How often does an individual have the opportunity to pinpoint the exact moment at which their life was irrevocably changed? For myself, that moment came exactly one year ago today. The emotions and memories are so vivid, I merely have to think of that day and I am immediately transported back inside the Madison Capitol. I was appalled from the moment I learned that Scott Walker was prepared to activate the National Guard, in response to the protests that would surely ensue after he "dropped the bomb" known as the Budget Despair Bill on Wisconsin's public sector unions. "How could a state's governor wield his state's volunteer Guardsmen and women as his own personal palace guard against his constituents?," I thought to myself. (Little did I suspect that utilizing whatever police force was available at the time to quell dissent, would become a staple of life in Fitzwalkerstan.) At the time, I knew very little about the bill, but it quickly became apparent to me that it was an across-the-board assault on Wisconsin's progressive values and not only did Scotty know it, but more importantly...he didn't give a shit.
Having been glued to my television for nearly three weeks prior, as the Arab Spring was unfolding in Egypt's Tahrir Square, I was inspired by their bravery in the face of bloody government crackdowns and their steadfast determination through peaceful resistance. So when large-scale protests began in earnest, in virtually my back yard, only days after Egyptians had overthrown their totalitarian government led by Hosni Mubarek, my interest level went off the charts. On that Monday and Tuesday, I eagerly rushed home from work, hopped online and tuned into CNN to follow the latest goings-on from that day's protests. With each passing hour, it seemed, the crowds were growing and the movement was picking up steam. I found myself transfixed by the videos that were beginning to spring up on Youtube with footage of chants, drum circles and incredible passion from inside and outside of the Capitol. By Tuesday evening on February 15th, I had made the determination that I was done playing the role of casual observer and was ready to head on down to Madison's own Square to experience the protests first-hand. I called my boss (and Dad) to ask if I could take the day off and make my way to the Capitol on Wednesday. Fortunately, having been raised in a liberal family, I already knew his answer and went to bed giddy with anticipation for what the following day would bring. Needless to say, I was pissed off beyond belief to awaken the next morning with a splitting sinus headache, barely able to lift my gangly frame out of bed. The protests would have to wait. I spent virtually the entire day laying around and following the latest developments on Wiseye, the Wisconsin state government's version of C-Span, but as the day dragged on, I felt the pall hanging over my body beginning to lift. This was the respite I needed and I determined I was going to the protests on the 17th.
From the instant I entered the Capitol around 1 p.m. with my friend, Shafia Powell, I knew my life would never be the same. The tidal wave of adrenaline that immediately overtook my body was simply incredible. It wasn't so much that I could hear the energy of the crowd or see the intensity on their faces, but rather, that I could literally feel the electricity in the building coursing through me. Just thinking about it now still sends shivers down my spine. I was soon enveloped by the near deafening sounds cascading down from the upper reaches of the beautiful Capitol dome, off the marble floors and echoing throughout the packed hallways. Years earlier, I had sung with my high school choir inside of the rotunda, so I was familiar with the phenomenal acoustics inside...but I never could've imagined something as powerful as what we were hearing. As we meandered our way towards the ground floor of the Rotunda, I was swept up in my very first chant of "RE-CALL WAL-KER!!...RE-CALL WAL-KER!!" It felt odd, at first, to be yelling this repeatedly but having been an avid lifelong sports fan, I soon felt at ease going to work on destroying my already weakened vocal chords.
Despite my new comfort level, I simultaneously felt like a newborn, walking into a strange, and foreign world that so many inside of the Capitol had already grown accustomed to during the previous three and a half days, The sheer number of homemade signs, pictures and fliers adorning the walls was astonishing. Virtually every spot on any wall, pillar or statue inside of the Cap was covered with a plea, a testimonial, a defiant call for Recall or an optimistic appeal to what little (if any) compassion Walker and Wisconsin's Republican legislators had for the people of our great state. As we finally waded through the crowd in order to reach the ground floor of the Rotunda. I was literally taken aback by what I saw in front of me. Everywhere I looked, every nook, cranny and balcony was full of Badger red...and every single person was chanting, clapping and dancing as if I'd just walked into a religious revival. The musicians' circle was an eclectic mix of drums, tambourines, vuvuzelas and saxophone-led horn section (perhaps even a little cowbell?), yet their sounds and rhythms melded together as if they'd been doing this their entire lives. This was not what grade schoolers typically witnessed in their run-of-the-mill Capitol tour, to say the least. But then again, this wasn't your run-of-the-mill legislation.
The sight of yellow banners hanging from the first and second floor balconies, indicating the support from various individuals and groups from all over the United States that had traveled to protest in Solidarity with Wisconsinites, was a heartening one. Luckily, I was able to experience the unveiling of one shortly after I arrived. Applause started gradually building from an unseen part of the Rotunda...as people realized another banner was coming out, everyone started cheering, louder and louder, until the banner had been totally unfurled, proudly stating that "DETROIT IS HERE WITH YOU." The entire place roared with approval and it felt as if we might blow the dome off of the Capitol with the sound from within. This scene would repeat itself at various times throughout the day and the response each state and city received was as powerful as the one before it. Not long after, one of our State Assembly Representatives came out to thank the crowd and express their support. It was at that moment that I first learned (although many present had already heard) of the heroic journey our state's 14 Democratic Senators had taken in the middle of the night to be with the flatlanders to the South, in order to prevent the necessary quorum and keep the bill from being rubber stamped over to Walker's desk. u1Wisconsin was in this for the long haul.
I had always been active as far as voting and following national politics. But prior to a year ago today, I didn't know Scott Fitzgerald from the Edmund Fitzgerald (and now Scott's career appears to be sinking almost as quickly!) For me, democracy had always been about voting and encouraging others to vote. But outside of the gubernatorial races, I just didn't give a shit about state politics or actually getting involved. A year ago today, I truly learned what democracy looked like. I would no longer merely talk about protecting the rights of myself and others, but rather, stand up for them. I would no longer merely praise democracy, but rather, physically and socially ENGAGE in active democracy. I would never again allow myself to settle into an apathetic mindset towards the activities of our elected officials. I had seen the reality of the far right-wing extremism that had been unleashed upon my beloved state by the likes of ALEC and the Koch Brother Barons, under the guise of Scott Walker and a "balanced budget." I had stood with those who were so deeply affected by it's devastating consequences. The camaraderie and positive vibes I had experienced that day were intoxicating...and I knew that I just had to keep going back and stay involved, for as long as it possibly took.
For me, the atmosphere was encapsulated by the title of what became one of the Solidarity Sing Along's regular repertoire, "We Are a Gentle Angry People." No matter how livid the crowds were (and rightfully so,) they remained non-violent throughout and avoided the pratfalls of mob mentality that so often overcome large, essentially anonymous groups. The amount of love, passion and creativity I saw poured into virtually every sign, chant and testimonial was incredible. I was especially inspired by the power of the "People's Mic," a megaphone stationed in the center of the Rotunda, where otherwise ordinary individuals of all ages and backgrounds stepped up and bared their souls in front of thousands of strangers, with extraordinary courage they may not have ever known they had inside of them.
This movement and that day in particular, helped me realize that I, too, possessed the courage to make a difference, to let my voice be heard. A year ago, I had never even heard of the Daily Kos, let alone ever imagined I would start posting on a national liberal blog. I would not have comprehended spending my free time searching for conversations to stay abreast of the latest developments in Wisconsin's political and socioeconomic struggle or sharing links and posting Facebook status updates to help others see the reality of what is being done to my state. Whatever potential I had squandered or failed to utilize up until then no longer mattered to me. I had discovered a new clarity of purpose and I didn't know where it would take me, but I am happy where it's gotten me, thus far.
As dusk settled over that evening's rally on the steps of Our House, State Assemblyman, and fellow Sun Prairie native Gary Hebl, suggested that Walker and his legislative lap dogs had "awoken a sleeping dog." They had assumed the people of Wisconsin would simply roll over and take their attacks on democracy lying down....they were extremely misguided in that assumption. Well, my eyes are wide open and neither I, nor the people of this state, will be going back to sleep anytime soon. As I wrote on Facebook, "little did I think that I would walk into our state house on February 17th a curious and concerned supporter of workers' rights and immediately be transformed into a determined activist." The sensations I feel when I think back to the protests of last February and March are so strong and so visceral, that simply writing this was a constant battle with my emotions. My story is not unique from the hundreds of thousands of other stories people have from our shared experiences in those early days, but I knew this anniversary of my entry into the Uprising meant too much personally NOT to write about it. The entire movement has been about many different individuals coming together with a unity of purpose, overcoming fears and taking on seemingly insurmountable challenges we otherwise may not have had the willpower or intestinal fortitude to take on by ourselves. Just knowing you have millions behind you...now THAT is true Solidarity. On Tuesday, I was back inside Our House commemorating the one year anniversary of the I Love the UW Valentine's Day protest march that kicked everything into high gear, when the powerful chant of "WE'RE STILL HERE!!" broke out in full force. You're goddamned right we are. One year longer, one year stronger, Wisconsin...FORWARD!!!