MADISON, WI (FDL) – There are two stories going on here. One is a political story, and it’s a battle of wills, in many ways. Will Senate Democrats crack by returning to Madison and allowing the budget repair bill to pass, or will Republicans call off the assault on worker’s rights and move on with the bill? That’s what it boils down to, and in my next post I’ll explain why I think the Republicans, (mis)led by Scott Walker, are losing their grip and may have to concede at some point.
But there’s another story as well. And that’s the story of the state Capitol building, under a virtual occupation for the 10th straight day. What started as a protest has taken on the quality of a virtual city on the square. It’s very hard to explain unless you see it for yourself, but I’ll try. The Capitol has become a site for dissent, an information center, an organizing hub, a pizzeria, a display of wit and the site of a new progressive movement. That’s really not overstating the case.
As you walk into the Capitol, the walls are basically covered, and not just with protest slogans and witticisms, though they are there as well (“Hey Stewart/Colbert, we came to your rally, now come to ours”; “The Curdish rebels of Wisconsin”; “Thank God for CNN or I’d never know what’s on Twitter”). Scott Walker is getting a lot of mockery as well; my favorite banner read “Hey Scott Walker, this is David Koch, will you talk to me?” Madison is the birthplace of The Onion, after all. But the walls are also festooned with a surprising amount of graphs and charts, depicting inequality in America, or the percentage cuts to BadgerCare in the budget repair bill, or how much of the federal budget is spent on war and the military. There are even historical treatises about how Abraham Lincoln once jumped out of a window to avoid a quorum call in the Illinois Senate. This is a wonk rebellion too, furthered by the Internet and the easy accessibility of data.
And then there’s the organizing. While protesters rally and wave signs and give public testimony on the legislation (a process that has been going on for days), others are harnessing the frustration and passion. Phone banks have been set up. Other flyers announce self-organized protests, including one today in front of the new lobbying offices for Koch Industries, which popped up just a couple weeks after Scott Walker’s election. There’s a sign-up sheet that reads “I would strike to kill the bill,” with a pretty long list of names. (The idea of a general strike has been discussed, and even endorsed by a local labor council. Private unions wouldn’t be able to go out because of Taft-Hartley, but by mid-March most public unions would not be operating under a contract with the state, so you could absolutely see something like this happen, depending on what legislation goes forward.) At another station on the ground floor is the pizza distribution; Ian’s Pizza on State has basically become the official supplier of the protests, paid for by donations coming in from around the country and the world. There’s coffee as well, and periodically calls for supplies go out, and get fulfilled. There are websites up devoted to the protest, like Defend Wisconsin. Other fliers announce Twitter feeds to follow for information, or sites collecting YouTube videos of the event.
There’s a lot of earnestness, knowledge and even humor throughout the Capitol. You know what there’s not a lot of? Lobbyists. I’ve been to a few state Capitols in my day, and the suits are invariably flitting about, pushing their little riders to help out their clients. You’re seeing none of that in Madison; it’s really a takeover. And the unity in the Rotunda is remarkable. Some of the most visible union members in there are police and firefighters, who are exempted from the collective bargaining restrictions under the bill. I saw a guy walking around with a sign reading “Private Sector Nonunion Employee – I stand with Labor.” High school and college students are extremely active as well.
One person said to me that the outpouring here is paradoxically similar to the outpouring that ended up sweeping Scott Walker into office. People are tired of losing good jobs, of seeing wealth float to the top, of being part of a generation falling behind their parents. They wanted something different, but they didn’t know what that was. Now they see the true agenda of these Republicans who got elected and the same energy has gone into fighting that. It’s an interesting theory, and I think there’s a bit more nuance than that; Madison is a liberal town, and this isn’t Scott Walker country no matter what. But in the bars and on the streets, people who I would characterize as “townies,” people who weren’t all that political to begin with, are incessantly talking about this issue. It has consumed the town, and in many ways consumed Wisconsin and the nation. We’re finally talking about things that matter to the mass of people.