Sunday, February 20, 2011


On Sunday morning I came, with my wife CJ and two girls, to participate in and learn from the Madison workers’ rights protest movement.

The Wisconsin state capitol building is gorgeous. Built in 1917, it has the sense of history about it. The rotunda is beautiful inside, very old, awesome to look at. Murals. Statues. Long marble stairs.

But even more beautiful is the most amazing sight of many hundreds of people cheering, chanting, and listening to testimony as they occupy the building.

There are signs and placards on the walls everywhere; hand made placards supporting public workers, supporting teachers, supporting unions, denouncing Governor Walker, and so on.

It is breathtaking to see and experience. After so much union bashing in the media, so much hostility and hatred, so many lies… it is stunning to see a state capitol building occupied by protesting workers and students, with union signs everywhere.

They are young and old, union and nonunion. And everyone is smiling. Everyone feels the energy. Everyone feels their own power. There is an exuberance here.

Despair has been transformed into hope. Anger into action. Sadness into joy. Isolated individuals into the solidarity of a mass movement.

In the rotunda people step forward to speak briefly. Drummers beat out a beat. The people chant over and over again, “This is what democracy looks like!” and “Kill the bill!”

I talked for a while to a couple of University of Wisconsin graduate students at the information table on the second floor of the rotunda. Hundreds of people here are volunteering – doing clean up, acting as monitors, talking to the media, blogging, phone calling legislators, and so on.

On Monday February 14 there was a rally of graduate students. On Tuesday and Wednesday two bigger rallies were planned. It has grown every day since then. On Saturday 70,000 people came. Seventy thousand and not a single arrest, one person told me proudly. A thousand tea party rightwingers came, and screamed and shouted, trying to provoke the pro-worker protesters. But no one took the bait. Hundreds of people, I was told, wore "this is a peaceful rally" signs on their backs. "We are a peaceful movement," a protester told me, and won't be provoked.

Tomorrow (Monday) another huge noon rally is planned, then a 5:00 pm concert. No one seems to know for sure who is coming, but members of Rage Against the Machine may be among them. There is a rumor that the Daily Show will be in town.

This is a spontaneous, day by day movement, a young protester told me. We're making it up as we go along, he said.

There doesn’t appear to be a plan beyond what will happen the next day. Only by Friday, I was told, after five days of rallies, did there start to be planning on what might happen two or three days later.

I asked the grad students when they realized the protests were not just for a day or two, but had momentum and would happen every day. They said that they and others began to occupy the state capitol building on Tuesday night, and they began to realize that the movement was not like any other; that it was going to be a long struggle with daily rallies and a long occupation of the State Capitol.

On Thursday the 14 Democratic Senators left the state for Illinois, so they could not be rounded up by the state police and forced to return to the Capitol. By their exit they thus prevented the 19 Republicans a 20th Senator required for a quorum, so the union busting bill could not be called to a vote.

I saw 10 extra large pizzas in boxes on the floor, and grabbed a slice. I asked who I could donate to for the slice. No need, I was told. People had already donated. There was a website where people could pledge money for slices for the protesters. People from all over were donating. “You’re kidding me,” I said to the guy in charge. “I’m not,” he replied. “It’s intense.”

It is that, absolutely that. The whole scene is intense.

I talked to a teacher who has come almost every day from Milwaukee. Either the teachers in 19 school districts call in sick, or else they report to work but school has been canceled as so many others have called in sick.

I walked into a “hearing room” on the 4th floor, to find it taken over since Tuesday by graduate students in the Teaching Assistants Association union. A dozen sat typing away on laptops. A big sign in the back read “Media.” I talked to a couple grad students about what it felt like to be in the midst of making history.

The legal protection that has so far kept the capitol building open 24 hours a day while the workers and students occupy it is that the Democratic assembly reps are holding a nonstop hearing, getting testimony from Wisconsin citizens on the bill. When I entered, the room was packed with 60 people. Two legislators listened as one after another person testified. People were only let in and out when a speaker had finished, so that the loud cheering from the rotunda wouldn’t drown out the speakers.

I’ve never been political, said one person. I’ve never protested anything. But this is so wrong. And so I’ve been here every day.

I’m a single mom teacher and I love my kids and I love my job, said another person. I’ve already lost my house to foreclosure. If this bill passes with the huge wage cut and skyrocketing health insurance costs, I won’t be able to afford health insurance. She sobbed as she pleaded with the legislators not to take away her family’s health care.

I’m not from here, said another. I’ve lived here 7 years. But I have no family here. I settled here because I love the people, I love the culture, I love how people care for one another here. Governor Walker is betraying the spirit of Wisconsin.

Another person echoed that sentiment, talking about the spirit of the Green Bay Packers – the only football team owned by the people. And how the concession stands are staffed by nonprofit groups, and those groups get the profits from that day’s sales to help their organizations do good works. And that, he said, is the spirit of Wisconsin – taking care of one another. And the Governor is betraying that.

Others, many of them not union members, talked about how the right to be in a union, the right to collectively bargain, is a fundamental democratic right. And a fundamental human right, said another, as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights proclaims.

Others talked about the devastating impact of cuts in social services that Governor Wagner is demanding, and how many, many people will suffer if he and the Republicans get their way.


  1. Eileen in CaliforniaFebruary 21, 2011 at 7:45 AM

    What a great report, Steven! I'm so proud to know people who traveled to Madison to be part of this intense process. Maybe our pent-up rage from all the awful things that have gone on in our lifetimes is finding a healthy channel, a useful channel. We don't have the Koch brothers millions of dollars but we have millions of people!

  2. Stumbled upon your blog post. Excellent You provide an excellent view and account of the protests. I've witnessed your account day after day. The description for the energy and measure of commitment is on-point, and, I feel, has increased daily.

    Great stuff. Solidarity.