Letter from Madison, February 27, 2011

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This Sunday Zach Poppel and I traveled to Madison to support the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol. I want to share some of my experiences.

As we left for Madison, we knew we might not be able to get into the building, and therefore we were ready to support our colleagues inside who faced potential arrest.
Amy Livingston and Anna Kurhajec had arrived the night before, and Leighton Christiansen came with another labor group that morning.

We got got into the line for entrance into the capital at about 3:20, and the police had promised to close the doors promptly at 4:00. The line was moving slowly
(police were allowing one person in for every two that left), but we knew that Leighton was inside. Sometime around 3:45 we resigned ourselves to the fact that we probably wouldn’t get in, though we stayed in line. Shortly before 4:00, we got word that Amy and Anna had been among the last people to make it in after waiting about two hours. When the doors closed at 4:00, the outside crowd chanted, “Let Us In” for 15 more minutes.

You all can see what happened inside from the TV feeds. On the outside, we saw an energetic protest that still had the spirit of Saturday’s rally. Despite the bitter cold, people were in good spirits. We kept hearing conflicting reports about the status of the people inside. Earlier in the day we had heard promises that there would be no arrests; later on it seemed arrests were likely. While still waiting in
line, I had scrawled Kerry Pimblott’s telephone number on my arm with a permanent marker in case of arrest, a surreal experience for someone who’s never even had a speeding ticket. I had to explain what was going on to my (borderline hysterical) parents.

Once the doors were closed, of course we were worried about our friends inside. The plan was for us to be their first phone call if they were arrested. There were ACLU people available, but they would be responsible for all the protesters. People made a commitment to stay until either everyone was out of the building or the police had announced there were no arrests. Driveways, entrances, and exits were blocked.

As the temperatures dropped, people climbed up to the second floor to look peek inside. At one point we formed a human chain around the building. We also held a candlelight vigil and chants and drumming continued. As an unplanned event, this was a much smaller crowd than the massive Saturday rally, but it maintained tremendous energy. For me, the most thrilling part was hearing the car horns of supporters driving the streets around the capital. As the day passed, they fell into a regular pattern: a surprisingly well-coordinated call-and-response chorus version of “this is what democracy looks like.” Successive waves of commuters picked up on the game and kept it going. This will be one of my favorite memories.

Though none of us could get in the building, we were heartened to see food and supplies go in, as well as additional press. By 7:00 we had received word that everyone inside had been guaranteed they would be able to spend the night peacefully and would not be arrested. The outside protest began to disperse and we knew Leighton, Amy, and Anna would not need bail, so we headed home.
Stopping to warm up at a local bar, One thing you notice in Madison is that just about every local business has a sign supporting public sector union rights.

Right now, Walker is thoroughly despised in Madison. However much he likes to talk about the silent majority who supports him, I have seen almost no evidence of this. He literally cannot be seated in a restaurant in Madison as evidenced when he went to one of Madison’s premier restaurants, and the owners refused to serve him. What I did see was a massive group of people (and their dogs), diverse in race, ethnicity, age, economic background, sexual identity, religion, and professed politics (it was surprising how many “conservatives” believe in union rights). All
of them have had enough of Gov. Walker, after his less than two months in office. An incredible proliferation of clever signs lambaste Walker and his multi-billionaire
benefactors, the Koch brothers, punning and the double entendre are very alive in the Badger state. There is a serious tone as well. People here profess their disgust for Walker’s willingness, caught on tape, to plant agents provocateurs in the crowd to try to cause violence and discredit the movement. What kind of governor, the Madison Chief of Police asked, would consider risking the safety of law enforcement officers and protesters, including their children, for his political gain and backed down from the idea only because he decided it would hurt him politically?

It was also a crowd that connected the dots, and demonstrated precisely the kind of critical self-awareness that Left intellectuals often claim to be unable to find in
the American working and middle classes. These were not people marching, as the Right charges, just to protect their own benefits. The people marching understood the connections between war spending, corporate welfare, and tax cuts on the one hand, and cuts in education, health care, and social programs on the other. They understand that the divisions between skilled and unskilled, middle and working class, union and nonunion, and private and public sector, are meant to divide working people against one another.

My overall impression, like the Saturday protest the day before, was of incredible peace and harmony. I have never seen this many people assembled (for any reason, not just a political rally) without any unpleasantness or violence. People speak plainly and from the heart, in their posters and in their words, about how this bill will affect their lives, how it will take away things they’ve won, not only through their individual effort but through generations of workers who have sacrificed to build their unions.

Two weeks ago I remember telling someone that “Wisconsin is coming to all of America next.” At the time, this sounded ominous and threatening. Now, it has become transformed into something hopeful. I’d like to think that the energy, passion, selflessness, and civic engagement that Wisconsin has shown the world can become a model for all of us. Wisconsin is coming to all of America next,
but not in the way Scott Walker intended.

Does anyone know how to get permanent marker writing off your skin?


About Michael Veredame

Michael Veredame is a member of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Graduate Employees' Organization.
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