Protest: A Look Back, Madison, WI, 2011

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Protest, Madison, Wisconsin February 2011 (photo by Justin Ormont)

This article was originally published in Rants, Raves and Rock and Roll in March 2011. Looking back, the old adage the more things change, the more they stay the same comes to mind.

For two weeks protests have been going on in Madison, WI, when it’s new Tea-party Governor Scott Walker tried to push through legislation to allegedly balance the budget. When protesters called his bluff and acceded to his monetary demands but wanted the right of collective bargaining Walker showed his hand, and said he wasn’t negotiating, unions in Wisconsin had to go. After 9/11 this is turning into one of the most politically historical important events we’re witnessing that will have an impact on this country in the future. I wanted to see for myself what was going on in Madison.

The philosophical journey started before the physical journey. I was talking to gas station attendant about gas prices and the loss of rights trying to be imposed upon us by the rich. He was worried about that as well. I don’t know if we were talking about the same thing, but it sounded like we were. You can hear and discuss a lot of politics as you go about your daily life, if you listen. The liquor store cashier who told me of the danger of China and Canada, and of the plans for their joint invasion of the U.S. That might be a little extreme, but that shows the diversity of opinion right in our back yards.

The trip up to Madison was uneventful we passed (I went with my sister) Peace road and I saw that as a favorable omen. As we got closer to Madison we started seeing signs of both sides of the issue, literally. The first was a Colbert Nation bumper sticker, and a few minutes later a Ford pickup that had stenciled across their back window “I support a balanced budget.”

When we arrived in Madison we could see the capitol building, the street around it cordoned off and protesters revolving around it like a dynamo, the energy generated by the crowd was palpable even from a distance. We parked close by and started to make our way to the capitol building. Huge snowflakes were falling, people were coming and going to the capitol dressed in snow gear, with their children, carrying their protest signs, it seemed like they were exposing their children to a living lesson in democracy, such as when I was a kid the Watergate hearings were on TV and we watched them during history class. When we got to the capitol building it was surrounded by fluid river around the capitol, there were no holes in the crowd it was a solid ring all the way around the building. One of the first groups that came past us protesting was those famously radical groups of a policemen’s union followed closely by the firemen’s union. The next thing we noticed were the protest signs made by all groups and individuals, and some of them took the opportunity to show off their creativity. The first sign I saw was one that read “SAG supports union rights” that one seemed out of place to me the screen actors guild in Madison, Wisconsin? Other signs read “even Mickey Mouse is Union,” “What Cee-lo said,” “Tea party was then, pizza revolution is now!” “Democrats think the glass is half full, republicans think the glass is theirs, I just want a drink,” “Walker take a tip from Palin, quit!” A few people had Guy Fawkes masks on made famous in the movie “V for Vendetta” one guy had a papier-mache cowbell on his head that read “less Walker more cowbell.” and I learned a few things myself, Jedi Knights are Pro-Union, two men were dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker (maybe the SAG signs weren’t all that out of place?) complete with light sabers.

As we joined the protestors and became part of the swirling organism that it was, we came to the State street entrance where the rally was being held. People stood on the sloping hill leading to the capitol building, chants of “kill the bill!” echoed off the walls of the capitol and truly sounded as if it were of one voice. We listened to people like actor Bradford Whitford (“The West Wing”) who was born and raised in Madison. As well as people from every walk of life fire fighters, teachers, nurses, college professors, a Bishop, a member of NAACP. There was a woman standing on a pedestal waving the American flag and it seemed to me that she was a statue of real liberty, not some solemn statue standing in a harbor, a living, breathing, warm blooded liberty in action!

As a witness to the events lets dispense with some lies the internet told me. The first, that scores of communist leaflets, literature and propaganda was being distributed at the rally. Not true, the few people handing out literature were either from a union or handing out free placards with slogans on them. The second and probably most specious lie told of the rallies is that they’re the product of “outside agitators.” That is untrue. The protests started after fourteen Democratic state senators left the state to prevent a quorum, as Republicans tried to pass it before anyone knew what had happened, the protests started organically within Wisconsin and are maintained by the citizens of Wisconsin. There were a few groups of people that had signs saying “from (fill in the blank) state in solidarity with Wisconsin” but they were few and not very pervasive. This has become such a part of the debate a lot of people carried signs saying they’re from Wisconsin, and most of the speakers at the rally preceded their remarks by saying they’re from Wisconsin. This is because Governor Walker himself posited that theory, which in recent weeks we’ve also heard from the likes Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddafi. We also didn’t run into any counter protesters or protestors who support the Governors position. The closest I saw to a protestor supporting the Governors position was a man with a sign that read “Governor Walker for President…of Libya.” I guess those Tea-Party protestors flown in last week are fair weather advocates.

There was a police presence in the crowd, but it was benign, the police were obviously there in a non-adversarial capacity, scattered throughout the crowd and not manning barricades to keep separate protesters from anything or anywhere else. While none of the police were actively protesting they seemed to be of the crowd.

Here’s why what is happening in Madison is important not only to the citizens of Wisconsin, but to America in general. If the Republican conservatives are able to break public unions, next they will go after private unions (if you don’t need the public unions why do you need the private unions?), then they will go after the minimum wage laws, then social security, Medicare, and any other program or right gained over the last 100 years. Am I over reacting? Am I an alarmist? Have I exaggerated the problem? Am I dreaming? In Madison firemen and police unions are out there protesting even after the Governor exempted their unions, why are they doing this? Because they know sooner or later he will come after their union. And similar efforts have already been proposed in Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, and Michigan. A legislator in Missouri has already proposed a repeal of child labor laws.

One of the signs I saw at the protest was of how the Wisconsin Secretary of Health has vowed to opt out of Medicare. I’ve also recently heard how former Attorney General of Kansas, Phil Kline is facing ethics violations in knowingly lying to other state agencies to obtain documents in his efforts at tracking down the clients of an abortion provider. We elect our representatives to not only represent us but to uphold and honor the laws they swear to protect in their oaths of office, but also in the oaths they swear to their potential constituencies in their election campaigns.

Conservatives seem to have their own agenda upon election they have no interest in protecting or preserving or serving the laws of this country, they’re failing to obey the laws they disagree with and in some cases, actively seek to undermine those laws or programs they disagree with. Governor Walker showed the people of the U.S. where his loyalties lay and who he feels is his constituency when he took a call from someone claiming to be “David Koch,” Walker demonstrated to not only the citizens of Wisconsin but the whole nation who he felt he owed his allegiance to when he dropped everything to take the call.

This is a last gasp of the old guard who consider change a “culture war.” If we resoundingly and loudly defeat these regressive movements, we can live in the future that is closer to our dreams than our past.

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