather, Saturday's many and varied conversations appear largely driven by a feeling of anger about a governing process completely overrun by corporate cash (with near unanimous condemnation of the recent supreme court decision that opened the floodgates even further), and frustration that the shrill voices of a newly energised grassroots right (ie the so-called Tea Party) are getting all the attention.
"It's so polarised, that's why I came here," says Katherine Bernstein of Hell's Kitchen, who I find arguing, albeit civilly, with fellow Manhattanite Richard Borkowski. Richard takes a tougher line on the role that corporate lobbyists should have in crafting policy (none), whereas Katherine, who has worked in the corporate sector for 30-plus years, thinks these things should be judged on a case-by-case basis. While the two aren't able to reach any consensus on this particular issue, they do come to an agreement on at least one other – healthcare. They both agree that insurance companies shouldn't be able to kick people off their plans due to pre-existing conditions. The Coffee Party's live and let live, pro-dialogue creed seems especially suited for this "agree to disagree" kind of conversation for a multi-issue crowd.
After two hours the meeting ended with plans for a second Coffee Day (27 March) and an upcoming lobbying blitz titled "Coffee with Congress" (29 March-11 April). There was talk of a summer march on Washington, and involvement in the Congressional elections this autumn.
Before leaving I asked the youngest person there, aforementioned student Matthew Collura, if he'll be coming back for more coffee. "Hell yeah," he tells me. "It gives me a little bit of hope."