Update From Wisconsin–Where’s Al Jazeera English?

I belong to the Comm-Org list-serv–a regular e-mail and discussion group for community organizers. The list-serv is affiliated with the University of Wisconsin, the school has academic studies and does research about social change movements.

The moderator Randy Stoecker has been sending periodic updates on the massive protests that have erupted in Madison at the state capitol–a response to the governor Scott “Mubarak” Walker and his attempts to strip public employee unions of the right to collectively bargain for their contracts . . . and his threats to use force to quash strikes (calling out the National Guard.)

Randy Stoecker points out that his message is informational, and he is not advocating a policy position or practice, as his university has rules against higher ed. civic engagement that involves advocacy.

The past two days have been quite extraordinary.  The interior balcony of the capitol dome is covered with signs and posters, which are now beginning to appear in Spanish.  On Friday a children’s area flowered, with crayons, markers, and paper that got taped to the walls on one entrance wing.  It looked like one humongous refrigerator door.  Bluegrass bands and folk singers took up positions inside the capitol.  And outside it got cold as thousands, maybe many thousands, of people attended the evening rally headlined by Jesse Jackson.  I don’t know how many of you have experienced standing on frozen ground for an hour or more with inadequate footwear, but after the first half hour your feet start to hurt, and then they gradually go numb, signaling that you should probably either get warm or start moving around.  But the people stayed outside to be part of the experience.

And then there was Saturday.  The police and media estimates range from 60-70 thousand people.  The capitol square itself is about four square city blocks, with the x-shaped capitol building in the middle and the four wings radiating out to each corner of the square.  Those protesting the bill, by late morning, had filled the entire street around the square–eight long blocks of street–as thousands of others filled the sidewalks around the capitol.  The capitol police had fenced off one half of the capitol grounds for those supporting the bill, organized under the general banner of the Tea Party.  But they only filled the single walkway from from one corner of the square to its corresponding capitol wing.  I have been reading media portrayals of the event that make it sound like there was even representation.  There were police everywhere, but once again they were a model of decorum and peace.  

The media reported no arrests and no injuries.  There were lots of heated discussions.  My favorite scene was the two people walking side by side in the street.  His sign said “I support Scott Walker.”  Her sign had an arrow pointing to him, saying “I’m with Stupid.”  I don’t think they knew each other, since they weren’t in conversation, but who knows.

Today, in the midst of a snow and ice storm (not too bad by Wisconsin standards but still too miserable to be outside with), the events moved inside.  The noon rally was as well attended as the inside attendance of all the other noon rallies.  The police remain extraordinarily peaceful.  I’ve seen them give directions, bring bottled water to a citizen, say “God bless you” when they passed a protester who sneezed.

There is also an interesting combination of high-tech and low-tech communication occurring at the capitol.  The recall effort, which cannot occur for a year, is already being supported by posters with names of vulnerable public officials and the number of signatures needed to recall them, and instructional posters on how to fill out recall forms.  Facebook sites and other websites are also sprouting like weeds for everything from boycotting Scott Walker’s campaign contributors to organizing related rallies.

One of the more important points of negotiation between the capitol staff and protesters has been the maintenance of the building.  Volunteers are assisting with trash pickup.  All posters now use blue painter’s tape to prevent marring the beautiful marble inside, and some posters are now being recycled through a negotiated agreement. One of the more interesting side-effects of all this organizing is its positive effect on the local eating and drinking establishments. In particular, Ian’s Pizza has apparently become a favorite choice of donors from across the country and even the world buying pizza for protesters.


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