It seems that when civil unrest hits, it goes global. It was only a little over a week ago that I was writing with admiration about the protests in Egypt that eventually ousted the much-vilified Mubarak, and then, days after he fled the city (or country?) the unrest has spread to the dictatorial countries like Libya, Algeria, and even to some extents Syria, Iran, and probably Saudi (although good luck getting any news out of those last two).
On a more local level, Wisconsin has suddenly gone activist out of nowhere. National news is following the stories of the rebellion against Scott Walker, the new Republican governor of Wisconsin, and his controversial ideas about how he claims he wants to bring Wisconsin’s budget under control. How does he want to do this? Attack the public sector, i.e. the schools, universities, and everyone that those sectors employ. How? With massive hikes in what they pay for their benefits and pensions. What else does he want to do? Utterly cripple the union system that attempts to defend workers against just this sort of abuse of power. Why? Because unions “take too long and Wisconsin has run out of money now.” He claims that if he doesn’t neuter the unions, they’ll drag out discussions and arguments about how to best take action in their own interests for 15 months, “time Wisconsin just doesn’t have.”
I won’t take up your precious time explaining the hard facts of the matter, when many national news articles have done it already. Nor do I need to go into just how loud and how angry the crowds of thousands and thousands of union members, students, and regular people have been as they flood into the capitol to protest the “Budget Repair Bill,” that’s been done by several different sources. However, I’ll just tell things from my point of view.
On February 15th, the first major protests started occurring, starting at about 9 or 10 in the morning. I took a vacation day and biked to the capitol, enjoying the somewhat warmer weather and being back on a bike again after 3 months away from it (the bike in question was less pleased to be ridden after two years of being packed into a storage shed while its owner was off gallivanting in Jordan and creaked angrily at me. Note to self: clean and lubricate bicycle). Even three blocks away from the capitol on a Tuesday morning, the traffic was getting stalled and a cop was barking curt orders at cars that were trying to navigate and weave about him. As I drew closer to the intersection, he leveled a meaty hand at me and bawled “you on the bike. Hold it right there.” Sometimes I miss the ever-present Jordanian cops in Amman. You didn’t want to cross them, certainly, but they were always amazed and amused to see bikers and were pleased to chat with you for as long as you wanted (this was probably because there are far too many officers in Jordan; one of the few jobs that native Jordanians can easily get). Madison cops, on the other hand, aren’t quite so overjoyed with bikers.
I didn’t have a sign or anything with me, but a union member was handing out signs as quickly as he could lay his gloved hands on them from a pile by his feet. He pressed one into my hands with a quick smile as I passed him on the sidewalk, a large white piece of heavy poster with “Wisconsin values Democracy at Work” printed on it in marker. The press of people on the sidewalk got too heavy to move at this point, and as we drew closer to the mouth of the State St intersection – the heart of the protest – I could make out the familiar sound of megaphones, stamping of feet, and sound of the rhythmic chants. Just like at a football game, when you have a crowd as large as the one we were quickly amassing, you can never seem to pull off a completely unified chant. It always ends up rolling across you like waves pounding along a beach; even if you manage to get everyone saying the same chant (good luck) you’ll still have at least a second or two of dissonance if you have a huge crowd. And we did. even half an hour before the protest was supposed to start. It was amazing.
By the time I’d been in the milling, chatting, chanting crowd for an hour, I’d manage to slowly work my way up to the railings and fences around the capitol building itself (not through the human masses shoulder-to-shoulder on the concrete paths, but by shortcutting through the snow-covered lawn instead). I pulled myself up onto the stone railing and finally was able to see just how many people had filled the sidewalks, the snowdrifts, and the streets around the capitol. Official estimates put Tuesday’s crowd at around 15,000-20,000 and I definitely agree with them. I had a perfect view as union-supporting church leaders, veterans, teachers, and healthcare professionals gave short speeches to the throng from a podium a dozen meters away from me, and was almost blasted off of my perch by the strong winter winds and the huge speakers blaring the anthem, “We’re Not Gonna Take it Anymore.”
Finally, at 1:00, the doors swung open on the capitol, rally workers politely instructed us to leave pointy wooden signs outside, and the final shout through the speakers was, “Go find your elected representatives and tell them how you feel!” After all, we’re not the illiterate clods of the Tea Party, et al – we’re the so-called Ivory Tower and we were going to politely and eloquently express our wishes and beliefs to our representatives!
I figured that my new address in Madison would be pretty well covered by thousands of other people, and they’re all Democrats anyway. So instead I sought out Brodhead’s assemblyman, a newly-elected Republican named Evan Wynn from Whitewater. Back when I was living at my parents’ house, I remember seeing flyers from him in their mail before the election, pictures of him strapped in combat gear during his time in the Middle East and also looking business-like and concerned while staring at pieces of paper. When I finally fought my way through the hundreds of people all trying to do the same thing and find their own senators and assemblypeople, I found a quiet office with the new representative’s name on the door, and several older people with signs and green shirts bearing the word AFSCME, which I had never heard of before but rapidly learned was a large labor union, and they were public employees from UW-Whitewater. They were more than happy to have me join them in their pre-determined time slot to speak with Wynn, and after ten minutes of waiting for Wynn to finish up with a group of protesters already in his office, we were called in.
The representative was a short, white-haired little man with spectacles, and looked downright kindly and easy-going. I wasn’t sure to take that as a good sign or bad sign for our anti-bill cause; was he so relaxed because he knew he was on our side and therefore he expected an easy chat, or was he so relaxed because his political group controlled the entire political system of the state. We would find out. Out of respect for the AFSCME workers who had reserved the slot, I pulled up a chair in the corner and listened. The UW union members were part of the custodial service at their school, and specifically wanted to know what Wynn had to say about their bargaining rights being ripped out from under them.
I was impressed to see that Wynn was not stupid. He knew exactly who 9/10 of his group was (he had shaken all of our hands when we entered and asked us what we did and where we were from) and knew how to tailor his message. He started by talking about his support for modifying the bill to re-add bargaining rights for job conditions, but frowned expressively as he decried how professors could get away with having a doctorate, working two days a week, not knowing “how to actually teach students, instead of just lecture to them,” and then still cry foul over having bargaining “rights” taken away. The sanitation workers appeared mollified by this, while I shook my head in grudging respect for Wynn’s ability to bolster his current audience while targeting/scapegoating another group. So would Wynn then vote against the bill when the assembly took it up, they asked? He looked us each in the eye and said that if the bill were to appear in front of him in its current form, he would vote against it, and against his party, because of the lack of job condition bargaining rights. “However, you know that the bill will never reach the assembly in that form,” he warned us. “I agree with most of the bill, and Wisconsin is indeed out of money like the governor says. We need to increase the pension and benefit charges.” As we filed out of the room after talking for 20 minutes, I spoke to Wynn privately, and asked him to consider pro-rating the pension increase percentages, based on salaries, instead of a flat 5.8% increase across the entire public sector. He acknowledged that he “had never thought of it that way before,” before quickly bidding me farewell.
I returned a couple days later, this Thursday, with some coworkers of mine. I had arrived at work that morning in the Social Sciences building to find the vending machine and most of the walls covered with signs and posters asking students and workers to “skip class” and come to a rally at the Library Mall and march to the capitol. “Heh,” I chuckled to myself. I remembered our walk-out against the war to protest Halliburton back in 2007 and the (low) turnout for that. Could students really be convinced to take action against something as nebulous as “workers rights”? With its “sinister” socialist connotations as putting “workers” and “rights” in the same sentence? Unfortunately, I didn’t expect that much would come from a “student walkout” for workers’ rights.
I was pleased to be very wrong. When the three of us arrived, the Mall was already crowded with students, and young people with megaphones were up on the concrete blocks near the bikes shouting and rallying the crowd. One of them was holding a sign that said “We Want More: 1) Workers Rights 2) Beer” Spirits were high (of the emotional variety, although the other type was probably present as well in some concealed flasks) as we marched up State Street to join the already-massive crowd at the capitol.
The problem with the students’ march, though, was the lack of diversity in the chants and shouts. Call me nostalgic for the old days, but we had dozens of antiwar chants back when I was an undergraduate. “Kill The Bill” was the most commonly shouted one in this march, and it was repeated ad nauseum every few minutes. I tried shouting “Negotiate and discuss the ramifications of passing this legislation and then vote against it, please” but few people joined in. Oh well, at least I tried.
This time, there was no speech-giving at the capitol steps; we all immediately jammed into the building and joined the crush of humanity surging through the building, bellowing, chanting, playing musical instruments, and generally making their wishes known. I recalled that Wynn had said that today would be the day that the senate would vote on the bill, and then afterwards, if it passed, Wynn and the rest of the assembly would see it. My coworkers and I climbed the steps up the second floor and made it to the beautiful lofted “bridge” near the rotunda looking over at the huge wrought-iron doors and the word “Senate” written in large golden letters. The people were of course thickest here, making an incredible amount of noise and breaking into a multitude of different chants and cheers every few minutes. We stayed there for twenty minutes or so before heading out to get some air again; as we walked around the capitol we started to hear snatches of excited rumors: the 14 Democrat senators had fled the state to Illinois and Iowa in order to prevent the doomed vote from taking place; with only 19 Republican senators left in the chamber, they didn’t have the quorum of 20 needed in order to carry out the vote.
As much as I still know that this current bill is doomed to pass, I still have hope. The longer that the Democrat senators can keep the vote from taking place, the more time we on the left have to mobilize against the senators who are acting on Walker’s behalf to pass this bill. Although we’re unfortunately stuck with Mr Walker for at least a year (we can attempt to recall him after one year in office and with 560,000 petition signatures) there are plenty of Republican senators that could be recalled right now, and it will only take a few dozen thousand signatures each to get voters a chance to oust them. One thing’s for sure: many Wisconsinites who voted for Walker because they were opposed to a commuter train between Milwaukee and Madison are now wishing they had known this would happen. It doesn’t really exonerate those voters; because Mr Walker made no secret of his wish to crush unions and workers’ rights before the election happened, but at least there’s some major buyer’s remorse going on. Eventually the bill will pass and we’ll be stuck with it (for a little while) – but at least we can prove that it will be political suicide for anyone who supports it, and in a few years time we can go back to being a blue state like we should be.
There’s no sign of the protests stopping yet, either, either here in Wisconsin or in the Middle East. My news aggregator, which has been searching for keywords of “Wisconsin” and “Middle East” started pulling up stories of assaults on protesters in Amman this morning, which was a shock to see. After reading the news on Tunisia, then Egypt, then Yemen, then finally Libya and Algeria – I didn’t think that Jordan would ever be on that list. King Abdullah II has never been as utterly adored as his father King Hussein, but he’s been an average, respected king for the Jordanian people and the thought of him paying off thugs to go and beat up protesters in the streets is nauseating. It reminds me that however bad we think we have it in America, with pay cuts of 5-6% and having to deal with right-wing crazies… protesters in my Arab second homeland have it far worse.
Rachel Maddow’s take on the Wisconsin protests. Sorry about the stupid advertisement that plays first; nothing I can do about that.