In Wisconsin: Do You Hear the People Sing?
Posted by Randy Stoecker on March 1, 2011
We just had our second amazing Saturday in a row, with estimates ranging from 70,000 to 120,000. The problem with the estimates was that it was snowing and cold and at any given time a whole bunch of people were huddled in nearby buildings trying to warm up. Given that, and the fact that the streets were even more filled than the previous Saturday when they estimated 70,000, I think you can safely move toward those upper estimates. And the celebrities were brought in — a Wisconsin born actor from the West Wing who warned the governor that “Wisconsinites are stubborn — we fish through ice!” The fresh snow was turned into snowmen with protest signs all around the capitol grounds. But it wasn’t much snow so all the snowmen are only two to three feet high. That evening, off-duty police officers joined the capitol sleepover.
And each day becomes more astounding than the day before. Plans were released to close the capitol, which had been occupied round the clock. On Sunday morning people began lining up to get in. The police were attempting to balance a tight rope. I don’t know what went on in back rooms, but I do know that Republicans have been angry about citizens being in the capitol since the beginning, and can only imagine the pressure they were bringing on the capitol police. So police began restricting entry, letting someone in only when someone else left. No sleeping materials were allowed. No bulk food or water was allowed in. I was among those stuck outside with a couple thousand others. We continued to be sustained by the regular Ian’s pizza deliveries, now supported by donations from over 60 countries. The star attraction was a small child in a snow suit and an orange vest with “union thug” written on the back. Inside a small orchestra and choir led the protestors in a customized version of “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables.
We were all prepared for the capitol to be cleared by force. I wandered about the capitol grounds and beyond, searching for the staging area where the arrest buses would be parked, and finding nothing. Talking to people inside, they also had no information on what was going to happen. Little did we all know at that point that the police had decided not to remove anyone by force. I can only imagine what the consequences for them will be. But with the threat of arrest ended, protestors inside needed to negotiate food, and eventually an Ian’s Pizza delivery was allowed.
Yesterday, then, things turned even more serious when the police barred entry to all protestors. The rumors started flying that Republicans were having the capitol windows welded shut, that Republican supporters were being allowed but not protestors, etc. The fire department even investigated to make sure the building was safe. Democrats tried to restart the hearing process that had kept the the capitol open in the beginning, and police escorted people wanting to testify in and out of the building, not allowing them to stay. The mood of solidarity between police and protestors began to show signs of strain.
Protest is spreading across the state. Along with the ally rallies
across the state and country on Saturday, a lot else in happening that we only get snippets of. In Green Bay, an effort to recall of the “Wisconsin 14” (the senators that left the state) by conservatives was attended by 350 people inside a meeting hall, and by 1000 protestors outside the meeting hall, according to the news. Some municipalities cut quick contract deals with their public employee unions and vowed to honor them. The faculty at UW-La Crosse voted in a union. Some school boards started handing out nonrenewal notices, prompting people to pack the school board meeting in at least one small Wisconsin community chanting “Tell me what community looks like! This is what community looks like!” And last night protestors slept outside of the capitol. Now, you gotta understand, it’s cold here — really cold.
At 4 pm today the governor makes a budget speech and at 7 pm releases the budget. The early word is that only 255 people will be let into the capitol today. The local group that has been doing the nonviolence trainings, organized through the Grassroots Leadership College and Consultants for Organizational Reflection and Effectiveness (CORE), is preparing for a possibly tense day. It’s going to be interesting.
And by the time you read this, it will probably already be out of date.
Editor’s Note: Since this post was written, the Republican-controlled legislature in Wisconsin has voted to fine AWOL legislators, suspend the direct deposit pay of absent Dems, as well as entertained legislation that would outlaw prank calls, presumedly in response to the well-publicized prank call received by Gov. Scott Walker by a blogger posing as Tea Party financier David Koch.
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Randy Stoecker is a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. He has worked with and written extensively about community organizing and development groups since the mid-1980s. He moderates COMM-ORG: the Online Conference on Community Organizing and Development at http://comm-org.wisc.edu.