MADISON, Wis. — I lit out from Minneapolis for Madison Thursday night to bear witness to the protests being staged against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed union-busting bill. Here’s some of what I heard, read, and saw.
7 p.m. At the Aster Café in Minneapolis, veteran folk and protest singer Larry Long leads a small band in a pointed singalong of “Solidarity Forever,” which Chris Osgood and friends had performed at the Minnesota State Capitol earlier in the week. Two toddlers sway to the sound of Long’s booming guitar and the crowd’s tentative collective voice. Upon leaving, the kid’s grandfather stuffs a bill of gratitude in the hand of Long, who wrote a new verse to the old union song:
“Governor Walker, Michelle Bachman, & Koch Refinery
“When they’re stepping on the union
“They’re stepping on me
“For it’s the working people who preserve our liberties
“For the union makes us strong!
9 p.m. Long tells the crowd that what’s happening in Madison is “the tip of the iceberg,” in terms of social change ramping up across the globe. To be sure, as governments fall in Cairo, Iran, Libya, and more, it’s clear that We The People Are Fed Up. Or some of the people, anyway. As I grab road supplies from the neighborhood grocery store, I tell a well-heeled acquaintance of mine that I’m heading to Madison. “Oh, we’re going to Arizona in a few weeks,” she says. “But Madison sounds like a good getaway, too.”
7 a.m. The sun rises over Madison, dappling the Capitol dome and the waves of Lake Mendota. I’m surprised to find a ghost college town, no one on the streets, plenty of parking meters and parking ramps available. I park at a ramp five blocks away from the Capitol building and stroll over, passing the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum, whose picture window is aglow with bronze statues of Civil War-era soldiers. Taped on a telephone pole nearby is a single flier: “Capitalism Is Doomed.”
7:10 a.m. I ask two sleepy students in Badger gear where everyone is. “Inside!” they say, cheerfully, nodding toward the Capitol. “We’re off to get 300 bagels.”
7:15 a.m. I walk up the steps, find an open door, and walk in. The hallway is plastered with posters, fliers and art captioned with such missives as “United We Bargain, Divided We Beg,” “No War But The Class War,” “Stop The War On Wisconsin Workers,” and tons of bad “Star Wars” puns. Again, after all the reports of thousands taking to the streets, I’m surprised at the lack of numbers and activity; if this is a watershed moment, it’s a damn sleepy one.
Then I start exploring. In every nook and cranny possible of the three-tiered building, people are crashed out in sleeping bags. I’m one of the few milling about, stepping over unconscious bodies festooned in pro-union, Wisconsin, and band T-shirts. The halls smell of church-lady baked goods, coffee and revolution. Morning in America.
7:20 a.m. Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now!” flanked by the ornate “Justice” and “Legislation” paintings of the Capitol dome, broadcasts live to the world. A groggy kid looks up from his blow-up pillow and says, with mock just-another-day boredom, “Oh. Good morning, Amy,” and rolls over. Moments later, Goodman and crew sneak away silently — so as to not create a media ruckus, but mindful of not disturbing the sleeping vigil-keepers.
7:30 a.m. A staggering amount of donated food, coffee, water and medical supplies are available to all. Sleepy folks are refueling on pastries and juice. A lending library has been set up. Martina, a friendly University of Wisconsin sociology student who has been in the rotunda since Valentine’s Day, offers to show me the lay of the land. She’s not alone. If you have a question, it gets answered. When I ask her about the rumor of the governor calling out the National Guard over the weekend, Martina says, “I don’t know how he’d do that; the police are all on our side.”
7:35 a.m. A scrappy tattooed guy in a Stanley tank top, sweat pants, and bare feet strolls the cold marble floor holding aloft a cardboard Ian’s Pizza box scrawled with “Round 11.” Many of the people he’s stepping over and around have been here since the protests started Feb. 15.
7:45 a.m. Sign: “Stephen Colbert, we came to your rally, now come to ours.” A few days earlier, Colbert, who co-hosted the Rally To Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C., showed his solidarity by commenting, “Those freeloaders with their cushy state jobs — like snow plow operators, prison guards, and teachers. Oh, they’re always driving around, lording their ’93 Nissan Sentras over everybody.”
8:30 a.m. This is being called, and executed as, a peaceful protest. Nowhere is that better illustrated than with the police presence. Hundreds of cops from all locales — Madison, Milwaukee, Tomah — mill about with the protesters. Some stop and chat. Most move in packs, surveying the scene. “We’re doing the people’s work here,” says one girl-watching cop to another, with a respectful laugh. The next day, hundreds of police officers officially join the protesters.
8:40 a.m. A spitfire coffee-jagged woman walks around telling folks, “We’re coalition-building. We need to find out why people are here. There will be a general assembly at 8:30 tonight.” Um. From where I sit, it looks very much like there’s already an organically fomented coalition of people who know why they’re here. Still, the woman’s commitment to organize is one reason this movement has legs.
8:45 a.m. Sign: “Scott Walker is a disgrace to Eagle Scouts everywhere.” Shades of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
8:50 a.m. A juggler entertains a few kids while some scruffy college dudes geek out about the rumored return of Tom Morello, who rocked the rotunda earlier in the week, and laugh about the next day’s entertainment: “Peter of Peter, Paul, and Mary. Why just one?”
9 a.m. Poster: “Where’s Pete Seeger?”
9:10 a.m. A massive grizzled, gray-haired and -bearded gent, camped with a pillow and lawn chair and Snuggee, cranks “Solidarity Forever” and “The Internationale” for all to greet the day via his iPod.
9:30 a.m. People are waking up, stretching, chatting, reading, listening to headphones, wired into laptops and phones. Circles are formed in minicamps made of blankets. The murmur is of sit-ins, the bill, a crash-course in legislation and, as some refer to it, “the movement.” It is decidedly not a party atmosphere. The no-nonsense commitment level is high and permeates the place.
10 a.m. If there is a “Heart of the Beast,” as one sign hanging in the rotunda has it, I find myself there now. Room 320 in the Capitol building has been reserved for the UW-Madison Teaching Assistants Association. The room hums with the energy of a college newspaper newsroom. Work is on a new T-shirt that reads, “Workers Rights = Civil Rights.” There is a palpable youthful urgency. People are meeting each other for the first time, telling each other to go get food or sleep, and sussing out who is “in charge.” After only a few minutes it’s easy to see that the civilized anger and energy of the protest at large begins with the humor and camaraderie found in this room.
10:15 a.m. “I have the Wisconsin State Journal for you, the print version. There’s definitely some information in there that you’ll want,” says one TA, brandishing an armload of papers as she arrives in 320. The kids dive into the day’s news.
10:30 a.m. I’ve been walking around with my guitar and laptop slung over my back. A woman with a drum encourages me to take to the rotunda and play a tune. I swallow hard, think “now or never,” tune up and play the first two songs of the day, “California Stars,” by Woody Guthrie/Billy Bragg/Wilco, and my own tune, “Let’s Go Down to the Lynching.” Crazy.
Eyes from all over the rotunda meet mine as my nerve-cracked voice sings, “I’d love to feel your hand touching mine and tell me why I must keep working on.” I thank them for what they’re doing, apologize for the cuss word in my song, tell them I’m from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and run.
11 a.m. A parade of pipefitters and steamfitters march into the rotunda, touting signs that read, “Stop The War On Wisconsin Workers.” The crappy bullhorn is manned by speakers who say things I can’t hear. The crowd takes up the chant — a chant, for sure, not a singalong — of “Power to the People.” It’s a phrase that came of age during the anti-war riots of the ’60s, but if there’s any nostalgia to be barfed up out of scenes like this, it’s for the1800s and the townsfolk rising up against the robber barons.
11:15 a.m. Poster: “The rich steal from the poor and give back to the rich. We need Robin Hood!”
Noon: As the pipefitters and steamfitters march out, many clad in hunting, work and Packers gear, a college kid clad in a beaded bikini who could be auditioning for Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” holds signs that read, “Even I Look More Ridiculous Than Scott Walker” and, “Why So Bitter, Scott?” The tough guys walk out with wide grins and a few high fives for the kid, whose impish grin suggests that if the protests go on into the spring and summer, Madison could be a freak destination point.
1 p.m. On my way out of the Capitol building, I chat with a salty 70-something gent who tells me, “They take your house, they take your money, they take your job, and now. … I want the bastard out. I’ll be here every day until the day I die until he’s out. Hanging around his neck is a placard that reads, “I Live To Destroy Corporate Whores. Recall The Bastard.”
1:15 p.m. A bagpipe-led parade of firefighters, teachers and students snake up State Street to cheers.
1:30 p.m. Lunch at Ian’s, the pizza joint made famous for receiving donations from all over the world to feed the revolution with slices. Hungry diners are grabbing the hot-off-the-presses new Ian’s T-shirts (“this is what democracy tastes like”), and gearing up for the night and weekend.
2:15 p.m. A weary lone protester walks down State Street with a sign slung over his back: “Unions. From the people who brought you the weekend.”
3:30 p.m. A giddy Goodman is on Wisconsin Public Radio, talking about the importance of maintaining funding to public radio and kicking in on their pledge drive. She is stoked. Her normally monotone-to-impassioned voice unspools with pride and possibility. She knows she’s part of something, part of history, and proclaims Madison to be “ground zero of the people’s uprising.”
4 p.m. Billboard seen while going out of town: “Teach this: Go, Scott, Go.”
4:10 p.m. Sign going out of town: “This President Has US In So Much Debt It Is A Nightmare.”