A crowd of thousands clusters around the stage Wednesday on the Boston Common for a tea party political rally. (Photos: Marc Levy)

The crowd was pretty small at the tea party rally Wednesday on the Boston Common, and a significant portion was anti-tea party or just there to see what all the craziness was about.

Police don’t give estimates, but it’s unlikely there were much more than 5,000 people gathered at the peak of the event — just enough to pack the area around the stage where Sarah Palin, Victoria Jackson and others spoke and to trickle up and down the hill providing the most direct path to the Park Street T stop. It seemed at times as though the party crashers — the curious, the media and the tea party bashers — made up half the crowd, although some on hand thought it was more like a quarter to 30 percent.

That makes for low legitimate participation even for tea parties; other events on the tour have drawn 8,000 or 10,000 people, with organizers and conservative media reporting higher figures.

Perhaps because of the low or balanced turnout, perhaps because there was strong police presence or maybe just because it’s Boston, the event was passionate without being over-the-top crazy. The level of gentle, whimsical weirdness was so high it may have neutralized the poison that has tainted other gatherings of tea partiers. There were Gadsden flags and anti-Obama posters, and there were “Palin go home! We luv liberal Obama,” “Help! I’m surrounded by homophobic hypocrites” and “Palins cowards: Shoots wildlife from helicopters,” but there were also other kinds of signs hoisted or held:

“Support vector machines”; “Save our library”; “Stop plate tectonics”; “Fight the real enemy” (with a picture of Lord Voldemort, the villain from “Harry Potter”); “More fun, less taxis”; and “Look at my cool sign.” There were also signs that made their point with a bit of absurdist judo, such as the woman carrying an “I love abortion” placard.

Victoria Jackson speaks at the tea party rally, alleging President Barack Obama is a communist.

There was loud and constant arguing along the road around the speakers’ stage, but no physical violence.

A small party of Lyndon LaRouche supporters — one a young black man dressed as Obama with a Hitler mustache, labeling himself “Hopium,” another in drag and another in a pig outfit — set up their own, literal tea party to bash the government and hand out bags of (harmless, nonnarcotic) white powder. The street theater was literally on the fringes of the larger event.

True believers drove in from suburbs such as Natick and took group buses from Maine, and the cheers during the key speeches were full-throated and abundant. People who came to participate, rather than to gawk or scoff, said they went away satisfied, if only because they got in good arguments.

The bearded, sunglasses-wearing man near the Unitarian-Universalist camp stoically bearing an “I’m a bigot; I’m a racist; I’m a teabagger” sign was a focal point for tea party ire, and he was surrounded nearly the entire length of the event with people seeking to argue. At any given time, there were two squabbles orbiting around him, some getting pretty big on their own. An Emerson student in the center of many was perpetually astonished by how difficult it was to get tea party faithful to exchange information and views calmly.

“I’m trying to have a conversation, not an argument,” she told the young men facing off with her.

“It is what it is,” one replied.

“We want to have an argument,” the other said.

Near her, a “birther” — someone who doesn’t believe Barack Obama was born in the United States, and therefore cannot legally be president — brought an argument to a disbelieving halt when he challenged his progressive foes by saying, “Do I not look like an American to you?”

There were generalizations on both sides, of course, with tea party supporters taking particular offense to signs or T-shirts accusing them of being racist or unwelcoming to immigrants, Jews or blacks. A Jewish tea party supporter handed a thick, black pen to a woman wearing a T-shirt saying just that and insisted she scribble out “Jews” from among the list of what the tea party was not. She instead had him write “But Sam” to show the tea party included him.

Misinformation and rhetoric

A lot of misinformation was bandied about. Tea party supporters claimed health care — “Obamacare” — had been passed with extraordinary and illegal or unconstitutional maneuvers; that the program would require the gutting of Medicare (it is the generous Medicare Advantage that will face cutbacks); that Democrats were plotting to wreck the economy (it was Bush adviser Grover Norquist who, in fact, admitted Republicans wanted to get government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” by bankrupting it); and that Obama had raised the deficit by $3 trillion (without bothering to know or note that the Bush administration had more than doubled the $5 trillion deficit he inherited, to $12 trillion).

There was also much class warfare, aimed mainly by working-class men toward college students, who were out in force. Emerson College and Suffolk University are arrayed around the common; the tea party was essentially on their front lawn. But they drew ire for their cheerful disruption of a speech by the tea party patron saint, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who hit her usual notes (“Drill, baby, drill” got enough applause that she said it a second time); rolled out odd clunkers in her speech such as saying “there are signs of the real world all around this country” and insisting “we will never apologize for being Americans”; and proved her bona fides as a conservative by mispronouncing “nuclear” as “nukular.”

Later speakers referred to the current “socialist nightmare”; inveighed against “ACORN thugs”; and asked, “Have you all had enough of Obamacare? So have I!” although the law, signed March 23, is still being implemented. Many of the provisions don’t go into effect until 2014.

Victoria Jackson, once a comedian on “Saturday Night Live,” spoke about taking back the country and plucked out a song on a ukulele about why Obama is a communist. She also said that between six to eight months ago, the president’s Web site, whitehouse.gov, posted a demand that people “turn in your friends and neighbors if they don’t believe in Obamacare.”

“Only Glenn Beck understands me,” she said to cheers, and called out a catalog of conservative leaders that included Michelle Malkin and Anne Coulter. The loudest response came when she reached “Sarah Palin!” and said meeting that meeting Palin was “the most exciting moment of my life except when I had a baby.”

During one conversation, a tea party supporter described Boston as conservative and Cambridge as liberal. The appearance at the rally of some Cantabrigians would have confirmed that.

Kristi Ceccarossi, of the Boston Localvores food group, looked amused as she paused on her bike to watch the goings-on. Ryan Douglass, the playwright, comedian and Rodney’s worker, expressed something bordering on disgust with the goings-on before him. And Roger Nicholson, the agitator extraordinaire behind the “Cambridge Rag” cable access show, said he got plenty of video footage for posting on YouTube and broadcast Sunday. He got in people’s faces, he said, and drew a warning from organizers.

“He was telling me what I can and cannot not say. I was astounded at this monumental hypocrite. One started really getting me in my face, ‘Why are you being rude? Why are you being insulting? You don’t have to be insulting,’” Nicholson said. “Why not be insulting?”

Nicholson’s show is 8 p.m. Sunday on Comcast cable Channel 9.

A small party of Lyndon LaRouche supporters set up an anti-government tea party literally on the fringes of the larger event.