I feel a bit like Ernie Pyle today, sending you this dispatch from the front lines of the American labor movement here in Madison, Wisconsin. Indeed, though, much more than organized labor is at stake, for this attack by the petulant, sniveling, conniving governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, strikes at the very heart of American ideals of democracy, equal representation, and popular sovereignty. Groups as diverse as the Gay-Straight Alliance and the Catholic Church have found common ground in repelling this fascist attack designed to kill organized labor for the benefit of a corporate oligarchy. Governor Walker claims the bill is necessary to fix the "budget crisis," but the facts belie that claim: just last month, the governor passed $120 million in tax cuts and subsidies to big business. If not for that and a couple other measures, according to an editorial in today's New York Times , Wisconsin would actually have a budget SURPLUS this year. This bill is nothing more than an ideological "kill shot"-- as one local conservative columnist gleefully put it --to end organized labor as we know it. Yes, the benefits in Wisconsin are generous, but they were earned through negotiation and offset by salary reductions. Now, Walker wants to end collective bargaining rights so that he alone can dictate the terms of employee compensation.
Yesterday at about 9:45 p.m. I began my walk up historic State Street mall to join the forces of liberty at the Capitol Square. Upon reaching the square, a group of young women enlisted me to sign a letter in support of the Democratic lawmakers who fled the state yesterday to delay the midnight passage of the bill. I gladly affixed my seal to this wonderful document.
Then I made it through the outer ring of protesters and began my ascent up the Capitol steps. About halfway up, a great cry of jubilation rose up behind me. I turned around to see about 40 bicyclists charging up the State Street mall to ride circuits around the Capitol. It was like the coming of the Union Cavalry on the third day at Gettysburg.
I then crossed the threshold of the Capitol and stepped into her great open belly. A crowd of about 1,000 people were cheering, chanting, and dancing. Most of the crowd had gathered around a rather acrobatic gentleman who was break dancing and doing back flips off the wall. After he finished his routine, the chants turned to demanding the ouster of Governor Walker.
As I stepped further into the heart of the rotunda, literally beating with dozens of drums and makeshift percussion instruments--the wildest drumming and chanting I'd seen since an Egyptian handball match at the 1996 Olympics--I looked up to the second floor and saw a banner that read, "Michigan supports Wisconsin workers!" I was proud to see that people from Michigan made the trip, but then I kept reading the rest of the banners: "Boston supports Wisconsin," "North Carolina supports Wisconsin," etc., etc., all the way from Texas to San Francisco to Pakistan.
I made my way to the second floor to get a better vantage point of the crowd. There I met the only noticeable security presence--a hunched woman in her seventies sweeping up the floor around an unconscious homeless man. The crowd around the second floor balcony was three people deep, but I eventually found an opening and wedged my way to the front. From there I saw a woman dressed in all black who looked like she could have been the starting left tackle on the Badger football team wailing out soulful tunes from her alto sax that she carried and slung around as if it were a knapsack.
In the center of the rotunda, an altar had been made by turning over an empty garbage can. From there, people took turns stepping to the top of the can to get on the bullhorn and lead various chants: "Kill the Bill!" "Kill the Bill!" "Hey Hey! Yo Yo! Scott Walker's got to Go!" "Power to the People!" "Power to the People!" "Show me what democracy looks like... THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!" And then there were songs, which the makeshift band was quickly able to accompany as if they'd been practicing for years. There were a couple occasions when a person got up to make a speech. They were usually inaudible until the very end, when the speaker would crescendo with "....[inaudible]....[inaudible].... SCOTT WALKER!" at which point the crowd would let loose a bellowing cheer and the chanting would resume with renewed vigor.
And then there were the signs. The teachers and the nurses had the best ones: "Hey Scott Walker, stick this in your juice box and suck it!" "When we're screwed, we multiply!" and my favorite, "Do YOU want the National Guard inserting YOUR Foley catheter?"
I had to leave around 11 p.m. to catch the last bus home, but the energy was still building when I left. The last two people I saw in the Capitol were a college aged man wearing nothing but a dress made out of those edible candy necklaces and, next to him, a seated woman probably in her sixties resting her eyes for the long night ahead. She had a big "Kill the Bill" placard and one black rose.
Outside the Capitol, I was about the only person walking the other way. Young and old were streaming in with blankets and pillows.
Huddled in his office bunker, Walker announced yesterday, "No negotiations, no compromise." The protests continue today. The fate of the middle class hangs in the balance.