Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Madison Protests

Today, as advertised, I was in Madison, joining the protest against the budget proposed by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to remove collective bargaining rights for public employees. (Full disclosure: My sister-in-law is a special-ed teacher, one of the key groups participating, and the ones targeted by the next items on the agenda: stripping funds from the Milwaukee Public School system, and to break UW-Madison off from the rest of the UW school system.)

On this, Day 5 since the departure of Wisconsin's Democratic state senators, the teachers themselves weren't actually there- they had returned to class for the proverbial sake of the children, resulting in a smaller crowd than there had been previously- but some substitute protesters were out in their place, some with signs stating who they were there on behalf of.

Since I've clearly taken a side, I'll let that speak to that aspect of the protests and downplay it the rest of the way. Does me no good to get screechy about it. If this Gallup poll is correct, there's a 61% chance we share viewpoints anyway. (My current employer and I do not. I do not begrudge them their views, I will not force my views on them, and as long as they don't force theirs on me, we're cool all around.)

So let's instead talk about the atmosphere in Madison. I arrived around 10:30-ish and saw what would be the first of many, many parades down Capitol Square, and the three chants that would dominate the day:

"Kill the bill!"
"Tell me what democracy looks like?" "This is what democracy looks like!"
"Hey hey, ho ho, Scott Walker has got to go!"

After making a loop around the square, I entered the capitol building itself.

It was as if the Seattle Mariners were back in the Kingdome and in the playoffs. The Capitol Rotunda has acoustics that greatly benefit a protest, and full advantage has been taken of this, with the vast majority of indoor demonstrators hovering around the Rotunda. Signs, letters, banners, flags, pamphlets, leaflets, people gathering signatures, and anything else that can be printed up... they were inescapable. A live feed of Wisconsin Eye, the Wisconsin equivalent to C-SPAN, was displayed on the top floor. Anyone that wished to address the crowd did so from the middle of the ground floor, where they might not be seen by everyone, but their voice would most easily bounce off the hollow dome above and through to the rest of the building.

For the record, I only noticed two comparisons to Egypt all day: a sign recalling a Paul Ryan quote that said Cairo had come to Madison, and this picture of an Egyptian at Tahrir Square standing with the Wisconsinites. That's about right. There are certainly parallels to be drawn if one wants: governmental leader trying to ram through something widely hated, large-scale multi-day protests that have been met with total obstination by leadership, solidarity from abroad, that old threat to pull out the National Guard (who subsequently told Walker to get bent). The drive to protest may even have been partly inspired by the recent successes in Tunisia and Egypt. But at the same time, nobody's getting shot, nobody's getting into any fights, Walker's term can only be measured in weeks, not decades, the media's not in any way being suppressed, protesters have had almost free run of the capitol building. It's like Egypt, but it's not like Egypt. So we're all clear on that.

There was a 'quiet study area' on the top floor, next to the Senate Gallery. This only meant 'less ear-splitting'. With fewer people than previous, it was viewed as quieter. To which I say: that is one loud quiet. (The major business for the Senate today: congratulating the Green Bay Packers on winning the Super Bowl.)

I may have chanted. I may not have. I can't tell. I couldn't hear myself talk. I may have said 'hey hey ho ho', I may have said 'salt my finger snakes'. I was mostly taking notes anyway, a tough thing because my pens kept dying.

The mood, however, was quite jovial. Intense, yet good-natured, as if all that had happened was the Wisconsin Badgers making the Final Four. It's a very Wisconsin mood. We are largely the nice, pleasant folks we and the rest of the north-central United States are stereotyped as. But underneath that niceness, below the surface outsiders normally see, there's a low-simmering sense of drama. It manifests every so often in daily life here, but not enough for you to notice. We have a fuse. It is a long fuse, but we are no Pollyannas.

For the love of God, do not let that fuse run out.

Once that fuse runs out, Wisconsin goes relatively crazy. We're considered a laboratory of progressivism, but it wouldn't be a lab without failed experiments. We are the state of William Proxmire, Russ Feingold, and 'Fightin Bob' LaFollette. But we are also the state of Aldrich Ames, Jeffrey Dahmer and Joe McCarthy. We are the state that created the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln's day (now unrecognizable to this era), but we are also the state where Teddy Roosevelt was shot. We are the home of Bob Uecker, but we are the home of Latrell Sprewell.

Reminders were everywhere to inform protesters that this is supposed to be a peaceful thing. Just in case.

For lunch, I visited Ian's Pizza. This unassuming pizza place, about a block and a half from Capitol Square on State Street- a pedestrian-only street connecting the capitol to UW-Madison- is the go-to place for hungry protesters. Around the world, people have been phoning in orders to Ian's on behalf of them, with the effect that the protesters- and anyone else that stops by- have been eating free for a while now; one employee stated that $25,000 in donated orders were recorded yesterday alone. All 50 states and DC have called in with orders. Someone from China has called in an order, Russia, Armenia, Turkey, Morocco, Antarctica. While I was there, an order came in from Jerusalem, Israel. The way it worked was, you're asked how many slices you want and if you want a drink or something, and they simply tally up the total number of pizza slices and drinks. There was no active register. Every time a foreign order came in, the nationality was announced to the dining room.

How can a little place in Madison feed tens of thousands of people? Not without employees imported from Ian's Chicago branch. (For further details, head to Ian's website and click on the State Street branch.)

The pizza, by the way, is excellent.

Back at the Rotunda, preliminary signatures were being gathered to help determine where to allocate resources for a recall effort. Not of Scott Walker; that can't happen until he's been in office for one year. Of eight Republican state senators. Three would be needed to flip in order to kill the budget bill, but should that not happen, Plan B is to recall enough Republican legislators to wipe out the advantage, and in turn, wipe out the bill. The preliminary signatures are needed because once paperwork is officially filed, a 60-day clock starts, and all recall petition signatures must be gathered by then.

Meanwhile, a group in Utah, the American Patriot Recall Coalition (great name; managed to shoehorn both 'American' AND 'Patriot' in there, just to show you're twice as American), has started the clock on a similar measure against eight Democratic state senators. Yes, apparently you can do that. A group in Utah can apparently try to have legislators in Wisconsin thrown out of office. So now everybody is recalling everybody else. And nobody is giving an inch.

As it stands, people are protesting in shifts; shuttle buses are active all over the state to get people into and out of Capitol Square, if protesters didn't show up in their own vehicles. If Wisconsinites need a break, out-of-staters have been perfectly willing to pick up the slack with bused-in protesters of their own. And with nobody conceding on collective bargaining, and everybody digging in their heels, the result is a virtual siege operation.

We could be here for a long time.

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