08 March 2011

Paul Beckett : Madison and the Revolution at Home

Photo by Paul Beckett / The Rag Blog.

The revolution at home:
Dispatch from the Madison front

By Paul Beckett / The Rag Blog / March 8, 2011

MADISON, Wisconsin -- My wife Kathie and I have been to the Capitol square in Madison, sometimes inside, sometimes outside the Capitol building, most days since February 13 when the demonstrations began. It’s been cold, often snowy, usually with a wind chill of 20 degrees or less. Pretty uncomfortable. And they’ve been some of the best days of our lives.

We are proud of Wisconsin. We have new hope (dare we hope so much?) for America. According to Michael Moore , everyone is a Wisconsinite now. Welcome! Badgers of the world, unite!

Background to protest

Scott Walker provoked the demonstrations Friday, February 11, when he tabled his 144-page “Budget Repair Bill” and insisted it be passed the following week without significant alteration. The first thing that leapt out of the bill was its frontal assault on Wisconsin’s public service unions: the bill would eviscerate the unions and effectively eliminate the collective bargaining process.

Quickly it became apparent that there were many other right-wing dreams buried in the bill that would be instantly made law.

SB11 attacked public-sector pensions and health care (resulting in public service pay reductions of 8-10%); provided authority for the Walker administration (without further legislative consideration) to sell off public owned power plants on no-bid contracts; and it separated the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the State of Wisconsin University System.

There were many other far-reaching provisions as well, together with ominous undertones foretelling drastic cuts that would be included in the biennial budget still to come: cuts to local schools and services, and to Wisconsin’s very successful Medicare initiative (Badger Care). Many suspected that Wisconsin’s huge and fully-funded public service pension fund would soon have crosshairs on it.

Understanding spread that, first, most of the provisions had little or nothing to do with “repairing” the present-year budget; and, second, all were part of a national right-wing agenda best articulated by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and funded by billionaires such as the Koch brothers. (The latter, Charles and David, were heavy funders of Walker’s election campaign, and they had just opened a lobbying firm a block away from the Wisconsin Capitol.)

As all of this came out, the Budget Repair Bill seemed radical to the core in turning back Wisconsin’s progressive traditions and in transferring important legislative powers to the Governor’s administration.

Walker threw a match into this pail of gasoline by preemptively remarking that if there were worker trouble he would call out the state’s National Guard.

In the state Assembly, the Republican majority was strong enough to pass the bill without a single Democratic vote, or even the presence of a single Democrat. But in the Senate, while Republicans held a 19 to 14 advantage, at least one Democrat had to be in the chamber to count toward quorum to legally pass the bill.

The Democrats made themselves scarce. The Republican leader of the Senate instructed his father (since Walker’s election, the head of the State Patrol) to bring them in. Suddenly, on Thursday, February 17, all heard the news: the 14 Democratic Senators were safely out-of-state, in Illinois. The bill could not be passed.

Meanwhile, demonstrations had begun. They started small with a few of Madison’s “usual suspects” (people like myself) and members of the UW-Madison’s Teaching Assistants’ Association. But in a day or so protesters numbered in the thousands: unprecedented in recent history.

The numbers grew exponentially as understanding of the bill’s implications sank in. Teachers caught a collective cold; the schools had to close; high school students marched down in phalanxes to join the crowds. University students were there en masse, and parents brought their children. The Capitol’s marble rotunda became a gigantic resonator for the opposition: packed on three levels, festooned with signs, reverberating with drums and chants: “Walker is a weasel, not a badger!” “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” “Kill the Bill!”

And among the teachers, the parents, the school children, the university students, the retirees and other townspeople were: the unions! The unions really got it from day one: they knew that this battle had the significance of the 1981 air controller’s strike: a last ditch struggle to hold on to the remnants of our trade union movement (and with it, much of the progressive achievement of the twentieth century).

The unions knew this was not a local issue, not a Wisconsin-only issue, and not a budget issue. (Early on, the public service unions indicated they would agree to the salary cuts -- for health and pension payments -- that the Budget Repair bill demanded; they thus took the genuine deficit-reduction issues off the table.)

Walker had cunningly tried to separate the police and fire fighter unions from the rest by exempting them from the bill’s provisions. What a great moment it was (we were there, and up front) when a long line of fire fighters, many in uniform, carrying solidarity placards, marched in a file through the crowd which cheered them ecstatically. And this happened over and over again: fire fighters, police, prison workers condemned the anti-union provisions.

Taken in by a prankster, Walker said to a caller he thought to be David Koch that the demonstrations were dying down and consisted mainly of out-of-staters. (See the complete transcript of the call.)

He wished! The demonstrations were only getting going!

The joy of protest

What does it look and feel like? First, really huge crowds. Thursday, the 17th, when the 14 Senators fled, the crowd is 25,000. The next day, 40,000. On Saturday, 68,000. The following Saturday, more than 70,000. (This despite the constantly below-freezing temperatures). The wide streets that make the square around the Capitol are packed all the way around. The crowd moves slowly, drumming, chanting, waving signs. The procession moves (wouldn’t you know it!) in a leftward direction.

There are some pre-printed signs, mainly from the many (more than 60) unions that are participating. They predominated on the first day or so, but quickly were swamped by thousands of wonderful, whimsical hand-made signs. Each communicates its maker’s own sense of the essence of the problem or the solution.

Humor is adopted as a weapon by many. Plays are made on the name of Scott Walker’s corporate backers, the Koch brothers (the funders of Americans For Prosperity, which already is taking out ads and organizing bus tours to support Walker).

“Scottie, kick your Koch habit.” Or, referring to the infamous 20 minute phone conversation with “David Koch:” “Scott: Koch dealer on 2.”

Many, a little ribald for these pages, play on the Koch brothers’ name mispronounced. Many other signs, always greatly appreciated by the crowd, proclaim: “I voted for Walker. And am I sorry.” You see the figure “14” everywhere: “14 Heroes!” Or just “14.” We all know who they are.

By the time of Saturday’s big demonstration on March 5 (when Michael Moore spoke) the variety of hand-made signs has come to seem infinite. Even dogs are displaying signs, on the order of “I smell a weasel!” or “Bad Scottie! Bad! Bad!”

Inside and out, music and drumming has a spontaneous character. Many of the drums are plastic drywall tubs, sometimes with a tin can inside to impart a ring. We also saw pans, cow bells, snare drums, African drums, even a ukulele. South African vuvuzelas blare discordantly.

Here and there, inside and out, speeches are being given. Most loudspeaker systems are minimalist, hand-held. Some speakers (or, shouters) use only old-fashioned unamplified megaphones (probably made at the kitchen table an hour ago).

Amid the drumming and the chanting in the Capitol, most speeches can’t be heard by most people. But that doesn’t stop us from cheering and applauding. We feel sure the speech was right on, saying just what we think!

Getting warm In Madison (I don’t mean the weather)

Monday, February 28, a new stage was reached. The Capitol reverberated throughout with the people’s voices. Governor Walker would present his budget on Tuesday evening. How could the television-watching public be allowed to see and hear the tens of thousands of citizens that would be outside the chamber?

Solution: close the Capitol to the public. He did. That added more fuel to the fire. The Dane County sheriff withdrew his men and women from the job of closing the entrances, making the unhelpful statement: “My deputies are not a palace guard.”

The Capitol police, assigned the job of clearing the rotunda of the tens, sometimes hundreds, of protesters who had camped there for two weeks, declined to do so, saying the protest had been remarkably peaceful, safe and respectful, and they saw no necessity of arresting and dragging out the campers.

A Dane County judge decided it was not legal to close the building to the public. He issued an injunction against the closure. This was overruled (not legally, of course) as Walker’s Department of Administration simply announced they were in compliance, but then did not open the building.

Some remarkable scenes ensued. Senator Glenn Grothman, a Tea Party Republican, left the Capitol for some reason and for some time could not get back in. He knocked on a window to attract the attention of his staff inside, and they assumed he was a demonstrator and ignored him. Meanwhile the crowd walked with him, wherever he went, and shouted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” (This was the refrain of the Democrats in the Assembly after the Budget Repair Bill there was passed -- or “passed” -- in a surprise vote at 1 a.m.

Finally, Grothman was rescued by a Democratic Assembly member who came out, calmed the crowd, and brought him back into the building. Afterwards, somewhat strangely, Grothman referred to the “slobs” who had “attacked” him, even though the crowd is dressed in pure Wisconsin and is almost embarrassingly middle class in character.

A Democratic Assembly member meanwhile was denied entrance to the Capitol completely; she had her official ID card but insisted it should not be required for her, as a Wisconsin citizen, to enter. Another Democratic Assembly member was tackled and taken to the floor by police (on video), even though he WAS showing his state ID card.

By the end of the week the Department of Administration had to retreat from their manifestly not-legal closure of the building. They then imposed a “security” system so elaborate as to make entrance an onerous, hour-long job. By Saturday March 5, this too was backed away from as a much more reasonable security check was administered by friendly police officers.

The Republican Senate then passed a resolution defining the absent 14 as in contempt, and ordering their arrest. But police spokesmen indicated they would not attempt to arrest them.

Still one more Walker initiative did not work out well. Probably feeding into Tea Party stereotypes involving long-haired, bad-smelling “radicals,” his administration announced that it would cost $7.5 million dollars to remove tape and repair other damage done to the beautiful Capitol building interior during the occupation.

Alas for Walker, both the painters union and an expert in landmark building preservation surveyed the building and reported that damages were slight to non-existent.

Finally, a Fox TV interview show about Madison by Bill O’Reilly cut in footage showing “unruly” (read dangerous Communist?) protesters. Unfortunately, in the scenes shown there was no snow, trees were leafed out, and palm trees could be seen. Oops: not Madison! (Ever since this report, some protesters have carried plastic palm trees.)

Beginning of a movement (or not?)

Where are we now? On Saturday, March 6, it is clear from speeches and conversations that most people feel that we are winning. Whistling in the graveyard? We can’t know for sure. But things seem to be swinging our way.

Walker was forced to present his biennial budget before getting the special powers provided in the Budget Repair Bill. Now, throughout Wisconsin communities are realizing the extent of the hit they are about to take, especially to their schools. Teachers all over Wisconsin are already getting layoff notices.

“Luxuries” like school athletic programs may have to go. Ambulance service may be cut. Smaller towns’ personnel budgets typically are about half police and firefighters and they are exempt from the anti-collective bargaining provisions (even if Walker gets them). Most communities already have multi-year contracts with their public workers anyway.

Demonstrations are beginning in the small towns. The polls make very bad reading for Republicans. Stay tuned.

My wife and I are old enough to remember the anti-Vietnam protests of the 60s. How does this compare? Larger, we would say, and happier. The participants are passionate about the issues: the attack on workers' rights to collective bargaining and on their pensions and health care; cutting Medicaid eligibility and funding; pushing a state deficit down to the local level; and pushing the deficits born mainly of tax concessions to the rich and the corporations onto the schools and the young.

But also, humor seems to bubble through it all, and there is an enormous sense of fellowship. The police have mainly been wonderful (that’s a contrast!). The crowds are a complete cross-section of Wisconsin’s working (or studying) population, and all ages are participating.

Everyone admits that, while they are campaigning seriously for the old Wisconsin (good schools, good government, clean government, union rights, democracy), they are also having the best time that they’ve had in a long time. Emma Goldman would have loved it.

Is this the beginning of a nationwide mobilization of the center and the left against right-wing extremism? All here in Madison hope so. We’ll have to wait to see. In the meantime, we feel that our protest here is, indeed, exactly “what democracy looks like!”

[Dr. Paul Beckett lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be reached at beckettpa@gmail.com.]

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