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Prop A foe who inspires Tea Party carries a recent feud with WU

| Enterprise Editor

In the fight over the future of public transit in St. Louis, one local man has been an inspiration to local Tea Party activists and a thorn in the side of transit advocates and Washington University students and staff.

Jonathon Burns, 26, of Shrewsbury, Mo., has established himself as a rising star in the Tea Party movement while stoking the ire of a large number of liberal students, officials and transit advocates here with his outspoken opposition to interventionist government and tax increases.

Courtesy of John Burns

John Burns pictured at the gulag demonstration on campus last November.

Burns was one of several people who protested socialism with a mock gulag display on campus in November 2009. Burns, who was virtually unknown a year ago, has quickly become perhaps the most recognizable opponent of Proposition A—a proposed half-cent sales tax increase for Metro that has been popular among students. He is the spokesman of the opposition group Citizens for Better Transit.

In a flurry of newspaper submissions, blog posts and appearances at local Tea Party events, Burns cast Proposition A as an attempt to funnel money from the middle class to powerful political and business interests.

“I think Proposition A is an example of the hijacking of democracy,” Burns said in an interview with Student Life.

Burns also acknowledged his role in the gulag display, which the University chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) built one afternoon in November to warn people of what Burns said are the dangers of socialism and increased government control of the economy.

His views on Prop A and socialism have found relatively little support at the University. Rather, they have ruffled the feathers of community members and Proposition A supporters here, who have accused Burns of fear-mongering and distorting the facts.

But Burns and some members of the Tea Party movement deny that. If anything, they argue, Burns has been an inspiring champion of smaller government and lower taxes. “John is just a really courageous voice in that,” said Gina Loudon, a St. Louis Tea Party leader. “I would have never expected so much courage from someone that young.”

Burns has focused much of his criticism of Proposition A on the University’s U-Pass program, which allows full-time students and benefits-eligible faculty and staff to ride Metro for free. Burns has claimed that the $2.3 million the University pays Metro for the program is 80 percent less than what the school should be paying; while the University pays only $100 per U-Pass for 25,000 of them, passes for the disabled cost much more, he argues.

Chancellor Mark Wrighton and Metro officials said Burns’ allegation is baseless, as any school or business can sign up with Metro to receive discounts for bulk purchases of passes.

And Metro spokesman Charlie Bosworth and spokeswoman Dianne Williams explained that Metro calculates ridership based on the number of boardings, not the number of people with passes. Government-audited ridership figures from fiscal 2009 show that U-Pass users accounted for about 4.13 percent of Metro’s ridership, while the University’s payment equaled about 4.65 percent of Metro’s passenger revenue in fiscal 2009.

“They’re actually paying a little bit more than the average rider,” Bosworth said.

Wrighton also noted that while the University buys passes for all eligible community members, “only 75 percent actually request a U-Pass.”

The University did not comment on Burns himself. But one administration official said that the administration seeks to promote the proposition instead of fighting back against Burns. Officials’ private reactions have ranged from befuddlement that Burns is targeting Washington University to exasperation with his media attention and his criticisms of the U-Pass program.

“My personal frustration is that we have to waste time arguing with him about something like our U-Pass program, which really has nothing to do with the issue at hand,” said the official, who wished to remain anonymous for professional reasons.

Still, Loudon said this isn’t about Washington University. “This is about something that has been portrayed one way that is entirely another way,” she said.

Burns’ criticisms of Metro and the U-Pass reflect his broader concerns with government power. He believes in the power of ordinary people to serve as citizen journalists, exposing fraud and wrongdoing in the government by going undercover.

“As a journalist, that’s a very noble cause,” Burns said.

  • “Today, merely a fringe group attracting mostly disgruntled WASPs…”

    Pal, I think the WASPs would rather sip their after-dinner port than mix with a bunch of working stiffs. (Or, at least they would prefer to stay in the world of nonexistent anachronisms where they usually are these days.) What you mean to say is that the tea party folks are po’ white trash, which still makes you a rank classist, but in the other direction.

  • In an essay question (on Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia) I once suggested that the next fascist dictator of America would not be some lumpen street riff-raff but a Washington University graduate wearing a blue suit. I suggested that we all look in the mirror to see if we could be that person, if we are not very careful. This question hit a nerve, among student and faculty colleagues.

    I stand by this. We ALL have the potential to be, if not mussolini or Hitler, a follower and collaborator. We ALL have the potential to be much better than that. Let’s keep our discourse, including street theater, nonviolent, civil, free, and lively, and let’s all LISTEN to each other.

  • Frederick

    To begin with, the Tea Party is a rightist version of old fashioned anarchists — literally meaning: a person or persons who advocate the abolition of government and a social system based on voluntary cooperation; and persons who cause disorder or upheaval.

    Historically, leftist anarchists were anti-establishment bomb throwers — so far all that America’s version of the ridiculous Tea Party members have thrown are half truths, untruths, insults and political mud.

    We should, however, recall from history that once upon a time the brown-shirted SA of Adolf Hitler were similarly ridiculous. Once allowed to seize power, their programs often based on bizarre mixtures of pseudo science, spiritual hokus pokus, and socio-political elitism produces a hell on earth.

    Today, merely a fringe group attracting mostly disgruntled WASPs, Tea Party groupies pose no serious threat. But it is best not to let Tea Party denizens and other versions of anarchists to seize power. Their local opposition to Prop A that can benefit lots of normal hard working students and other citizens is merely their opening salvo.

  • Hi,
    Individuals working in multinational firms or running a business abroad come under the bracket of international tax law. If you are not aware of the rules and regulations of international tax law, you should hire international tax lawyers.

  • StokeyBob

    We didn’t need much organization for the love-ins in the sixties when we would all meet in the local parks. We still managed to get the issues of the day discussed.

    I feel the reason behind most of our troubles and the need for TEA Parties is the government’s ability to print up whatever money it wants to get their way.

    Maybe this will help make the danger of fiat money clear.

    Imagine you and me are setting across from each other. We create enough money to represent all of the world’s wealth. Each one of us has one SUPER Dollar in front of him.

    You own half of everything and so do I.

    I’m the government though. I get bribed into creating a Central Bank.

    You’re not doing what I want you to be doing so I print up myself eight more SUPER Dollars to manipulate you with.

    All of a sudden your SUPER Dollar only represents one tenth of the wealth of the world!

    That isn’t the only thing though. You need to get busy and get to work because YOU’VE BEEN STIFFED with the bill for the money I PRINTED UP to get YOU TO DO what I WANTED.

    That to me represents what has been happening to the economy, and us, and why so many of our occupations just can’t keep up with the fake money presses.

    They have been beating us with our own stick!!!!1

  • Adam,

    “… and he falsely claimed that the university is being ‘subsidized’ by taxpayers.”

    Come on now, have a shred of intellectual honesty. The taxpayer subsidizes WU in any number of ways, from below-market-rate government-sponsored loans and direct subsidies for work-study students to our tax-exempt endowment. Do you think it’s a coincidence that government intervention in higher education has failed to staunch the enormous growth in tuition costs, out of all proportion to inflation?

  • As someone who helped assemble the “Gulag” and who has for over a year served in an administrative capacity for a campus conservative organization, I can say the university definitely has an animus against conservatives and will use any rule they can find to curtail their activism. I have had the administration try to nix perfectly legitimate events through shameful bureaucratic pettifogging that would never be an issue for liberal campus groups.

    Anyone who thinks the political orientation of the “gulag” had nothing to do with WU’s orders to shut it down is disingenuous or deluded. Claiming that the undercover video shows the administration “out of context” is asinine and baseless, as no exculpatory context is even being posited. Any clip or quote is by definition “out of context,” but that doesn’t prove by itself that the quote or clip sounded better when placed in context. What exactly was the context which made the conniving, snickering comments of the administration sound benign?

    At the same time, I think the opposition to a half-cent sales tax is too ideological to be credible. For the “tax = theft” choir, Mr. Burns’ preaching may strike a chord. For those of us who don’t subsist on a mental diet of Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard, it all sounds pretty harmless. And accusations that WU’s bulk purchase of U-passes is somehow a diabolical ploy is pretty risible, to say the least.

  • Richard

    I must agree, this guy losses his personal credibility when he pulls stunts to get his message out. That doesn’t mean his message is wrong (although I think it is). I don’t mind creative activism and street threater, but there is a line that I think should not be crossed and Burns, O’keefe and his cronies routinely cross it. Not a great group of people for young conservatives to look up to or older conservatives to praise.

  • Steven Hoffmann

    Student Life does itself a disservice when it quotes “one [University] official . . . who wished to remain anonymous for professional reasons.”

    This is cowardly, subverts transparency, and threatens the sanctity of university discourse, which is supposed to be free and open.

    How does one respond to anonymous attackers?
    Why shouldn’t the University be criticized for taking undeserved subsidies and special interest deals from Metro on the taxpayer’s dime, especially when WU is St. Louis’s largest tax evader?

    I will never post anonymously, and my last name is here for the record.

    Washington University is a place that I am increasingly disinclined to associate myself with.

  • Adam

    Thanks, this is a very thorough article. Burns is of course free to adopt whatever ideology he likes, but I think the tactics he uses in his “conservative activism” are fundamentally unethical. Not only does he regularly rely on false and misleading statements, he also attended an LGBT rally with James O’Keefe and Joseph Burns and attempted to distort the message: . It’s one thing for him to simply disagree with protesters, but he went out of his way to sabotage their message.

    He also appears to have a grudge against Washington University. As alluded to in this article, he falsely accused the university of shutting down the gulag because it was “offensive,” he falsely accused the university of “fraud” after the university requested for people to pay for the clean up the hammer and sickles spray painted on campus for the gulag event, and he falsely claimed that the university is being “subsidized” by taxpayers. You can read Burns’ views of the university for yourself here: