Saturday I worked out a carpool ride to Madison with three social workers. All worked in Dakota County, MN. government, but two had just retired and one lives in, and commutes from, WI. It was great to meet some new people and hear their stories and thoughts on recent labor history on the way to Madison. We arrived in Madison shortly after noon, knowing we had missed the tractor parade. We had a report the Capitol Square was already packed, and as expected, we had to park about a half mile out to find a spot!
This rally had been called for before the Wednesday passage of the controversial collective bargaining restriction bill, (see legal filing in opposition) and so this rally was predicted to be the largest yet, and it was. Conservatively, a 100,000 people were there. I don’t doubt it, people who were there early for the Farmers parade were streaming out, as we arrived. The eight city blocks surrounding the square were packed, from commercial buildings across and onto the Capitol sidewalk, easily twice what was there last Saturday. The area immediately around the Capitol was filled with people as well. Many photos are deceptive as protesters were trying to avoid the Capitol lawn, after criticism it was being damaged by the thousands present.
I started out my first round the square with Dick, my Minnesota driver. His sign declaring Minnesota support for Wisconsin workers, got repeated thank you’s from Wisconsin residents. There appeared to be significant out of state support from Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan, as well as scattered distant locals. By the time we approached the State St. speakers podium the march slowed to nearly impassable, and this was early on!
The sense of community, solidarity, enthusiasm and general optimism was not tarnished by the weeks events. Rumors of the return of Wisconsin’s 14 Democratic Senators were circulating and a sense of anticipation was in the air. The recall of eight Republican Senators vulnerable to this action was in high gear. I was repeatedly asked my residence and petitions were available to sign. Many signs supported a general workers strike for March 31st. After this weeks funds withdrawal of $192,000 in funds by Firefighters Local 311 from M&I bank , the boycott of supporters of Governor Walker’s election campaign and of Koch industries products was widely promoted with handouts. It was suggested as also a way for out of state supporters to have an impact in Wisconsin. Protests are following Walker around the state, to Washburn, WI last night.
There seemed to be a broader coalition of people present, at least judging by the signage. More Farmers and rural people, retired and elderly, small business owners, veterans, teachers and health care workers were self identified. The experience of mingling in such a peaceful, diverse, and yet excited and politically focused crowd is absolutely unique. I can best describe it as a magical experience of ‘the people’.
At about 2.30pm I caught the procession forming to present most of the ‘Fighting 14′ to the crowd. To chants of “Thank You”, “Thank You”, police slowly cleared a path escorting them to the State Street capitol podium. Also in the procession were Jesse Jackson, actor Tony Shaloub of the “Monk” TV series, actress Susan Sarandon, and many Madison and state officials. After the initial welcome, speakers continued, filling the whole State Street four block side to standing room only.
Speakers spoke to the collective sense of pride and commitment for Wisconsin and it’s labor and democratic traditions. Jesse Jackson called for a moment of silence for those effected by disaster in Japan. The crowd went silent. Susan Sarandon, and many others spoke of the dedication of the thousands of protesters over the past 28 days, and to energize the recall effort.
The rally started to break up around 4pm as harsh breezes returned and sunlight failed. Inquiring with several protesters, most felt the rallies would continue in the weeks to come, but now with also a long term focus on the recall effort. Typical of the spirit present was that as we made the long trek to our cars with thousands of others, we navigated heavy traffic congestion, normally a real irritant. Every where cars celebrated by honking the rhythmic code: dot – dot – dot – dot,dot – dot, dot – dot – dot of the theme of the nearly month long protest’s favorite chant : “This is what De-moc cra-cy looks like!” . Each car answered another with the pattern until it echoed around the city!
Check back Tuesday for more Interviews of the Pagan perspective, and a story Thursday of the community of solidarity forming as a result of these protests.