CINCINNATI — Tea party activists waving flags and signs, singing patriotic songs and chanting anti-IRS slogans protested outside federal buildings across the country Tuesday to protest the agency's extra scrutiny of conservative groups.
A crowd packed the sidewalks in front of and across the street from a Cincinnati federal building housing the Internal Revenue Service offices that handled tax-exempt status applications. IRS officials have acknowledged that some conservative groups received inappropriate attention.
"It's going to be up to the grass-roots movement to do something," said Paul Wheeler, dressed in Colonial-era attire with tri-cornered hat and holding a sign saying: "Internal 'Revenge' Service Stop." He said he came from Indianapolis, some 100 miles way, because Cincinnati is "the epicenter of some of the complaints."
There were also rallies outside IRS offices in Atlanta; Louisville; Chicago; Cherry Hill, N.J.; Philadelphia; and Providence, R.I., among others.
After a march from Fountain Square about two blocks away, activists here filled sidewalks in front of the federal building for about 30 minutes. Some had Revolutionary War-style "Don't Tread on Me" and 13-star U.S. flags, as they chanted "IRS has got to go!" and other messages. Demonstrators also sang "The Star Spangled Banner," ''God Bless America," and other songs.
A handful of activists took a petition calling for the IRS to "cease and desist" inside the building. They handed the petition to a Federal Protective Service officer and asked him to deliver it to the IRS. The officer later handed it to a man in street clothes farther inside.
"I don't know if we made a difference, but I'm sure proud that we all came out," the Cincinnati tea party president, Ann Becker, told fellow demonstrators. There were also activists from other local tea party groups from northern Kentucky and Cincinnati suburbs.
Several IRS employees in Cincinnati declined to comment or didn't return phone messages.
In Washington, a few dozen people congregated Tuesday afternoon outside the IRS headquarters, listening to speeches and carrying signs reading "Audit the IRS" and "Don't audit me, Bro." The protest was on the opposite side of the building from the main entrance, which was blocked off with metal barriers and police tape as a dozen Federal Protective Service officers milled about.
Shoshana Weissmann, a 20-year-old George Washington University student who works at a political consulting firm, said she was troubled by the IRS' actions.
"I just think what they did was inappropriate and if they were doing this to liberals, I would be out here, too," said Weissmann, a registered Republican who said she is not affiliated with the tea party. "It's scary to think the IRS is capable of this."
Some former IRS staffers say Cincinnati employees shouldn't be vilified. Former senior manager Bonnie Esrig said the office was a nonpolitical environment, and tax-exempt status workloads had soared because of court decisions and rules changes. Esrig, who said she wasn't involved in handling the conservative group applications, said she believed the workers were trying to streamline the research and avoid repetition.
"I don't believe anybody had a political agenda," said Esrig, who retired from the Cincinnati office in January after 38 years to go into consulting.
She and others are skeptical about initial IRS suggestions that a handful of low-level employees were responsible for the practice, saying it's unlikely workers would have developed and followed procedures that focused on conservative groups without any supervisors being aware.
Republicans in Congress are pressing investigations exploring their suspicions that the targeting was politically motivated and involved higher-ups. President Barack Obama's administration has said no senior officials were involved in targeting conservative groups.
Some think the IRS controversy is helping revitalize the tea party movement.
"I think it's a great incentive," said Jim Ferneding, 64, of Montgomery, Ohio, who said he has remained active in the tea party since 2009. "It's terrifying that the government is interfering like this."
Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, a group that organized protests Tuesday, said the IRS was increasing public sympathy for the tea party.
"The American people see we were targeted, we were discriminated against, and our concerns about a government that is too large are valid concerns," she said in Washington.
Associated Press writer Ben Nuckols contributed from Washington. Contact Sewell at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell